Are You A Good Friend?

It's not a secret that people are having a hard time making and maintaining friendships. Less well known, however, is the dangers of loneliness. Studies have found that it is twice as deadly as obesity, and as deadly as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

Our communities, thankfully, offer many opportunities for social connection, and our daily Jewish life is primed to enable organic relationships to grow. We are amongst the last groups of people in the western world for whom socializing must take place in person (at least once a week), and our lives revolve around meals shared without technological distractions.

But even with all of this beauty and the connections we enjoy, real friendship is still difficult to achieve and maintain.

This struggle is discussed explicitly by the Rambam in his commentary to Avos, on the Misha:

יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָה אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר, וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת:

Yehoshua ben Perachiah used to say: appoint for yourself a teacher, and acquire for yourself a friend and judge all men favorably.

The Rambam (אבות א׳ ו׳), question why we are instructed to “acquire” a friend, and explains:

The intention of this is that a person must make every effort to acquire a friend for himself, so that all of his deeds and all of his matters be refined through him, as they said (Taanit 23a), “Either a friend or death.” And if he does not find him, he must make efforts for it with all his heart, and even if he must lead him to his friendship, until he becomes a friend.

Friendship is not simply a nicety that we hope will “happen” to us. It is essential to our personal growth and wellbeing, and as such, it is an obligation for each person to achieve.

But when we consider the exceptional importance of friendship, it seems strange that we rarely focus on the this type of relationship in our study of Chumash. The Avos, Imahos and Moshe Rabbeinu are all traditionally understood as solitary characters, as are so many of our greatest leaders throughout Tanach.

There is, however, one person in Bereishis who clearly has a close friend. We learn of this friendship in moment of greatest weakness and failure.

After Yosef is sold, the Torah pivots to discussing the life of Yehuda: He leaves his family, finds a wife, and suffers the death of his two oldest sons. From fear of losing his youngest son, Sheilah, Yehuda delays the marriage his daughter in law, Tamar indefinitely.

Many years go by, Yehuda's wife dies, and he leaves on a business trip, together with his friend, Chira. It is on this journey, that Tamar conspires to finally ambush her father-in-law, and demand of Yehuda that he allow her to remarry. (See Seforno here for a full understanding of her intentions.)

The meeting does not go as planned, and Yehuda, mistakenly assumes that the woman by the side of the road is offering herself to him. Never once does he realize that she is Tamar.

By the end of that confusing encounter, Tamar is pregnant, and Yehuda has left his staff, signet-ring and garment with this strange woman, promising to return with a goat in payment for the act, and to redeem his personal affects.

It all happens so quickly in the text, and, most likely, that's how it felt to Yehuda and Tamar as well. But please pause for a minute, and consider how Yehuda must've felt about himself in that moment. Imagine the guilt, shame and sense of personal failure. How could a son of Yaakov Avinu fall so low? How could he have given in to such base desires?

Undoubtedly, Yehuda wished that he could just run away and forget what he had done. But how could he? She was still holding on to his personal belongings. How embarrassing might it be if anyone found out?

It was in that moment of vulnerability, weakness and shame that the Torah reveals to us the definition of friendship:

וַיִּשְׁלַח יְהוּדָה אֶת־גְּדִי הָעִזִּים בְּיַד רֵעֵהוּ הָעֲדֻלָּמִי לָקַחַת הָעֵרָבוֹן מִיַּד הָאִשָּׁה Yehuda sent the goat with his friend the Adullamite, to redeem the pledge from the woman...

R' Simcha Bunim of Peshischa explains: A friend is someone whom you can tell your greatest moral failures, and he still remains your friend. Yehuda told everything to Chira, and Torah still calls him “his friend.”

This definition of friendship is codified by the Rambam:

שיהיה לאדם אוהב תבטח נפשו בו לא ישמר ממנו לא במעשה ולא בדבור ויודיעהו כל עניניו הטוב מהם והמגונה מבלתי שירא ממנו שישיגהו בכל זה חסרון...

When a man has a friend to whom he can confide his soul. He will not keep [anything] from him – not in action and not in speech. And he will make him know all of his affairs – the good ones and the disgraceful – without fearing from him that any loss will come to him with all of this...

A number of years ago a fellow found himself seated across the Lubavitcher Rebbe at a private audience.

“Rebbe, what exactly do you do? And why are you admired by so many?”

“I try to be a good friend,” the Rebbe replied.

Incredulous, the man blurted out, “A friend? That's all you do?!”

Unfazed, the Rebbe responded with a question of his own: “How many friends do you have?”

“I have many.”

“Let me define a friend for you, and then tell me how many friends you have.

“A friend is someone in whose presence you can think aloud without worrying about being taken advantage of. A friend is someone who suffers with you when you are in pain and rejoices in your joy. A friend is someone who looks out for you, and always has your best interests in mind. In fact, a true friend is like an extension of yourself.”

The Rebbe then asked with a smile, “Now, how many friends like that do you have?”

In a world where few people can answer the Rebbe's question with confidence, Hashem should help us to find good friends, to keep good friends, and to be good friends to each other.