“Parsha and Purpose” – Shemini 5780
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha
“The Lonely Man of Faith: Comfort and Guidance from Rav Soloveitchik in the Age of Corona”
The Lonely Man of Faith: Comfort and Guidance from Rav Soloveitchik in the Age of Corona
Twenty-seven years ago, one of the towering figures of modern Jewish history was taken from us: Rabbi Yosef Dov haLevi Soloveitchik – “the Rav”.
In the early 1960’s, Rabbi Soloveitchik composed an important article, The Lonely Man of Faith, which is so relevant to us in our time.
Rabbi Soloveitchik composed this article against the following backdrop: he was feeling the fragility of life – he was suffering from cancer. As he said, “I suddenly ceased to be immortal; I became a mortal being.”
It was also at a time in which he was privileged to be asked, after the passing of Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, to consider being the next Israeli Chief Rabbi; the only person living outside of the State of Israel who was asked to think about being a candidate for the Chief Rabbi of Medinat Yisrael.
It was on the backdrop of the Cold War, where President Kennedy announced, in May of 1961,that he would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade.
During that time, during all of these events, the Rav developed and published the ideas that are found in The Lonely Man of Faith.
He elaborates in The Lonely Man of Faith on the first two chapters of Bereshit (Genesis), focusing on the alleged contradiction between the two stories of creation:
In Chapter One, Adam and Chava are created at the same time: Zachar u’Nekeva Bara Otam. They are given the mandate, mil’u et ha’aretz, to fill the land, ve’chivshu’ha, to have dominion over it. And in that chapter, God the Creator, haKadosh Baruch Hu, is called Elokim – the God of Strength.
In Chapter Two, Adam and Chava are not created simultaneously, but rather as an extension of one another. And the creation of Adam and Chava in the second chapter, in Perek Bet, is much more intimate. Vayitzar Ado’shem Elokim et haAdam: God crafts Adam from the earth of the ground, Vayipach be’apav nishmat chayyim – and He breathes life into him. Chava is created as an extension of Adam in this chapter, and the name of God that is used is Yud-K-Vav-K: the God of Intimacy.
Adam and Chava are not co-workers, but rather, they are an extension of one another. They are soulmates, part of a covenantal community.
And the responsibility of Adam and Chava in Chapter Two is le’avda u’le’shamra: they are to watch over the world, not conquer it; they are to reflect on the world, get to know it, and because they get to know the world, they have the privilege of naming the world’s creatures.
Rabbi Soloveitchik explained that there is not actually a conflict between these two chapters, but rather they represent two paradigms of human existence. Our existence oscillates between these two paradigms, and together they comprise the human experience.
So relevant in our day and age. Adam One is responsible for conquering the world, and today we call on that Adam One to harness all of our intellect, all of our compassion as majestic men and women, to find a cure, heal the sick, feed the unemployed.
We’re so privileged to be able to say thank you to all the healthcare workers who are indeed acting as Adam One, making a difference to defeat COVID-19, and we cannot shrink from that responsibility.
But at the same time that we’re Adam One, we’re also feeling very fragile, very uncertain and very alone.
Nonetheless, that loneliness should not allow us to feel depressed. In that loneliness, yes, we find fragility, but in that fragility we can also find God. We can search for that relationship. As accomplished as Adam One is, it’s not the whole story. Kevodo Malei Olam: God’s presence is all over the world; but sometimes, in times like this, Ayei Makom Kevodo: we search for Him.
And in those moments of being fragile – hard to explain from an intellectual perspective, but I think we’ve all felt it – in those moments of feeling alone, we can feel God’s hand on our frail shoulder.
The paradigm of Adam Two is a relationship that helps us build the spiritual antibodies we need to defeat this disease at a time when we feel so fragile.
This essay of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s, The Lonely Man of Faith, serves as a deeply-needed road map to help give us guidance at a time in which we feel that the world is spinning beyond our control and comprehension.
It is a message that is as clear today as it was over 50 years ago, when the words were first written.
May Rabbi Soloveitchik, and may all of our efforts, be a Melitz Yosher, as we pray for the speedily-to-be-returned days of happiness and health, for all humanity.