The Importance of Friends Parasha Re-eh

As many of you know, I recently  attended my 50 year High School reunion. A classmate and I were marveling at the durability and strength of our ties to one another. Many of us have so many overlapping relationships. We were neighbors of each other, we attended the same public schools, we attended the same Hebrew school, the same synagogue, we went to Boy Scout camp together, we were part of the same youth groups, the same high school fraternities.  Our parents may have been friends with each other, some of us were even related to one another. 

My childhood friends were very influential in my life. My parents never attended synagogue on Shabbat morning. I only began to attend synagogue on Shabbat because I wanted to be with my friends. When I was 10 years old my friends began to attend a class to learn how to chant Torah in the Junior Congregation. I had no idea what it meant to chant Torah, as I had never even been to Junior Congregation, but I went with my friends and found that I could be pretty good at it. That in turn led to some opportunities for leadership in the Junior Congregation. I can honestly say that my friends played not a small  part in my being a Rabbi today. 

A recently published study by Dr.  Raj Chetty, a professor of Public Economics at Harvard University, speaks to the oversized influence that childhood friends can have on one’s life. He found that children from less well-off families who had friendships that cut across class lines were better off financially as adults compared to those who did not have such friendships. He found that cross-class friendships are a better predictor of upward mobility than school quality, job availability, community cohesion or family structure.The journalist  David Brooks suggests that one of the reasons for this is that friendships help us see ourselves differently. According to him, if I have smart, talented friends, then I might see myself as smart and talented. If my friends are ambitious, it might help to make me more ambitious. If my friends expect to go to college and study for a professional degree, then I might want and expect that of myself as well. We learn to see the world, and ourselves, through our friends’ eyes, and this expands our horizons and our understanding of the possibilities open to us.

Our  parasha  of the week highlights that friendships with the wrong people can lead to negative consequences in our lives. Friends can also be bad influences. The Torah cautions us that  should our closest friend entice us into idolatry, saying, “Come let us worship other gods, “ we should distance ourselves immediately. 

To paraphrase Harper Lee, the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird”,  “We may not be able to choose our family, but we can choose our friends.” We are born into families and we have to make the best of it. At work we are randomly placed with others with the same or complementary skills. Only our friends can we freely choose. 

At the beginning of our parasha this week, Moses tells the People of Israel that each of them has a choice they can make. “See,” he says, “I set before you a blessing and a curse.” By this Moses means that there are two paths of life that one can take. One path leads to a life of blessing and well being  and the other path leads to hardship and affliction. As the Harvard study suggests, the friendships one makes early in life can influence which path one will take. 

In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, Yehoshua ben Perachiah would say: “Appoint yourself a rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend……”   In order to choose the path of life that leads to blessings, one both needs a teacher and a friend. A teacher – to act as a guide in learning. A teacher chooses the material that is most important to learn. A teacher explains ideas and issues that are too difficult to grasp on one’s own. A teacher provides feedback and helps the learner  to avoid pitfalls and confusion. It is obvious that one would need a teacher to learn.

But why a friend? A friend is someone who is on a different level relationally than a teacher. There is always a hierarchical distinction between a teacher and a student. There are boundaries that cannot be crossed, conventions that must be upheld, formalities that must be observed, and often an age difference that cannot be bridged. 

But  true friends will  respectfully  critique each other’s positions, attitudes, ideologies,  behavior. We see ourselves in a friend in a way that we cannot see ourselves in a teacher. True friends are more tolerant of us, more honest with us, A true friend accepts us for who we are. Friendship is a relationship between equals. 

The story is told of a great Torah scholar from another land who was visiting Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine. The visiting Rabbi asked Rabbi Kook why he was so fond of Reb Aryeh Levin.

The Chief Rabbi answered, “I have three reasons for being fond of him. I have known him for twenty years and in all that time he has 1) never flattered me, and if he saw me do something that he did not understand he questioned it or commented on it. 2) He never once told me of anything said by my fierce opponents, who were continuously denigrating me and defaming me, and 3) Whatever he asked of me, it was never a favor for himself, but only for others.” 

I would like to close with a simple thought. It is one thing to make friends in childhood, or in high school and college where we are living with each other, studying with each other, socializing with each other. It is quite another thing to make good friends in adulthood, when we are immersed in working and raising a family, where we change jobs and move to new communities and have to start over. One of the best places to make friends is by joining a synagogue. By joining I don’t mean just signing up and paying dues – although that is important. By joining I mean really immersing oneself in synagogue life – coming to services regularly, participating in committees, taking a class and becoming deeply involved in communal life. The synagogue is a place where it is possible to forge deep friendships and meaningful relationships in adulthood. Dr. Karen Roberts, a researcher at Virginia Tech University who has studied the effect of friendship on physical and mental health, says, “Friendship is an undervalued resource. Research shows us that friends make your life better.”

Shabbat Shalom

Photograph by Andrew Moca on