On Faithfulness and Friendship
By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
When Honi, the wonder-working rabbi of the Mishnah, found that he’d been asleep beneath his carob tree for seventy years and no one recognised him any longer in his beloved House of Study, he said ‘O mituta o chavruta – Give me friends or let me die’, and died.
We all need friends, and the kind of friend we are is a profound indicator of who we are as a human being.
Breaking my principle of avoiding unnecessary flying, I spent a single day in Stuttgart before Pesach, leaving home at dawn and back the same night. A friend’s husband had died. Devoted Catholics, they’d hosted me in their home, invited me to speak in local churches and been generous to our synagogue. I spent the day in quiet conversation with the family. I felt it was the least I could do.
I mention this because what made me go was partly shame. That moment still burns in my conscience when friends of a friend who’d become ill told me that he felt I’d all but forgotten him. I never want to be guilty of such a hurt again.
Since then I’ve often wondered what kind of a friend I am. I have excellent role-models. There are people around me who epitomise the quality best expressed by the Hebrew adjective ne’eman, ‘faithful’, ‘true’. I hear them say things which stay in my heart: ‘Life’s hard for her; I make sure we go for coffee every week’; ‘Now he’s unwell I try to see my brother every day’.
Ne’eman, faithful, derives from the same root as emunah, faith in God. Loyalty to one other is the foundation of faithfulness to God. Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, another miracle working rabbi of the Mishnah period, posed the question: ‘With whom does God feel comfortable?’ He answered: ‘With those with whom people feel comfortable’.
Friendship is full of happiness and fun: a joy shared is a joy doubled. It’s about mutual hobbies, interests, travels and memories (‘Do you remember how we saw Australia collapse to 93 for 8?’ ‘Wasn’t the clue for 8 down in that Times crossword a stinker?’) It’s about knowing how to listen, knowing when to offer counsel, and when to listen with all the heart and none of the tongue. Friendship is about being there, whatever.
Friendship may test us. The first question in the Torah is ‘Where are you?’ God wants to talk to Adam, but he’s hidden himself away. How often do we hide, missing the often unspoken ‘where are you?’ of a friend who need us?
Friendship may call us to face challenges and fears. Families in mourning sometimes say: ‘Friends have been amazing. It’s strange, though. Some we thought close have stayed away, while others we’d not felt close to before stood by us all the time.’ After a tragedy I’m not rarely told: ‘Friends cross the road when they see me’. Friendship may require us to help one another amidst sorrows we cannot remove or remedy but only help each other bear.
Friendship may summon us to cross difficult borders, like Ruth who followed her mother-in-law Naomi to a strange land and religion out of devoted loving-kindness. One thinks of those who put their very lives at risk, or lost them, because they refused to betray their Jewish neighbours. Which of us knows if we would have the courage to do likewise should such a situation re-occur?
I don’t believe there’s a neat division between the two classic rabbinic categories of ‘commandments between person and person’ and ‘commandments between a person and God’. Where another person is, there too is the presence of God. Emunah, living with faith, is founded on living in faithful solidarity towards each other. It is my aspiration to learn to be a more faithful human being, towards people, nature and God.