On Being Alone
by Miri Korbman
In July 2014, a series of experiments conducted by Dr. Timothy Wilson and his colleagues at University of Virginia and Harvard were published in Science, a scholarly research journal. The experiments involved hundreds of undergraduate research participants who were asked to spend some time (about 15 minutes) alone in a room without specific activities to occupy them. They were asked to put away their phones and other devices but were also told that there was a button they could press that would administer an electric shock. Though prior to the experiment most participants reported that they’d strongly prefer or even pay to avoid electric shock, 67% of male and 25% of female participants chose to shock themselves rather than just sit alone with their thoughts for a short period of time.
Sitting alone with our selves, with our thoughts, is at the very least highly aversive and uncomfortable, if not downright terrifying, for many people. As a DBT therapist, I have had to engage in many mindfulness activities, even long (20+ minutes) “sits,” where one simply sits with oneself in complete silence, noticing thoughts, feelings, or one’s breath, and have at times found these excruciating at worst and anxiety provoking (or boring) at best. Being alone with oneself, without being able to escape through various activities, can be a difficult or even scary enterprise. And yet, it is perhaps one of the most important things we must master in order to be the healthiest, best versions of ourselves emotionally, interpersonally, and spiritually.
In this week’s parsha, as Yaakov prepares to face his brother Esav for the first time since fleeing for his life in the face of Esav’s anger and vengeance, Yaakov settles his family on one side of the Yabok river when he goes back across it alone. The pasuk relates, “Vayivaser Yaakov Livado,” and Yaakov was left alone (32:25). What happened to Yaakov when he was alone? The pasuk continues, “Vayeiavek Ish Imo,” Yaakov notably fights with the angel of Esav and, though injured in the process, is ultimately victorious. Through this fight, Yaakov’s name is changed to Yisrael, the name we bear as a nation.
But what was really happening here?
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l writes that when Yaakov was fighting with Esav’s angel, he was in reality wrestling with himself, with the part of him that had for so long sought after that which belonged to Esav. From the time that he was born holding on to Esav’s heel, Yaakov pursued first the Bechorah and then Esav’s blessing, and, as we discussed previously, he was required to engage in deceit and trickery in order to accomplish this. When Yaakov fights with the angel of Esav, he is facing himself, his deeds, his history, and attempting to break away entirely from these traits characteristic of his twin brother.
Furthermore, R’ Chaim Shmulevitz writes in Sichos Mussar that according to the Sforno, when Yaakov asks the angel, who also represents the Yetzer Hara, for his name, he is in fact asking about his essence. When the angel replies, “Lama Zeh Tishal Lishmi,” why are you asking for my name, this enigmatic response is, in fact, the Yetzer Hara’s way of telling Yaakov – and us – a crucial message. People don’t often ask themselves about the Yetzer Hara – about its essence, its manifestations, or its ways of ensnaring us. We don’t stop to spend enough time with the darker, more nuanced, more complicated parts of ourselves for long enough to understand the workings of this force with which we all grapple. It is only by entering a state of complete aloneness, through being willing to face himself, that Yaakov can come to disown the evil inclination within him, conquering these parts of himself more completely. By so doing, Yaakov teaches us invaluable lessons about the power of aloneness.
Aloneness is not the same as loneliness, the experience of being isolated, unwanted, unloved, or unworthy of love, which is often derived from negative thinking or feelings of sadness and can be experienced even when one is in a room full of people. Aloneness is the ability to sit with oneself, to face oneself, and to be able to stand strong in one’s thoughts and beliefs as an independent entity, no matter one’s environment. Yaakov personified this trait. Prior to his fight with the angel of Esav, Yaakov dwelled alone in his beliefs for many years in Lavan’s house. After this encounter, he has had the opportunity to be alone with himself, all parts of himself, and has faced them and come out on the other side a stronger and more wholesome man.
Yaakov’s ability to be alone and at peace with himself further enables him to turn to Esav and refuse his offer to dwell together. When Esav suggests that they travel together, “Nisah V’Nelcha V’elcha Linegdecha,” Yaakov declines, citing the excuse that his large family and abundant flock will slow Esav down. In reality, however, Yaakov knew that he and his children are meant to be somewhat separate from the other nations; as Bilam describes (Bamidbar 23:9), we are an “am livadad yishkon,” a nation that dwells alone – alone in our ideas and ideals, alone in our values, and alone with ourselves.
In his book Rav Wolbe on Chumash, the English compilation of R’ Wolbe’s ideas on the Parsha, R’ Yitzchok Caplan relates how R’ Wolbe used to encourage his students to take time to be on their own, and to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses and goals. He once noticed a very learned student who spent most of his time in the Beis Medrash and did not seem to take much time for himself. One day, R’ Wolbe approached this boy and told him to leave the Beis Medrash and go and take a walk by himself for a while. The student returned shortly thereafter, much sooner than anticipated. R’ Wolbe approached him and asked whether he had seen or encountered something on the street that had scared him, or if a dog had chased him, or some other disturbance had happened to make him return so soon. The student insisted that nothing of the sort had happened. R’ Wolbe shook his head and noted that the student had in fact encountered something frightening, which hastened his return; he had finally been alone with just himself and his thoughts, and this terrified him.
Being alone means being able to face ourselves, to face what we otherwise run from. When Yaakov is left alone, he experiences this firsthand in his encounter with the angel of Esav - yet this is crucial in preparing Yaakov for being able to face Esav in person, and to part from him both physically and spiritually unscathed. Aloneness is an inherently Jewish trait and Torah value, even as community and interconnectivity and interpersonal responsibility are also essential components of our religious lives. It is only through spending time alone with ourselves that we can truly access and assess all of our fears, flaws, and insecurities, as well as our strengths, hopes, and aspirations, and thereby learn what we need help with and what is going to trip us up or enable us to succeed in those other spheres of spirituality and Jewish life.
This week, take a few moments to just be alone with yourself. Each of us likely has many thoughts, memories, feelings, worries, desires, and dreams inside us, and any or all of those things can elicit fear or anxiety when forced to face them. And, at the same time, it is only through fully facing ourselves that we can truly become who we are meant to be, to shed the skin of who we’ve become on the run from ourselves to don the truest identity of who we’re destined to become.
 Wilson, T. D., Reinhard, D. A., Westgate, E. C., Gilbert, D. T., Ellerbeck, N., Hahn, C., & Shaked, A. (2014). Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science, 345(6192), 75-77.