Go ahead; list the ten most important relationships in your life. Some will be family and others will be business and work relationships. There will probably be a few friends on the list too. Family relationships are fairly well defined. The obligations and expectations of those relationships are, for the most part, known quantities. Business relationships are also clear, governed as most are by contracts. But what about friends? What are the obligations of friendship? What are reasonable expectations of friendship?
While the Five Books of Moses are packed with rules and rituals that shape both family and business relationships, it is notably light on mention of friendships. We know just what employees owe their employers and vice versa, and we know what parents owe children and what children owe their parents, but if we ask people what they owe their friends, the answer could be, “It depends on the friend.”
Everyone knows the answer to the question, “For how long will your parent be your parent?” If asked for how long a marriage is intended to last, the correct answer is, ‘This is forever.’ But if one is asked for how long one’s friend will be one’s friend, the prudent answer is, “I don’t know.” The true answer might be, “For as long as we both want to be friends.”
The fine Irish poet, William Butler Yeats whose wonderful poem, Sailing to Byzantium, donated its opening line “That is no country for old men” to the title of a Coen Brothers 2007 crime movie, also penned an even better known line:
“There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met.”
The line hints at an uncomfortable truth, namely that the line between friends and strangers can be a bit blurry.
Which presents us with a puzzling problem: how do we build lasting frameworks for friendships? Ancient Jewish wisdom provides a pathway by noting the parallels between the first two commandments of the Torah and the last two.
#1: Have children
Be fertile and increase…
You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin.
This shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.
#612: Annual gathering, a sort of State of the Union Address
Gather all the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities…
#613: All must have their own copy of the Torah
Therefore, write down this prose…
The first two commandments link the individual to both the past and the future. God wants me to reproduce which links me to the future. Furthermore, I’m directed to circumcise my sons. This is an immensely powerful, emotional ceremony which locks me to the past.
The last two commandments link the nation to the past and to the future. We’re told to hold an annual gathering at which we all listen to the Torah and relive our history. Then the Torah’s final instruction directs each member of the nation to write our own copy of the Torah; an arduous undertaking that only makes sense if the resulting book is going to serve as our roadmap to the future.
Thus we see that the Torah, the constitution of the Jewish people, is bookended by a pair of rules that give the individual his or her life context, and another pair of rules that give the people its life context. As an individual, I am not an alienated orphan dropped into a cold lonely life. I am linked to a future by my children and I am linked to a past by the timeless covenant of Abraham. The nation, in turn is also linked to its destiny in the future and its origins in the past.
Many Americans fear greatly for the future of their country because new citizens, whether by birth or immigration, are no longer taught to value the country’s origins. Even more concerning to many is that current citizens no longer share any sense of a purposeful national future based on shared American ideals.
When past and future are shared with others, friendships often result. Each stranger can truly be a friend, “you haven’t yet met.” When people’s ideas excite them today, but have no bedrock in the past nor sustainable hope in the future, strangers can walk together temporarily, but true friendship is unlikely. For friendships to thrive our lives need to be firmly rooted in the past and foreseeable in the future.