The Genesis:3 Project
and put them in custody, in the house of the chief steward, in the same prison house where Joseph was confined. Genesis 40:3
I sometimes compare the rallying cries of the American Revolution and the Talmud. Famously, Patrick Henry proclaimed, “Give me liberty or give me death!” (The British were prepared to accept the proposition.) But in the Talmud (specifically, Ta’anit 23a), the sage Rava declares “Give me companionship or give me death.”
Rava’s aphorism deserves some background. Long before Rip Van Winkle, Choni the Circle-Maker fell asleep for seventy years and awoke to an unfamiliar world. Though celebrated for his closeness with God and ability to provoke God’s compassion, Choni wanted no part of a world without familiar faces and intimate friends. When he died of loneliness, Rava observed that the story was the origin of the Aramaic saying o chevruta, o mituta, “either companionship or death.”
It is not fair to Mr. Henry to put him up against Choni. He was inspiring oppressed people to revolt; he called to his comrades in arms to prepare for the ultimate sacrifice in defense of their freedom. A nation was being born! No one today would respond to that call in any sense other than a symbolic one.
But Choni was facing a life of loneliness all too familiar to lots of people in today’s world. For some folks, that sense of being alone in the world is the result of heartbreak. For others, it is the result of mental deterioration. And for others still, like Choni, it is the result of living longer than any of their friends. There are simple ways to address those causes of loneliness – they needn’t be deadly. Showing a little love may not be a cure, but it can be a lifeline.
But for some people in our society, social isolation is indeed a fate worse than death.
Let me warn you that these are people for whom you will have little sympathy. I make that statement because I myself struggle with the notion of compassion for individuals who have committed crimes resulting in incarceration. I spent some years as a prison chaplain and learned from the inmates that there is only one innocent person in any prison – the one you are talking to. Very few inmates would embrace Patrick Henry’s words in their own circumstances – even those serving life sentences.
But there is a subset of inmates who understand Choni’s lament. They are the inmates who are serving time in solitary confinement. The debilitating effects of complete social isolation are unquestionable, and they get worse as the term of that isolation increases, and worse still when the individual suffers from any kind of mental illness.
I know. Like me, you want to say they deserve it. In some cases, their crimes are heinous. In other cases, they would not survive the antagonism they would face in the general population. In still other cases, they have compounded their punishment by bad behavior in prison. Yes, yes and yes.
But the imposition of solitary confinement is far more widespread and for much longer periods of time for most inmates than is necessary or healthy. When that happens, it is cruel and unusual punishment.
Of all the causes you might champion, this one probably strikes you as being among the lowest of priorities. But please think again about what it means to dehumanize another person by inflicting such isolation. Like all of our rights and moral standards, the measure of their integrity is not when they are self-evident, but when they hardest to preserve.
The baker and the cup-bearer who were thrown into jail with Joseph faced their ultimate fates independent of the companionship the three men had in jail. The baker’s death was inevitable; the cupbearer was restored. And Joseph was destined for greatness, but could not have been redeemed except for his interactions with others. O chevruta, o mituta. Either companionship or death.