As we consider during this month of Elul how we can make things better, an area that deserves our attention – and where we can certainly do a lot better – is how we as a community treat the singles in our midst. Here are some specific ideas and impressions, gleaned from conversations and communications with a number of singles in our community.
There is one thing our singles clearly do not want, and that is our pity. Baruch Hashem, the single men and women in our community are strong and capable people, living productive lives and accomplishing great things both personally and professionally. They are fine, thank you.
What they would really appreciate is our respect.
Yes, respect. They deserve our respect and recognition for who they are and for all they have to add and to give. It is a common feeling amongst singles that while in their professional lives they are valued and respected, within the community they are somehow relegated to a different status, where their ability to participate and contribute is overlooked, and that when they step forward to do for others – to assume a leadership role, to make a Kiddush or to invite others for a meal – it is seen as “sweet” or “cute”. As a single wrote to me:
While I know everyone was doing their best to help by providing Shabbos meals, etc., what I wanted more than any of that was a chance to do for the community and not feel like I was taking from it. I think many people misunderstand people my age and think we are ‘entitled’ and that we want stuff done for us. I think that what we truly want is to make an impact.
Everyone wants to matter, to make a difference to others. The son of Rav Chayim of Volozhin records in his introduction to the Nefesh Hachayim that his father would repeatedly remind him that making a difference to others is what life is all about. שזה כל האדם לא לעצמו נברא רק
להועיל לאחריני בכל אשר ימצא בכחו לעשות . Indeed, the basic drive for marriage is built upon the desire to give, to share of oneself. לא טוב היות האדם לבדו . The goodness of giving – הטוב
והמטיב – is the ultimate goodness, and it cannot be experienced alone. Those who have not yet found a life’s partner – or who may have lost their life’s partner to death or divorce – have a very healthy desire and capacity to give. We must recognize this and welcome it, in our shuls, organizations and around our tables.
Our community is blessed with strong families, and is built on family values, and those are good things that we should not change. But these positive values must exist in tandem with
recognition of the value of all individuals. Yet, by our emphasis on family we may sometimes
unintentionally communicate to our singles that they have not quite made it, that they are not
worthy of a front seat because they do not yet have a spouse.
There is nothing in our Hashkafa – our worldview – that would have us value singles less. Quite the opposite. Ramban, in his final note on Sefer Vayikra (27:29), discusses the story of Yiftach’s daughter (Shoftim 11:34-40), whose father had inadvertently pledged her as an offering to G-d. He cites those who explain that he did not really offer her as a human sacrifice, but rather committed her to a life dedicated solely to the service of G-d, without marriage or children. Ramban objects vehemently to this interpretation, noting that the verse describes how she and her friends mourned over her fate. How, asks Ramban, could they have mourned over a woman whose life was filled with the service of G-d?! Her not being married, her not having children, should not be considered “tragic”! The path to a full and meaningful life does not need to pass under the Chuppah.
Singles benefit from our being there for them. What they often lack is the kind of immediate
support system provided by the nuclear family. And we can be there for them, when it is
welcome. But it is important for us to be respectful here as well, and, in the words of one
single, “to think beyond the cookie cutter needs of a person and truly listen to the person you
are trying to help, giving them their space when and if they ask for it.” We should reach out
and invite them, early in the week, just as we would a married couple, and not simply tell them
that “they are welcome to call anytime”. They may appreciate joining us for Melave Malka or
on a Chol HaMoed outing even more than an invitation for a late and lengthy Friday night meal.
It is not our place to offer unsolicited advice to singles. It is our place to offer them unqualified
support. When we have a strong feeling or opinion that they are going about things the wrong
way or with unfair expectations, we must be as cautious about sharing that feeling or opinion
with singles as we would be about sharing similar advice with a married person. It is not our
role to guide. We can offer unqualified support, and perhaps eventually earn their trust and
respect such that they may solicit our advice.
Of course, our singles – as strong and productive as they are – continue to strive to achieve even greater strength and fulfillment through marriage. And this is an area where we can be much more helpful. It should be a priority for us to do what we can to help others achieve their
dearest dreams.
One way we can be helpful is by stopping to speak of a “crisis”. Chazon Ish (Emunah uBitachon Ch. 2) taught that Bitachon, trust in G-d, does not imply that we can trust that everything will turn out exactly as we would wish. What it does teach is that we do not live in a world of randomness; that what we experience has rhyme and reason, and is guided by G-d’s hand. In that framework, there is no room for the language of crisis, and – while there is certainly a need for proper efforts (Hishtadlus) – there is not room for excessive and desperate efforts.
Friends of ours were facing a challenge with their children’s Shidduchim. This can be difficult and confusing as one is always thinking of another idea, another networking opportunity, another Shadchan to try. When visiting Eretz Yisrael, the husband asked Harav Chaim Kanievsky how they should conduct themselves. His response was straightforward: “The main Hishtadlus – the main effort – is Tefillah, prayer.” Profound, simple.
There is a G-d. We must make our efforts, and those efforts should be reasonable, serious and consistent.
The hardest part is the networking, and for our singles it is challenging, and sometimes demeaning. I would like to share two ways in which we can help.
The idea of single men and women meeting each other in refined group settings is not Halachically objectionable. Very traditional organizations such as Agudath Israel have provided such venues as recently as a few years ago. The main challenge with open singles programs is not Halachic. It is attendance. Very often, the proportion of males to females is significantly off, making the event a bit of a downer for those attending.
We can, however, craft smaller venues with predictable and balanced proportions. It is great to invite two or three single men and two or three single women to our Shabbos tables, where they can meet a person rather than a resume. Weddings, where friends of both bride and groom are present in their finest, would be an opportunity for the young couple to start helping others find their mates by proposing to their friends that they will seat them – Mechitza-permitting – at tables together (okay, with a chaperone!). These venues may not be work for every young man and woman for any number of good reasons, including personal comfort and privacy, the very public nature of the wedding, and the desire to dance at their friend’s Simcha without needing to worry about their hair. As such, this is not something that young people should be pressured to be a part of. But it is something to be considered.
Even more important are our efforts to help our singles by providing them with introductions. We need to dedicate more of our time to network for others. We all have friends, acquaintances and family in other communities or neighborhoods. Think of one single that you know and spend fifteen minutes calling those friends, acquaintances or family members, telling them about this wonderful person and prodding them to think of someone they may know who could be a match.
But don’t stop there. If you identify a possible match, don’t just call the single with the name you found, leaving it to them to find out more about the prospect and to see how they can arrange a date. Put in the time and the resources to try and arrange it for them.
I know everyone reading this would want to do this. But we tend to forget, to get busy and to neglect this opportunity. I know I do.
In Parshas Ki Savo (Devarim 26:13) we read about the Viduy Maasros, where we are instructed to come at the end of the three year tithing cycle and declare that we have discharged all our obligations: “I have not transgressed your Mitzvos and I have not forgotten.” As Rashi notes, this appears redundant, as our statement that we have not transgressed demonstrates that we have obviously not forgotten.
Harav Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal hy”d (Mishnas Sachir al HaTorah) offers the following compelling explanation. These tithes are to care for those for whom we are responsible. We may be able to say that we did not transgress, that when we encountered someone who needed our help and presented themselves to us we indeed helped them. But we may nevertheless forget them when they do not stand in front us asking for that help; we may fail to proactively work to help others. We must therefore affirm that we not only responded to those who asked us, we also did not forget to initiate finding ways to help those who never asked.
This is a compelling and sobering thought. While I pride myself on responding promptly to the calls I receive about Shidduchim, I am not proud of how little I proactively do to try and initiate introductions on behalf of our singles. I want to do it, but I forget to in the busyness of daily life.
I know that you share this feeling. I would like us to change that, to create a framework where we can remind, encourage and guide each other to stay on track, to busy ourselves with helping each other find happiness.
In that same passage in our Parsha (26:15), the declaration ends with a plea to G-d that He look out from the heavens and bless His people Israel. The term used for looking at us is Hashkifa, a term that our Sages noted is always used in critical and judgmental contexts. Yet here it is used as an introduction to blessing?! The Midrash (Shemos Rabba 41:1) explains that given the context, where Jews are scurrying around distributing their tithes to one another, giving for each other, caring for each other, even a critical look from above is transformed into a generous blessing.
I hope and pray that G-d will be able to look down on us and be pleased to see us scurrying around, caring for each other, initiating on behalf of each other, calling and networking to help our single friends and neighbors find their suitable partners for life, and that He will bless all of us with success and the fulfillment of all our dearest dreams.