O chavrusa o misusa, either a friend or death. (Taanis 23a)
One of the forms of punishment described in halacha is niddui, social isolation. Chazal understood the severity of this sentence, the emotional pain inflicted, as recent science has described.
Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death… The misery and suffering caused by chronic loneliness are very real and warrant attention. As a social species, we are accountable to help our lonely children, parents, neighbors, and even strangers in the same way we would treat ourselves. Treating loneliness is our collective responsibility. (Stephanie Cacioppo, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Chicago)
Chazal were well aware of this danger and taught us how to prevent it.
Yehoshua ben Perachiah used to say…Knei l’cha chaver. Purchase for yourself a friend. (Avos 1:6)
He said it with an expression of acquisition. He did not say, make for yourself a friend, or befriend others. The intention of this is that a person must acquire a friend for himself, so that all of his deeds and all of his matters be refined through him, as they said, Either a friend or death. And if he does not find him, he must work with all his heart..until he becomes a friend. And [then] he must follow [his friend's] will, until his friendship is firm….
He will make known [to this friend] all of his affairs, the good ones and the disgraceful, without fearing that any loss will come, not from him and not from another. For when a person has such a level of confidence in a man, he finds great enjoyment in his words and in his great friendship. (Rambam ibid)
A person needs three things from a good friend. One is words of Torah.. the second is mitzvos... And the third is advice… And that which he said, acquire for yourself a friend with an expression of acquisition is [to say] that if he does not find him for free, he should acquire him with his money and expend his assets in order to get a good friend; or that he should acquire him with words…and with a soft way of talking.
He should not be exacting about his [friend’s] words and he should tolerate the words of his mouth; even when he says something against him, he should not return a response. As without this, he will not keep [the friendship], since the opinions [of people] are different. (Rabeinu Yonah)
There is nothing more painful in this world than isolation. Friends bring not only life but also joy. Friendship itself, even without any other pleasures, without sharing any food and drink, without any ancillary pleasures or comforts, gives a person boundless joy. There is no greater joy in life than being loved. (Hegyonot El Ami, Volume I, Shemini Atzeret 50:7)
In order to do well, a person needs someone who loves him, someone whom he deeply trusts. This is someone from whom he will accept advice and admonition. (Rashbatz on Avos ibid)
Niddui is a painful punishment because it imposes isolation.
When someone is sentenced to niddui, no one except the members of his immediate household is permitted to associate with him, sit within four cubits of him, or eat in his company. He is expected to go into mourning and to refrain from bathing, cutting his hair, and wearing shoes, and he has to observe all the laws that pertain to a mourner. He can not be counted in a minyan. It is in the power of the court to lessen or increase the severity of the niddui. The court can even exclude his children from attending school. (From Yoreh De'ah, 334)
Even if these measures could result in this person abandoning Yiddishkeit, we should not concern ourselves with this possibility. (Rama, Yoreh De'ah, 334, 1)
The Taz disagrees. It is clear that we should not follow the opinion of this Rama. (Taz ibid, note 1)
Furthermore, the Drisha writes…in our times the imposition of niddui is destructive and should not be imposed on anyone even for serious sins because it was never the intention of Chazal to prevent someone from teshuva. How much more so today when despicable people react with arrogance and sometimes violence. (Taz ibid, note 23)
The term our times for the author of the Drisha, Rav Yehoshua ben Alexander HaCohen Falk was 1555 to 1614. The Taz, Rav David haLevi Segal lived from 1586 to 1667. How much more so must we today avoid placing people into a state of niddui by our failure to befriend and care for them.
More so today? We are more connected than ever before! We have various media that allow us to communicate with others even when they are far away from us.
Yes, but communication and connection are two different things. No technology can provide the level of emotional connection that can be reached in the medium of physical proximity. No smile, no tear, is as real when seen via a screen, no matter the resolution.
Resolve, as a parent, a child, a spouse, and a friend, to make sure no one in your life feels like someone in niddui. Make sure you are one of the people who saves them from the pain of isolation with both your presence and your participation in their lives.
Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with specialties in marriage, dating, and parenting.
He is the author of Confident Parents, Competent Children, in Four Seconds at a Time Available at bookstores and on Amazon.
He can be reached at 718-344-6575.