This “folk saying” is a reflection on the death of the talmudic figure Honi HaMe’agel. After having slept for 70 years, he reawakens and has several enlightening encounters. Afterward, he visits a house of study where he finds that even after many decades his reputation endures, yet he himself is no longer recognized nor is he accorded proper respect. Alone and disturbed by this, he dies.
Jewish tradition draws a lesson from Honi’s painful isolation and death: Loneliness is harmful to the person, and isolation is antithetical to Jewish values. Yet in this country, we sanction a cruelty our own tradition has long abhorred. An estimated 2 million inmates live in America’s prisons, separated from substantive contact with their families and friends. The effect of personal and societal isolation on these inmates is not unlike what Rava recognized as the effect on Honi. As a consequence, penalization often far exceeds what may be reasonably expected as suitable punishment.
In Genesis 2:18, the Torah offers a reflection on the nature of loneliness. Seeing Adam alone in the Garden of Eden, God compassionately declares that it is not good for one to be alone. The biblical text affirms that meaningful relationships and accompaniment are not only at the heart of our communal ethics but also valued universally. Yet, despite our recognition of the mental, physical, and emotional damage that can be caused by this deeply traumatic isolation, our penal system continues to isolate prisoners — what Judaism sees as an ultimate injury to the human soul.
When Honi the Circle-Maker woke up after 70 years, he was baffled and pained by his unfamiliar surroundings and his complete loss of connection. As Rava tells the story, Honi’s despair was so profound that he preferred death to a life without companionship. And as Rabbi Yohanan, another commentator says, thoughts of exile had always troubled Honi.
Jewish law recognizes the dangers of existential loneliness and encourages the mitzvah of accompaniment. We are required to visit the sick, to comfort mourners, and to accompany the dead to the grave, and we are given detailed instructions for fulfilling the mitzvah of levaya — accompaniment.
As Rabbi Jon Sommer writes, prisons are filled with individuals who, like Honi, wake up one day in unfamiliar surroundings — stressed, nameless, alone. In addition to the imprisoned, many other people, including refugees and those suffering mental illness or dementia, are cut off and in need of friendship.
Over the course of my career, I have spent many hours with people as they are dying. Each of us, in turn, will face death — with our unique self, spirit, and circumstances. Whatever emotional and spiritual states may arise during the process of dying, the gentle presence of another can bring comfort. This can be especially profound in moments when dying feels like exile — a painful separation from self, others, and God.
Accompaniment can be healing and redemptive. Reciting the Vidui (the deathbed confessional) or having it recited for us, provides an opportunity for teshuvah, a turning back to God. It offers us a chance to say goodbye. Whether in silence, in prayer, or in song, accompaniment restores our sense of connection and reminds us of who we are and how we are connected to others and to God.
Rabbi Jon Sommer writes poignantly about accompanying a particular segment of our population — an act of connection that, I regret to say, is often forgotten. We all experience moments when we need accompaniment. As Sommer reminds us, the foundational story of Adam and Eve tells us that loneliness is antithetical to Jewish values. To engage with others in moments of joy or times of struggle makes the experience more real, and enhances the opportunity for learning and healing.
Here are two examples from the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum: Once, I attended a wedding with only six guests. As we gathered around the chuppah, creating a circle of hope, love, and community, I imagined that the ritual would have been a bit less full for the newlyweds had this small cluster of guests not been present.
Another time, as I sat with a mother whose daughter had died minutes before, I was deeply aware of my role as an accompanier. The mother was engulfed by sorrow and frightened that she would be unable to return from the depths of her darkest grief. At her insistence that she could not allow herself to plunge into the darkness, I responded, “We will go there together.” And the floodgates of her tears opened.
To accompany others, and to allow others to accompany us, even without words, helps us to be fully alive. Otherwise, a part of us dies.