A Friend Is a Friend

[Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah – Vayetze 5773 – translated by R. Blumberg]


What is a friend? A friend is someone you can always rely on, under any circumstances. He's always there with you when you need him, when you get married and when you get divorced, whether you are healthy or sick, when you are leading an upright life, but also when you are in jail. He may not agree with what you have done, but he will still be with you, and when you get out, he will be waiting for you there with a garland of flowers.

Friendship is a covenant. It is something very precious in the world that makes G-d very happy. I’m not really thinking about friends who we have for our own personal benefit, although that too can be good: Watch over me and I will watch over you; mine is yours, but in exchange, yours is mine. The best however, is friendship without keeping score. Eternal friendship.

And it isn't easy. Pirke Avot (1:6) therefore says, "Acquire a friend for yourself". Not, “Choose a friend for yourself", but "Acquire a friend for yourself", because with friendship, you've got to invest.

Rambam, in his commentary on the Mishnah, quotes from Aristotle’s “Virtues and Vices”: “A friend is an extension of oneself. You and your friend are soul mates”, and he distinguishes three types of friendships:

1. Friendships of utility. I am your friend because I benefit from our friendship - like business partners. Those are not really friendships, because when a person begins to lose out he announces that the friendship is over.

2. Friendships of pleasure. These, themselves, can be divided into two groups:

a. Friends to have fun with. This can be like males and females who go together to have fun. It goes without saying that marriage is something different. Obviously, people have fun in marriage as well, but “having fun” is not the beginning and end of the relationship. Quite the contrary, one can wed only after he completes “friendship school”. Only then is one entitled to register in the Higher Friendship Academy, as the Prophet Malachi said (2:14): “She is your partner and covenanted spouse.” Obviously, one need not be perfect at friendship before marrying - otherwise, we would never wed. Rather, we should be reasonably capable, and then we can set out on a shared journey. It’s like when the army commander calls out, “Troops, we’re going into battle immediately! We’ll organize ourselves as we move.”

b. Security friendships. This refers to someone I can trust. I don’t have to be careful about everything I do or every word I say, lest he use it against me. He knows everything I do, without my having to fear that he will give me away.

3. Friendships of the good. This refers to friendships based on the great ideal of goodness. This is what we were commanded to acquire: “Acquire for yourself a friend.” It is a friendship that includes morality. Aristotle was right when he said that this last type is the true friendship that everyone is looking for (Nichomachean Ethics Chapter 8).

Friendships based on utility, fun or security are liable to have a selfish aspect. The friendship may be based on self-love that is nourished by the mutual relationship. What is the test of true friendship? Conceding in order to be good to the other person. For example, if one friend is convicted of a crime, even though I am totally opposed to what he did, I remain his friend. A more pleasant example is the camaraderie of fellow-soldiers, which is built upon loyalty,   trust, and mutual responsibility. A soldier is ready to forego his own welfare for the sake of his buddy, even if it means endangering his own life.

Yes, certainly, it is thanks to friendship that people are cured of exaggerated self-love.

The philosopher Sartre said, “Hell is other people”. We can respond, “Heaven is a friend”. I said that friendship means being saved from one’s exaggerated ego. Therefore, friendship constitutes the entire Torah on one foot (Shabbat 31a). The letters of the Hebrew word “Ahavah” [love] have a numerical value of 13. Mutual love, the word “love” doubled, equals 26, the numerical value of G-d’s name in Hebrew. Thus the Torah said, “Love your fellow as yourself. I am Hashem” (Vayikra 19:18), as is explained in the Sefer Derech Moshe (Day Fifteen).

A friend remains a friend, under any circumstances. If you are someone’s friend, then you will stay with him in his time of trouble, ready always to assist him. Even if he hurts you, you will remain with him. True, such a friend is no angel. He’s just human, with falls and failures. If a person is using scissors with is right hand and he accidentally cuts his left hand, will the left hand then cut the right hand in revenge?! (see the Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:4). If your teeth bite your tongue, will you bang your teeth?! (Derech Moshe, ibid.).

Now one might say, “To be that loyal in one’s friendships is blind folly!” So be it. I’d be happy to be blind and foolish in that way. The philosopher Erasmus in his work “The Praise of Folly” wrote: “Is it not folly to close one’s eyes to one’s friends’ shortcomings? Indeed it is a threefold or even a fourfold folly, yet that folly is the glue that holds friends together. Why is this? Because we are not dealing with angels, but with simple human beings, each of whom possesses shortcomings. Friendship between people who are almost perfect, almost divine, is boring, gray… and rare. And even that same stolid, somber friendship is fragile and unstable, because with their sharp, penetrating gaze, each friend will immediately discern that the other does possess shortcomings. Obviously, as far as their own shortcomings, they will remain blind. They will not see the can of worms hanging from their neck. Thus, since we are not angels, and there is no human being without faults of greater or lesser severity, and taking into account differences of age and education, misunderstandings, mistakes and all the normal mishaps of life, how can a friendship endure for even a short time, if we are not a bit crazy or at least naïve? Laugh all you want, but those very close friends who stick it out, despite everything, those mildly naïve people, are the ones who build true friendships and make their lives pleasant.” (Erasmus, ibid., Chapter 9).

Now you, dear reader, should accept the truth from him that recorded it. After all, you too are no angel. You too make mistakes, so be patient and easygoing with all your heart.

Heaven help us! People are so egotistical that a true friend represents a real miracle.  It is a miracle! If you are a friend only when you enjoy your fellow’s company, then you are not a true friend. You are only a friend of yourself.

But if you have a friend, give him what he asks for, when he asks for it. His use of the word “please” should be a magic spell for you. And even when he does not say it, you should know what he needs.

Real friendship is rare, but it exists. It exists within the family, between husband and wife, or just between any two people. It’s a real source of joy. Its existence proves that it is possible.

I owe a great debt of gratitude to my teachers and mentors, David and Yonatan, for being our teachers in the School of Friendship, and to you, O G-d, for creating friendship.

Thank you David and Yonatan. Thank you G-d.