There’s an oft quoted Talmudic expression: chevruta o-mituta (Taanit 23a). It means: “give me companionship or give me death.”
In Jewish learning communities today, this expression has become synonymous with the idiom “sink or swim.” If you try to learn Talmud on your own, without a chevruta partner, you’ll sink.
This line, however, is not the original context of the expression. Instead, it comes as the punchline at the end of a Jewish Rip van Winkle story about a man named Choni. Choni wakes up after a long, seventy-year sleep to see children eating from a carob tree. A man had promised Choni seventy years earlier that the tree would bear fruit for his grandchildren. It’s a beautiful moment, and usually where we end the children’s version of the story.
Unfortunately, the Talmud goes on to tell us that seventy years later, no one would believe that he was Choni! Choni walks in and out of the academy, impressing everyone with his Torah. Yet his brilliance does nothing to cure his social isolation. Chevruta o-mituta is the Talmudic epithet to Choni’s sad, end-of-life experience.
Fast-forward to the year 5783. We, too, should no longer tolerate the phrase “social distancing” because of what it’s done to us. During all of the COVID moments when we should have been physically separating, we made the mistake of distancing ourselves from the social bonds that gave our lives purpose. For some of us, the absence of these meaningful connections felt nearly as bad as the disease itself.
None of us can live without companionship in our lives. Chevruta o-mituta. I, for one, will take this year to appreciate and reconnect with old friends long missed and taken for granted. You should too.
Daniel Dorsch is the senior rabbi at Congregation Etz Chaim.