Friends Forever?

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…
(Genesis 1:28)

#2:   Circumcision

You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin.
This shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.
(Genesis 17:11)

#612:   Annual gathering, a sort of State of the Union Address

Gather all the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities…
(Deuteronomy 31:12)

#613:   All must have their own copy of the Torah

Therefore, write down this prose…
(Deuteronomy 31:19)

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.

13 thoughts on “Friends Forever?”

  1. With 5 children, 16 grandkids and two great. Circumcised when I was a child. I see all my family often. 3 out of four . I’ve yet to write my own Torah though I own a few. For 20 years I’ve cycle through the parashah . Would you suggest I get started on my own written Torah? I value your opinion.Toda

  2. A wonderful article! I know The Lord has a plan for all of our lives and I have found out that the friends that have come in and out of my life have always been for the good! We all change over time and many friends grow apart. Recently I have reconnected with friends from many years ago and it was no accident. The Lord is always at work! Thank You!

  3. Building relationships upon solid and tested foundations can help us to nuture them throughout many years and through the many trials of life. Hopefully, Americans will be able to unify in the years to come and then our country can begin to gain the strength it needs to sustain itself. Sharing the past (it’s good and bad parts) and learning from it are powerful tools that can be a benefit to families, neighbors and communities. One really great thing we did as a home education oriented family was to visit a LOT of museums, nature centers, aquariums and other treasures to be found. One trip that is on my list: a visit to see the Tall Ship Elissa (1877) in Galveston, Texas! I’ll invite some friends to bring with me and then we can enjoy her history and the day together. 🙂

  4. Great post. Thanks for the explanation of the Torah as always, Rabbi Lapin. The term “friends” seems shallow to me and always has.

    My take on Judeo-Christian Law to love one’s neighbor means that while we may love them from a distance, that we still obey G-d and love them as neighbors even while we dislike their behavior.

    Indeed I have noticed Scripture does not mention loving friends, but neighbors. This is solid evidence that our duty to this relationship can neither be destroyed by love or war.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Heidi,
      What an outstanding observation you make; I am impressed!
      Interestingly enough, the Lord’s language has quite a few separate words for “friend” each with its own nuance. חבר never occurs in the Five Books but others do. חבר means friendship with an implied obligation which puts it in a different category. Keep sharing your thoughts!

  5. Dear Rabbi,
    Again, a great thought. Never saw friendship from this point of view – like an align path connecting the past and the future values of each individual. And, if you are not aligned with it, well my friend, enjoy your journey! I think the real question is knowing what your true values are – and avoid wandering and meaningless connections. Thanks for the clarification, Francis Paiva.

  6. Honestly Rabbi, this is quite the soul searching articles on many levels. If one has no children, how do they link to the future? If one was born American and lives in the U.S. but somehow feels disconnected with the U.S., where does one start? Thank you.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Lisa,
      Without knowing and understanding the details of someone’s life circumstances I can only present ancient Jewish wisdom’s permanent principles, leaving each person to apply those principles in the best way to their own lives. The principles are perfect but our lives are often messy so we use them as best we can to improve our own complicated lives. Because of mistakes we have all made in our yesterdays, we employ AJW today in order to improve tomorrow. But perfection is a vain hope; not achievable.

    2. Lisa, if I may add, one can link to the future through other people’s children as well. This can be through establishing personal connections or through scholarships and other support for infrastructure that will help future generations (not harm them, as unfortunately many well-intentioned such foundations do today.)
      About twenty years ago, a very involved childless teacher in the Jewish community passed away. If you go to a meeting of young adults from that group today you will find hundreds, if not thousands, of young women named in her memory because of the impact she had on their parents’ lives. She may not have had children of her own, but she had many links to the future.

  7. A most interesting thought piece (as usual). In the past few days, women from the United Kingdom and the USA who abandoned their country and went over to ISIS in the Middle East are begging to return (perhaps because the ‘Caliphate’ is collapsing–thank G-d). On the one hand, I would like to see their children safe, on the other hand—–
    Do you have any comments or reaction to this?

  8. In studying the covenants I have noticed that once established the parties are now “friends”. Even when God made covenant with Abraham, God then called Abraham friend. How, if at all, does this fit into this discussion. I ask because this insight has caused me to reframe how I use the word friend.

  9. Dear Rabbi Daniel, a ‘friend’ brought me to your site and I have found the depth I’d looked for. This frind has been my BFF for over 40 years and we share many things together. Glad he shared you with me.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      I am so pleased you found us, Paul,
      We value our readers and friends and so happy that our work fills a need for you.

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