Jewish Wisdom on Friendship

Jewish literature offers many insights into the nature of friendship, the rewards it offers, and the efforts one should make to sustain a friendship.

The following selections represent contributions to the understanding and appreciation of friendship. They are taken from a medieval midrash, a Hasidic tale, and the writing of a contemporary rabbi.

True Friendship

There were two close friends who had been parted by war so that they lived in different kingdoms. Once one of them came to visit his friend, and because he came from the city of the king’s enemy, he was imprisoned and sentenced to be executed as a spy.

friends playing

No amount of pleas would save him, so he begged the king for one kindness.

“Your Majesty,” he said, “let me have just one month to return to my land and put my affairs in order so my family will be cared for after my death. At the end of the month I will return to pay the penalty.”

“How can I believe you will return?” answered the king. “What security can you offer?”

“My friend will be my security,” said the man. “He will pay for my life with his if I do not return.”

The king called in the man’s friend, and to his amazement, the friend agreed to the conditions.

On the last day of the month, the sun was setting, and the man had not yet returned. The king ordered his friend killed in his stead. As the sword was about to descend, the man returned and quickly placed the sword on his own neck. But his friend stopped him.

“Let me die for you,” he pleaded.

The king was deeply moved. He ordered the sword taken away and pardoned them both.

“Since there is such great love and friendship between the two of you,” he said, “I entreat you to let me join you as a third.” And from that day on they became the king’s companions.

And it was in this spirit that our sages of blessed memory said, “Get yourself a companion” [Mishnah Avot 1:6].

— This translation of a legend, from the collection of minor midrashic works, Bet Ha-midrash, assembled by the Viennese scholar Adolf Jellinek (1820-1893), appears in Francine Klagsbrun, Voices of Wisdom (Pantheon Books).

Learning to Love a Fellow Human Being

Rabbi Moshe Leib [of Sassov, a late 18th-century Ukrainian Hasidic master] told this story:

“How to love men [i.e., other persons] is something I learned from a peasant. He was sitting in an inn with other peasants, drinking. For a long time he was as silent as all the rest, but when he was moved by wine, he asked one of the men seated beside him, ‘Tell me, do you love me or don’t you love me?’

“The other peasant replied, ‘I love you very much’.

“But the first peasant replied, ‘You say that you love me, but you do not know what I need. If you really loved me, you would know.’

“The other had not a word to say to this, and the peasant who had put the question fell silent again.

“But I understood. To know the needs of men and to bear the burden of their sorrow–that is the true love of men.”

— Martin Buber (1878-1965), a prolific author and influential Jewish thinker, was Professor of Social Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Reprinted from Tales of the Hasidim, vol. 2: The Later Masters (Schocken Books).

Only Our Relationships Endure

I was sitting on a beach one summer day, watching two children, a boy and a girl, playing in the sand. They were hard at work building an elaborate sand castle by the water’s edge, with gates and towers and moats and internal passages. Just when they had nearly finished their project, a big wave came along and knocked it down, reducing it to a heap of wet sand.

I expected the children to burst into tears, devastated by what had happened to all their hard work. But they surprised me. Instead, they ran up the shore away from the water, laughing and holding hands, and sat down to build another castle.

I realized that they had taught me an important lesson. All the things in our lives, all the complicated structures we spend so much time and energy creating, are built on sand. Only our relationships to other people endure. Sooner or later, the wave will come along and knock down what we have worked so hard to build up. When that happens, only the person who has somebody’s hand to hold will be able to laugh.

— Rabbi Harold Kushner,  best selling author and one of the most well recognized rabbis in the world. Reprinted from When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough (Fireside Publishing).

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