Have you ever been lonely? It’s a strange emotion, isn’t it? You can be in a crowded room and yet feel lonely. Or you can be totally alone in a forest, and not feel it at all. It can disappear with one incoming ring of your phone, or intensify minute by minute while at a boisterous party.

I’m no stranger to loneliness. I’m an older woman, widowed, childless, living alone with just a cat for daily company. In fact, you could say I’m a cliché: the old lady who lives alone with a cat. And yes, I talk to him. A lot.

I shall pause while you chortle.

Finished? All right, now let’s proceed.

I may not be a stranger to loneliness, but I lead an active life. Thank G‑d, I’m in decent health and have a network of good friends and a dear cousin nearby. I can still drive, and I go to classes, meet friends and go to shul. So, while I’m not a stranger to loneliness, it isn’t a constant companion either. But when it hits (and I can never predict when it will), it’s like a dark cloud wrapping itself around me. I feel cut off from the world. Irrelevant. Nobody needs me. Nobody depends on me. I am a full universe unto myself. I am complete … and I am lonely.

There is a paradox here: It’s those very qualities I value—my self-sufficiency, my independence, my feeling of completeness—that can lead to my loneliness. The strength I gain from being self-sufficient and self-contained weakens my resistance to loneliness.

I am self-sufficient … but I crave something.

I am independent … but I need help.

I am complete … but there is an empty hole inside me.

What’s missing? A feeling of connection. This explains why I can sometimes feel lonely even when I’m not alone. For it’s not any quantity of people I’m craving, but the condition of connection.

It’s something we all crave, don’t we?

While reading this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, I was struck by another paradox, one that made me think of the paradox of my occasional loneliness.

The parshah begins with G‑d commanding Moses to perform a census—another paradox. By counting the people, each person having the same value, the distinctions between people become lost. At the same time, each person retains their individuality. We absolutely count as equals, but we exist as unique beings.

We are like individual cells in one body, where each cell lives, dies and has its own purpose. At the same time, each cell also exists as part of one larger body with its own purpose. The body can survive the death of a cell, but the cell can’t long survive the death of the body. It has to stay connected.

Therein lies a lesson from the census, as well as insight into the paradox of loneliness.

We believe we’re all living completely separate lives, but that’s as much of an illusion as believing a blood cell isn’t part of, and dependent on, the body in which it lives.

The census reminded our ancestors that they were all connected to each other. They shared a common journey, purpose, and destiny. They led individual lives, but did so together, as they ate the same foods, performed the same mitzvot, married each other and blended their families. They were a society of unique souls, but they were all connected by the Torah and by being members of the same nation.

It is the same for us today.

Through the census, G‑d tells us:

You may come to think you are self-sufficient, independent and complete. But those thoughts are an illusion that can make you feel like an island—disconnected, isolated and lonely, no matter how many people surround you.

Always remember the census! You are not irrelevant. You count! You are here because I need you here, and as a Jew you are always connected to your people.

And this paradox provides us with a double-headed strategy to combat loneliness.

On one hand, we must make peace with the fact that there are times when we will be alone. We are complete and perfect as we are, just like each number is equally meaningful.

On the other hand, each number does not exist in isolation. Eleven gains meaning because it is preceded by 10 and followed by 12.

We must make the effort to break out of the cocoons we’ve built around ourselves and forge connections with others. Volunteer, attend shul, socialize … do whatever it takes to make sure that you are part of a community.

When we do that, we gain another insight into the unusual words G‑d uses when ordering the census.

The words are commonly translated as “take a census” but actually mean “raise the heads.” What perfect words to show that every person counted is invaluable and connected to He Who is above us?

Raise the heads!

Like individual red blood cells, each of us is here to bring “spiritual oxygen” to the individuals we encounter. And, joined together in the one body that is the Jewish People, we are here to collectively light up the entire world with holiness.

We are never irrelevant, and we are always connected. The next time I feel lonely, I will return to this parshah—to remind myself of the lessons of the census and raise my head to be counted.