Friendship and Holiness

Welcome back and I trust that you are enjoying a wonderful day of friendship and community. It’s great to see friends on Facebook, and even better to see our friends’ faces in person!  The Rabbis acknowledged our deep human need for companionship long ago when they taught, “O chevruta, o metuta”, which translates roughly as, “Give me friendship or give me death.” I was having dinner with a group of friends and one woman, who works at home, commented that when she wants some human contact, she takes a break and looks at Facebook.  “No!,” I objected!  “Facebook does NOT count as human contact!”

In our too busy and overprogrammed lives, it is vital to our spiritual well-being to make the time to be with those who care about us, who share our values, the friends who touch our hearts and our lives. I was truly moved in an Army briefing once when I saw that among the priority of supplies to troops who were serving in a combat zone, ahead of ammunition, ahead of even water, the number one priority was mail.  In establishing this priority, the military acknowledged the fundamental human need for a human connection.

One of the great joys gatherings such as this is the opportunity to re-connect with so many people we truly care about, with whom we have shared so many experiences, and whom we just don’t get to see enough of during the year.  I’d like you to take a moment right now and look around the room and appreciate all the people who care about you and bring blessing to your life.  (Pause)

We live in a transient society:  loneliness is a plague of modern life.  We are all so busy that we don’t take or make the time to schedule in time with friends in the same way that we schedule in every other commitment.  Consequently, we drift away from people we genuinely love, and find ourselves in despair when our undeniable human need for companionship is not met.  The Talmud tells us that if thirty days go by and we have not seen a beloved friend, we should say the she-he-cheyanu prayer when we are re-united, the prayer of celebration in which we thank God for giving us life, sustaining us, and allowing us to reach this moment of holiness

A study suggests that one fourth of all Americans have no one to talk to about important matters. Americans have one third fewer close friends and confidantes than they had two decades ago.  When Marla Paul, author of The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore wrote of her own frustration at the difficulty of finding friends, she was personally embarrassed to acknowledge her neediness, but overwhelmed by the response from those with whom her comments resonated. “I’d yanked the curtain off a shameful secret, “she writes, “only there is nothing shameful about it.  A lot of women are lonely.”[1]

We all have had parents, some of us have siblings, spouses, children, but, despite these filial connections- we still need friends. The need for friends transcends our status as single or partnered.  Even if we are partnered, no single individual can meet all of our needs, and our relationships with our nearest and dearest will be deeply damaged if we don’t recognize this fact, if we somehow expect that our significant others are or should be our whole universe.  A wounded wife confided in me that, “My husband can’t give me everything I need.”  I replied by gently suggesting that the expectation that any one person can give you “everything you need” is completely unrealistic.  Perhaps that’s why we all resonate with that wry observation that, “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family!” We understand that there are wonderful aspects of family life, while simultaneously acknowledging that families can be quite demanding as well!

Choosing friends, therefore, is a decision that requires as much serious thought as any other important life decision. The type of friends we embrace will influence the type of people we become and those who will accompany us along life’s journey, providing companionship and perspective, humor and solace. Barbara Kingsolver writes that, “The friend who holds your hand and says the wrong thing is made of dearer stuff than the one who stays away.”[2]

“In Judaism, cleaving to friends . . . ranks as one of the 48. . . values needed to acquire Torah. At first it might seem strange that friendship is listed with awe, fear and humility. . . But the true test of an individual is (their) ability to be a friend, to be supportive, to take risks on behalf of a friend, to love a friend in spite of the choices the friend makes.”[3]  It has even been suggested that a close circle of friends is an important factor in maintaining good health.

If we hope to maintain our friendships, then we need to overcome one great obstacle- we have to be able to forgive our friends for their imperfections. Certainly there are issues that arise in relationships that can and should destroy friendships.  The Torah describes God as-  nosay avon, va’fesha, v’khata, v’nakay- forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon,” so we, who are created in the Divine image, should strive to emulate these characteristics in our relationships with others. We need forbearance from our friends, and we must demonstrate this quality as well.   If you are willing to be friends only with people who are perfect, you are guaranteed a life of loneliness.

For many people, forgiveness is the greatest spiritual challenge in their lives. In her wonderful book, The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd wrote that, “People in general would rather die than forgive.  It’s that hard. If God said in plain language, ‘I’m giving you a choice, forgive or die,’ a lot of people would go ahead and order their coffin.”[4]  Yes, it’s that hard.

Too often we confuse forgiveness with reconciliation. It is true that sometimes we need to protect ourselves from future hurt by ending relationships.  Yet that is a rare circumstance and it is still healthier for us to let go of resentment and anger.  Shlomo Carlebach was forced to flee the Nazis as a young man.  As an adult, he returned to Vienna to give a concert. He was asked, “How can you go back there?  Don’t you hate them?”  His answer was that if he had two hearts, he would devote one to hating, but, since he only had one heart, he did not want to poison his own internal being with hate.

Winston Churchill listed the three hardest things he could imagine attempting to accomplish: to climb a high wall which is leaning towards you, to kiss a girl who is leaning away from you, to speak before a group on a subject which they know more about than you.  Newspaper columnist Sydney Harris wrote, on the other hand, that the three most difficult things to do are neither physical nor intellectual feats.  They are:  to return love for hate, to include the excluded, and to say, ‘I was wrong’.”

We have seen the disastrous social consequences that ensue when people feel friendless, unaccepted, and excluded. Including the excluded is a special mitzvah, an expression of the middah, the soul trait, of kavod, honor- cultivating the ability to see the divine image in each and every person.  It’s easy to love the loveable.  There’s a reason the Torah tells us 36 times to have one law for the native and the stranger.  You were outsiders.  You know what it’s like.  It is our responsibility as Jews to stand with the disenfranchised.

“Who is honored?”, we learn in Pirke Avot. “The person who honors everyone.”[5]  The way of holiness is to find the good in each person we meet on life’s way, to find the one thing that we can learn from them, the one area in which they are on a more elevated spiritual plane than we are.

Too often, it is only when we face a tragedy in our lives that we come to understand and appreciate the critical nature of friends in supporting and sustaining us. When I was widowed at the age of 58, I was overwhelmed at the thought of managing the logistics for shiva.  I had been in the community for 30 years and served a congregation of over 700 families.  Where was I going to put all that food?  My friends stepped in, corralled every refrigerator in every garage in a 3 block radius, lovingly handling everything so that I could focus on my grief and care for my 2 daughters. “A friend”, it has been said, “ is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words.”[6]

In order to make and keep friends, we need to move beyond self-interest, and be willing to sacrifice our own desires on occasion. We need to know when to speak, and when to remain silent, offering the comfort of our presence without the need for words.  We need to cultivate sensitivity to our surroundings and learn to subjugate our own feelings where they are inappropriate to the environment.  This is an extremely difficult task in contemporary society that worships feelings and teaches us that expressing them is not only our right but also our responsibility.

Jewish tradition tells us that we should always greet others warmly, with a smile- not just when we “feel” like it. We should learn to see the good in others and give them the benefit of the doubt.  And, most importantly, we need friends who will not only tell us that we are the best, but who will tell us when we can be better. The cartoon strip Crabby Road depicted its main character as saying, “A friend will always tell you exactly what she thinks, so I guess that makes me friends with everybody.”  That’s not exactly accurate.  Yes, sometimes we need friends who feel secure enough in the relationship to point out when we’ve gone astray. The Midrash tells us that a love without reproof is no love.[7]  Gently suggesting an alternative way of thinking or behaving is an art unto itself- there is never an excuse for cruelty.  Listening with open-ness and humility is an expression of maturity and the greatest gift we can give to others.  What we all most long for is to be heard and understood.  Listen to these beautiful words of Rabbi Elie Spitz, ““To listen to another person is to bring comfort through connection. . . In listening to a soul in pain, sometimes all we can offer is mindful listening.  And in that act of listening, we validate that the soul is worthy of time and attention, that the burdens that cause pain are real and heavy, and that good continues to exist in a broken world.  Our very presence as caring listeners attests to the kindness that exists in an imperfect but beautiful world.”[8]

Humility is the fundamental middah with which we begin the study of mussar, Jewish teachings that guide us towards character development and our own spiritual curriculum. It is only when we have humility that our spiritual development unfolds.  Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests that the 4 holiest words in the English language are, “I may be wrong.”  We all need to cultivate the ability to say these words, to be open to acknowledging our failings in order to grow.

We need to have the confidence that when we share our innermost selves, that our friends will listen with open hearts and minds.  “A simple friend”, it has been said, “thinks the friendship is over when you have an argument; A real friend calls you after you had a fight.”[9]  I had to call a friend whose son’s Bar Mitzva I had very much hoped to attend back east and tell her that a work commitment precluded my participation.  Her immediate response was joy that I had so much meaningful work to do.  When I wrote to thank her for her understanding, I said, “A good friend would have wanted me to be there.  A great friend would understand why I can’t.  Thank you for being a great friend.”

We are often reluctant to make ourselves vulnerable by exposing our deepest hopes and dreams, the places which cause us pain and heartache. Certainly, to do so requires taking a risk.  We may be laughed at, we may be dismissed.  But our deepest hope is that if we can somehow summon the courage to overcome our fear of losing face, the result will be deeper and more meaningful friendships and a real sense of connection to others.  We may discover, along the way, that we are not alone in the challenges of life, and that if we haven’t learned from the wisdom and experience of others at least we can feel less alone.

Rabbi Harold Kushner reports on a workshop he conducted for clergy and psychologists who were counseling individuals in Oklahoma City who had lost loved ones in the bombing of the Federal Building. “After the workshop,” he writes, “I met the bereaved families.  I said to them, ‘It’s been a month since that tragedy.  What one thing more than anything else has helped you deal with your loss?’  And remarkably, they all gave me the same answer, using the same word:  community.  (People)  coming up to them to hug them, to express sympathy, to bring them food to fill the emptiness inside them.  And I realized they were giving me a profoundly religious answer.

A 19th century Hassidic rabbi, Menachem Mendel of Rymanov, once said, ‘human beings are God’s language.’  That is, when you cry out to God, God responds to your cry by sending you people.  I would paraphrase”, Kushner concludes, “to say that human beings, reaching out to others, doing good things when they don’t have to do them, are as close as we will ever come to seeing the face of God.”[10]

Life is so hard, and it is much, much harder when we feel that we have to face it alone. Our tradition calls on us to treat each other with chesed, with loving acts of kindness, or, as Alan Morinis translates it, “generous sustaining benevolence.”[11]  Other middot are listed on the bookmarks you each received and I encourage you to consider Mussar study as a way of expanding and reinforcing your search for holiness.

As we gather together today to consider how to bring holiness into our lives, we reflect on the value of simple acts of kindness and compassion to bring a sense of God’s presence into our troubled world. We cannot claim to be religious people and show contempt for others, who, after all, are each expressions of God’s image. Plato taught, “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.”  “To know a person,” Bertrand Russell said, “is to know their tragedy.”  We can never know, just by looking at a person, the enormity of the burdens they may be carrying.  To love them means to reflect on and enter into their needs to the greatest extent possible

Take a moment and look around this room.  Imagine the heartaches, the frightening medical diagnoses, deaths of young people, threats to livelihood.  It is amazing that any of us finds the strength and resilience to soldier on, and some do not.  There is a traditional prayer we say upon seeing 600,000 Jews gathered together, in which we address the Holy One as “chacham ha-razim,”  the wise one of secrets.  This prayer is a recognition that each of us has our own secret burden and that we rely on the kindness of loved ones and strangers to ease that burden.  A contemporary meme notes that “A physician once said, the best medicine for humans is love. Someone asked, ‘What if it doesn’t work?’  He smiled and said, ‘Increase the dose’.”

It is all too easy to judge. It is all too tempting to hold on to anger.  When we reflect on the theme of holiness, we reflect on kindness and compassion, on humility, on generosity of spirit and forgiveness; we reflect on honoring the image of God in every person we meet, and we reflect, with the most deep and profound gratitude, on the friends who hold our hands on this journey through life, who prod us and forgive us and support us and encourage us and continue to increase the dose of love.

 

[1] Jewish Woman Magazine, Summer 2006, “Lean on Me”,  p. 22

[2] quoted in Utne Reader, op. cit., p. 72

[3] Jewish Woman, op. cit.,  p. 24

[4] Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees, p. 277

 

[5] Pirke Avot 4:1

[6] source unknown

[7] Genesis Rabba 54:3

[8] Spitz, Rabbi Elie, Healing From Despair, VT:  Jewish Lights Publishing, 2008, pp. 122-123

 

[9] internet, “Good Friend Test”, author unknown

[10] Kushner, Harold, “Yearning to See God”, The American Rabbi, High Holy Days 2002, p. 29

[11] Morinis, Alan, Everyday Holiness, MA:  Shambhala Publications, 2007, p. 187

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