Recently in a class discussing the concept of “Mishloach manot ish l’rayayhu,” the exchanging of food gifts, part of the tradition of Purim, the topic of what exactly is “l’rayayhu,” loosely translated as “friend,” was discussed.
What is friendship? Jewish tradition and wisdom extends beyond the expected bounds of moral and legal codes, holiday requirements, and Sabbath and kosher laws. These teachings infuse a Godly, distinctly Jewish approach to the realities of everyday life.
Webster’s definition of friend is “a person who one knows well and is fond of, an ally, a supporter or sympathizer.” The Torah perspective of friendship is more encompassing and profound.
Let’s start from the beginning: Judaism places a great deal of importance on having a friend. Solitude is not the optimal state of being. The Mishna in Pirke Avot 1:6 states: “Yehoshua ben Perachya says, ‘make yourself a master, acquire yourself a companion.’”
The great commentator, Me’am Lo’ez, elaborates on the extent to which a person must go, to find the right friend: “A person should do everything in his power to earn the friendship of a God-fearing person. It is impossible to survive without a companion or friend to serve as a guide and counselor in all his endeavors.”
The Me’am Lo’ez’s definition of a friend encompasses both peer and mentor. According to the Me’am Lo’ez, it is this caliber of companion that the Talmud alludes to when it says: “Either a friend or death.”
Making friends is a deliberate process in the eyes of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888). Rabbi Hirsch refutes society’s approach to friendship, (“Does this person value me?”) by pointing out the Mishna’s deliberate use of the word acquire. To facilitate the friendship of another person you have to win him by way of “accommodation,” “association,” and “empathy.”
There are some beautiful insights which the Lubavitcher Rebbe quotes, in his work “Hayom Yom” (“From Day to Day,” the first published work of the Rebbe), from the previous Rebbes of Chabad;
From the Fifth Rebbe of Chabad: “It is a magnificent gift from God to merit an innate sense, a ‘feel,’ for doing kindness to another, to derive deep pleasure from it. This can develop to the point that one cherishes the other more than one’s self. He may find many explanations as to why he is experiencing tribulations, God forbid. But to do so with regard to another’s suffering is absolutely impossible.”
Rambam writes, “It is a commandment to love and fear the revered and awesome God. As it says, ‘Love Hashem, your Lord. You shall fear Hashem, your God.’ The degree of fulfillment of these mitzvot is that there be a bodily sensation, that the very flesh of the heart actual feel (the love or the fear) just as for example when one meets a truly devoted ‘friend,’ not only does he feel good and forget all his troubles, he even enjoys a newly awaked inner liveliness and optimism.” (Hayom Yom, 20 of Av)
My paternal grandfather, Rabbi Shmuel Levitin, a senior Chassid and provost of the Central Chabad Lubavitch Yeshiva in New York from its inception in 1940 until his passing in 1974, devised a litmus test for true friends. True friends treat your children well. Jealousies, hurts or dislikes kept submerged between friends can surface, however subtly, in the way a friend interacts with your children. Children will remark to parents, “I thought that person was your good friend. How come he was cold or hurtful to me?”
In practice, I have found it important to add to my Zaide Shmuel’s insights. True friends are those who treat my parents well. I can forgive personal hurt, I can even forgive the hurt my children might suffer (forgive me, Chanie), but I have a very difficult time forgiving and moving on when there has been any hurt that my parents might have suffered.
I have tried over the years to go out of my way to invite my close friends’ parents to all of my family’s simchas, wherever they live. I know how meaningful it is for my very close, dear friends, that their friend (meaning me), remembers their parents when he is planning his personal simchas.
The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), author of the Shulchan Aruch HaRav and the Tanya, gives explicit instructions drawn from a verse in Proverbs (27:19): “Just like water reflects the image of the face, so too does the human heart reflect the feelings of one human heart to another.”
The Alter Rebbe posits (Tanya 46) that ties of friendship are not born — they are a reaction. When a person beams loyalty and affection, they awaken these feelings in his friend, until the feelings are mutual. About the Chassidim of the Alter Rebbe, the extent of this attitude was captured in a saying: “This piece of bread that I have is ‘yours’ as it is ‘mine,’ and they would say ‘yours’ first.”
To be a true friend and to have true friends, one must reach out, one has to anticipate, one has to be respectful, and one has to always be there with love, affection. A friend must never judge, but guide, listen and care. The unity engendered by true friendship will prepare the world for the Messianic Era when, Rambam writes, there will be no conflict, no enmity, but we will all seek a more spiritual and Godly existence, may it happen speedily in our time.
Rabbi Levitin is Regional Director of Pacific Northwest Chabad-Lubavitch.