Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi – 27 December 2019
‘And it came to pass in the morning that his spirit was troubled’. After a disturbing dream in the night, we awake, as Pharaoh did, with a vague but strong sense of unease. We may not even remember the details of the dream but we know something is wrong, even though we’re not sure exactly what. That sense of unease, dread even, is very present for many of us, and not just in the mornings. We feel something is wrong with our world, whether it is growing awareness of climate change; a sense of instability in the world; or rising anti-semitism and racism. The gloom of winter increases our sense of foreboding.
When Pharaoh woke, he had numerous courtiers to call on to express his concerns and his troubles and demand an answer. We do not have people at our command, but if we are fortunate, we have people to turn to, to whom we can talk about our worries. The old saying goes, ‘A trouble shared is a trouble halved’ and in sharing our worries, we find some lightening of the burden. But not everyone has someone to turn to.
Two years ago a commission set up by the late MP Jo Cox before she was murdered published a report about loneliness. Nine million adults in the UK are often or always lonely and the report suggests that loneliness is as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Age UK has found 3.6 million people aged 65 and over agree that the television is their main form of company. But loneliness is experienced by people of all ages. Research by Sense found that 50% of disabled people will be lonely on any given day. Eight out of ten carers have felt isolated as a result of looking after their loved one. A survey by Action for Children found that 43% of 17 – 25 year olds who used their service had experienced problems with loneliness, and that of this same group less than half said they felt loved.
Loneliness affects all sorts of people and any of us can be susceptible to loneliness at some stage in our lives. What must it be like to wake up in the morning, to feel troubled and ill at ease and have no one to turn to? To spend the days on end with only a television for company? To spend all day and night caring for someone so that however much you love them you are desperate for someone else you can talk to about your worries, or about something completely different to take you out of your situation? To be a young person who has experienced a troubled life and still has no one they feel loves them. Some of us will already know, because we have experienced these situations. If we have not had such experiences, let us think about how we can reach out to those who have.
Chanukah is a time of coming together. The festival celebrates how a few came together to fight for their freedom. Their message spread, and others joined them so that they achieved a great victory. We light one lonely candle on the first night and by the eighth night we have eight candles, a full menorah. Chanukah symbolises the power of light and hope to spread. We can help to spread the light by reaching out to people who are lonely. We can start a conversation with a neighbour or with someone we meet in the street or in a shop who seems glad to spend a few moments talking. We might be the only person they talk with all day. Or it may be someone at work or school who seems left out and alone. By having a conversation with someone we do not know well or see often, we will be helping to end their isolation. And we, too, will gain. We may find friendship, learn about someone’s past or find out about their hopes for the future. Or just through a random encounter, we may find cause to smile.
As we celebrate Chanukah, may we think of those who celebrate alone. The festive season, as it is known, leading up to Christmas and the New Year, is the loneliest time for many people and our conversations will be particularly welcome. But loneliness is all year round, so let us take the message of Chanukah with us through the months to come. May those whose spirits are troubled find someone to turn to so that they find new hope and friendship as the days begin to lengthen as winter turns to spring.
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