Too Much Togetherness

We all know the sad story of the loner becoming a mass murderer. It’s not hard to find dozens of tragic accounts of callous killings in which the one word that consistently appears in the narratives is the word “loner”.

It seems that when God said, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18) he didn’t mean just that it would not be good only for Adam. He was informing us of a permanent principle He built into the world: When men are isolated, it is not good for any of us.

This we pretty much already know. We weren’t surprised to hear that Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber was, that’s right—a loner. What is truly astonishing is that men can err in the opposite direction too. They can be too connected. Among the words we use for that problem are gang, army, and mob.

Something we’ve all noticed is that we are less driven to react to a problem if there are other people around. A well-known psychology experiment observes patients in a doctor’s waiting room. When a loud noise from the receptionist’s office suggests that she might have suffered a serious mishap, one person alone in the waiting room tends to react, even if only to call out “Are you okay?” However, once the waiting room contains a few people, nobody does anything. This shows that when we identify as part of a group, we tend to transfer responsibility away from ourselves and onto the group.

In his definitive chronicle of the French Revolution, Citizens, author Simon Schama shows how crimes of unimaginable and hideous brutality that few individuals would have perpetrated alone, were gleefully committed by the mob. During America’s city-destroying riots of summer 2022, we saw arson, looting, and even murder committed by crowds, surely, some people who never would have perpetrated these crimes had they been alone.

In these circumstances, we might well wonder, “Maybe it is better when man is alone.”

But wait! When war comes, men with much to live for join their comrades and march off to dreadful danger and possible death. What makes them do it? Surely again, the group acquires an identity that overcomes individual focus. The defense of a society under attack depends upon men subsuming their own beings into the group—the army.

So, which is it? Men alone are destructive and when men bond too strongly into a group they can also become destructive. Is there an ideal way for men to bond?

As usual, when confronted with confusion, I turn to the Bible and ancient Jewish wisdom. The most notorious example of a mass mania in the Bible is found in Exodus chapter 32. Moses is up on Mt. Sinai with God being taught the oral transmission of the Ten Commandments, and the people wrongly think that forty days are up, and that Moses is not returning. They form a mob and persuade Aaron to give them a god.

Hoping to deter them, Aaron demands their gold. They deliver it to him, and he crafts a calf. (Exodus 32:4)

Later, Moses descends and, becoming enraged at the treachery of the Israelites, shatters the two tablets. (Exodus 32:19)

In response to his angry interrogation, Aaron says “Do not be angry at me…” (Exodus 32:22) the people demanded I make them a god.

Then contrary to what we saw happen in verse 4, Aaron tells Moses that he threw the gold into the furnace and, all by itself, out came this calf. (Exodus 32:24)

How could Aaron have told such a blatant lie? The first person Moses talks to for corroboration will report that Aaron made the calf. It didn’t come into existence automatically.

Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that Aaron was not saying that the calf emerged autonomously. What he was saying was that the calf, as a motif of the nation’s mass psychosis, emerged seemingly by itself. He was saying that the Israelites became a mob whose revolutionary fervor sprang into existence without any apparent cause. Just by itself. Exactly like the French Revolution. Nobody can say for sure who or what launched it or when. Unlike, for example, in the rebellion of Korach (Numbers 16) where an individual instigated the problem, here the mob took on a life of its own.

So here is advice for men. First, avoid isolation. Have friends and family. Two, when the opportunity to become part of a crowd, a movement, a mass-identity, or an army arises, carefully check out the leadership. If it is made up of unworthy people, stay away. And if the crowd attracting you has no leaders at all, its leadership is the crowd itself, turn on your heels with all speed and stay away.

Joining a club with rules, an orchestra, a sports team, or a board of directors is great. Joining a gang is not. Being part of a good group rescues a man from the existential dread of being alone and allows him to achieve things individually unattainable.

When we produced our Scrolling through Scripture course, Ruth: Chorus of Connection, we highlighted the role of proper connection. The first verses of the book speak harrowingly of aloneness, isolation, and disconnection. In Ruth 4:2, Boaz announces his intentions towards Ruth in front of a legal quorum of ten men. The remaining twenty verses of the 4th chapter of the Book of Ruth are eloquently devoted to joining, connection, and building. The spiritual journey from isolation to connection is a major theme of the book and well worth exploring for its powerful practical lessons for our lives today. This course remains on sale for a few more days and we encourage you to share it with friends and family.

This Thought Tool is dedicated in memory of Itay, Etti. and Sagi Zak, ages 53, 50, and 15 who were asphyxiated in the ‘safe room’ in their home when Hamas terrorists burned down their house on October 7, 2023. They were found dead, hugging each other and are survived by two older children who were not home.

And with prayers for the safe release of the remaining hostages, and among them, Mohammad Altarash, age 40, a Bedouin father of 13 taken hostage while working the fields near Kibbutz Nahal Oz.

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The Book of Ruth: Chorus of Connection is a stand-alone 12-session unit that you can finish in under 3 hours. It provides better answers than government panels do. With its compelling story of love, family, and redemption, the book of Ruth, is a blueprint for our troubled times, describing how to repair a splintered society and how individuals can best connect and flourish.

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