What Friends Are For?
By Yisrael Rutman
Some of the benefits of friendship are well-known; some, however, are concealed within the workings of the system of Divine justice in the world.
We all know that there is a deep need for companionship. Not for nothing is solitary confinement considered to be among the harshest of punishments. Hardened criminals have been known to break down under the duress of prolonged deprivation of social contact.
But if it were only a matter of staying the pain of loneliness, it would be unnecessary to remind people to make friends. Yet, we find Jewish ethical texts repeatedly exhorting us to make friends. "Acquire for yourself a friend," instructs the Mishna in Avot. "What is the path that a person should adhere to?---A good friend," answers another Mishna in Avot. In Ecclesiastes, the wise King Solomon tells us (4:9), "Two are better than one."
But since the human personality is such that we are all embued with a natural desire for friendship, why should it be necessary for us to be instructed to make friends. Isn't it a little like telling people not to forget to eat? For this we need the wisdom of the Torah?
The answer is manifold. On the simplest level, we are being taught that it is not enough to have friends, one must choose for himself the right kind of friend---"a good friend." Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura in his commentary to Avot explains that a good friend is one who will offer constructive criticism. People tend to be blind to their own faults. It is necessary to have others who understand us and are concerned enough about our welfare to tell us when we are going wrong.
Safety in Numbers
But there is more to it than that. The Rosh, Rabbeinu Asher, advises to never leave off making friends. This sounds a bit peculiar, though. For, if constructive criticism is principally what friends are for, one or two pairs of critical eyes are all that are needed. A crowded social calendar would seem superfluous.
But the more friends the better. Why? Because, in a sense, there is safety in numbers. By that I do not mean that if somebody tries to jump you in the street, you can call on your friends for help. We are talking about friends here, not a gang. Rather, this guideline is based on a deep understanding of the mechanics of justice in the world.
It goes something like this: G-d is the Judge of the world. G-d is also perfect. Therefore, His justice must also be perfect. If so, it is not sufficient that one who breaks the law be punished in exactly the right measure for his transgression; if G-d's justice is to be perfect it must also take into account anyone who suffers indirectly for that individual's punishment.
This is the secret hidden in the verse in Ha'azinu, "The Rock [G-d], His work is perfect, because all His ways are just, a G-d of truth without iniquity, just and right is He." (Deuteronomy 32:4) If it is already established that G-d is perfection, just and right, a G-d of truth," why is it necessary to say that He is "without iniquity"? Rather, it is as we have said, that from G-d's point of view, even the most perfect judgment would be iniquitous if, even indirectly, innocents were caused to suffer.
In G-d's system of justice, there is no such thing as collateral damage. If, for example, a murderer must be given capital punishment, that means that his family and friends (if he has any) will also suffer. Even the mother of a murderer suffers when her son is put to death. Perfect justice demands that she will not suffer bereavement unless she deserves it.
We can already observe this principle at work in the story of Creation. When Adam is told that he will be punished for the sin of eating of the Tree of Knowledge, the first punishment mentioned is that "the earth will be cursed because of you...thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you...in the sweat of your face shall you eat bread..." (Genesis 3:18-19.) Rashi explains that the earth would be cursed in that it would produce cursed things, such as flies, fleas and ants.
Why should the earth be cursed for what Adam had done? Surely, G-d could have found other ways to punish Adam without affecting the earth's productive capacity?
But the truth is that the earth was deserving of punishment, too. For originally the earth had been commanded to grow trees whose bark would have the taste of the fruit. The earth failed to follow the Divine command, however, and instead grew bark without the taste of the fruit. Had the earth not been deserving of a curse, G-d would indeed have found another way to afflict Adam, without affecting the earth. (Rashi, Siftei Chachamim, Levush to Genesis 1:11-12.) Thus, the principle of the perfection of Divine judgment is part of the design of Creation itself.
In the same vein, the rape of Jacob's daughter Dinah (Genesis, Chapter 34) has prompted numerous Torah commentators to ask what Jacob did to deserve this? The best-known is the one posited by Rashi. Earlier in the same chapter, he informs us that Jacob was to be punished for hiding his daughter from the wicked Esau, so that the latter would not try to marry her. Tradition maintains that had Dinah married Esau, her righteousness would have led Esau back onto the true path. Jacob allowed his personal feelings to interfere, indirectly preventing Esau's rehabilitation, and for this he was indirectly punished.
There are numerous other answers offered to the question, but the clear assumption of all the commentaries is that, although Dinah was, of course, the primary victim in the episode, her father also suffered because of it, and so there must be a reason for his suffering, too.
Nor are these purely abstract ideas, relegated to a remote cosmogony and ancient history. They can provide us with a guide for living every day. For by increasing one's circle of friends---good and moral friends---who do not deserve punishment, one is automatically increasing one's own life expectancy, and the quality of life, too.
I remember once waiting at a bus stop when a distinguished Torah scholar that I barely knew spotted me at some distance and called me over to offer me a ride home. When I got in, he explained that when he drives he always looks for opportunities to give people rides. Aside from the kindness involved, he saw it as a form of self-protection. Even if he might not have the merit to arrive home safely, if the person riding with him did, then it would afford him an extra measure of protection. That scholar is still alive, and as far as I know, has been driving for many years without an accident; and he continues giving free rides.
The Merit of the Community
There is another level of safety in numbers. Namely, being part of a Jewish community. Whether it be a synagogue congregation, a yeshivah or chesed organization, active membership in the Jewish people can also be a life-saving association.
When Elisha offered to speak to the king for the Shunammite woman, she demurred, saying, "I dwell among my people." (Kings 2:4:13.) The Zohar reveals that "the king" in the verse is an allusion to G-d, the king of the universe, and that she preferred to have her prayers considered with the rest of the community rather than being singled out even by the prophet on her behalf.
The Talmud (Yoma 75b) states that the manna fell for Joshua, "as it did for all of Israel." Why is Joshua singled out? Why should he, the chief disciple of Moses, have been any less deserving of sustenance than the rest of the people?
The answer is that because Joshua had accompanied Moses to the foot of Mount Sinai, where he waited for him to return with the Torah, he was temporarily isolated from the community. Even though it was only a few minutes' walk from Joshua's position to the encampment of the nation, he required a special blessing of manna. Anyone residing with the nation received manna in the collective merit of the many; anyone who was set even slightly apart from the rest, and even though it was for a good reason, needed his own special merit to survive.
Based on this Talmudic passage, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz explained the fate of the members of the Mir Yeshiva, which miraculously survived the Holocaust. "We have seen this with our own eyes," he said. "During the wanderings of the Mir, those who remained with the yeshiva were not harassed---all of them got out safely from the terrible exile---but those who segregated themselves even slightly---those who just went to say goodbye to their families in nearby towns, intending to return immediately---never returned." (from The Rosh Yeshiva by Rav Reuven Grossman, Pp. 82-83.)
What is the power of belonging to a Jewish community? The Jewish people is eternal. In the Torah, we have a promise from G-d that we will never be wholly destroyed. Great calamities may befall us, but a remnant will always survive. Attaching oneself to the Jewish people, or to some significant part of it, means attaching oneself to eternity.
Of course, the safety in numbers depends also on the quality of those numbers, the depth of our connection to others. To the extent that our existence matters to others, will they be affected by whatever happens to us? The extent of their suffering due to our fate serves to mitigate our judgment. So it pays to have good friends, in both senses---people who are righteous and who are close to us.
There are, of course, no guarantees. Only the Almighty knows how to calculate all the merits and debits of our accounts in this world. Only He can decide who shall live and who shall die. But if we know how the system works, we can use that knowledge to increase the odds in our favor. And what, after all, is the cost? Only the effort that goes into making friends. It seems like a small price to pay.
from the November 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine