You’ve never heard of Philip Brookman, but I want to tell you about something that he did. When my family moved from Texas to Maryland, we rented an apartment and then a tiny house and finally, for the princely sum of $26, 500, we bought a house near my father’s shul. Everybody was happy except for me. I was going into second grade, and I didn’t know any of the kids in the neighborhood, and when they saw that a new kid had moved into a house on the block, they decided to have a club where people sat around in a tree house eating bubble gum and saying terrible things about me, including the fact that I wore Buster Brown shoes. I was very lonely, and then I started school and everyone knew each other and no one was friendly. As I was leaving school on that first day, I saw one of the kids from my block, one of the kids in the new kid hater club, by the name of Philip Brookman, standing at the door, waiting, and I said, “Who are you waiting for?” And he said, “You.” And he put his arm around me and we walked home together. That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that lasted for years until his family moved away and I never saw him or heard from him again. But obviously I still remember that act of friendship between two little boys.
A second personal story. Thank G-d, I don’t get sick very often, but last week I felt like I was getting the flu or pneumonia. An old friend happened to call and ask how I was, and so I complained that I was getting really sick. And he immediately asked, “Who died?” And I thought he misunderstood me so I said, “No, I’m getting sick.” And he asked again, “Who died? Every time you get sick it’s because you’re grieving over someone you care about. Should I give you examples? The time you lost someone in a tragic death and you got pneumonia? The time a young man you cared about died and your face produced a horrible rash?” I realized, with a start, that he was right, and indeed, I had just lost someone very dear to me, and my system was reacting. I mention this conversation because only an old friend would have known my history well enough to see what was really going on, much better than I saw myself.” Friendship can provide perspective.
I start thinking about the theme of friendship because of my friend Brett Sadinsky’s wonderful introduction to the Haftarah for Sedrah Ahare Mot/Kedoshim that showed his friendship and compassion.
It may sound strange, but friendship is an important religious value. In the Torah reading for this same sedrah, right smack in the middle of Leviticus, right in the middle of the Torah, we find the commandment: Ve-ahavta le-ray-acha kamocha, “Love your friend as yourself.” This is a command to love a friend. We must love our friends as we love ourselves.
We find wonderful examples of friendship in Jewish tradition. This is what we find in the Bible when we read the story of David and Jonathan, the love between the man who would become the greatest king of Israel and the man who was supposed to be the king of Israel but who gave way to his friend: “The soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul…. ” (1 Samuel: 18:1). Moses Maimonides, the Rambam, the greatest Jewish philosopher said that to “Love your neighbor as yourself” means to care for your friend like you would care for your own body, money or honor.
You can tell a friend anything. You can trust him or her you’re your ups and downs and all of your feelings. You feel less isolated, like you can open your heart.
Friendship is a magical thing. Sometimes, if I have a chance to talk to one of my good friends, I find myself just feeling better about everything, like I touched home plate.
Michel de Montaigne was the child of conversos, Jewish people from Spain who converted to Christianity in order to be saved from the Spanish Inquisition, but left their country and moved to France. Perhaps because of this upheaval, he treasured friendship and wrote a beautiful essay about it. He said that most of the people we call friends are really acquaintances who happen to come and go in our lives. What he means by friendship is when souls blend with each other so completely that you don’t know where one friend starts and the other one stops.
You can’t really express what it is about the friend that means so much to you, but certainly unconditional trust is a big part of it.
Another important dimension of friendship is in the friends’ ability to disagree. Real friends can have arguments. They can criticize each other. They know that such criticism will not end the friendship, that instead, criticism is a mark of the friendship. As the fiendishly clever Oscar Wilde once said: “A true friend stabs you in the front.” What a great line.
There’s a great story in the Talmud about the friendship between two rabbis, Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish. Like a lot of friends, they had their ups and they had their downs. But for all the ups and downs, when Resh Lakish died, Rabbi Yohanan was inconsolable. His grief was so bad that the other rabbis felt that they had to do something, so they sent their nicest guy, Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat, to go study with Rabbi Yohanan. Whenever Rabbi Yohanan made a point about a law or a text, Rabbi Eleazar immediately agreed with him. This didn’t make Rabbi Yohanan happy; it made him miserable. He cried out that when he studied with his late friend, Resh Lakish would respond negatively to every single point he made, and in the argument, they would both learn a lot. What the story is saying is that a friend is somebody who will challenge you.
Friendship is a religious value that we should nourish and cherish. I am still grateful to Philip Brookman who was kind to a new little neighbor boy. Love your neighbor and be loved by your neighbor. It’s one of the things that life is all about.