backlit dawn foggy friendship

If you are lucky enough to have good friends you know how fortunate you are. Growing up in Toronto, I had a one very close childhood friend. Over the years (beginning in kindergarten) Harvey and I had lots of sleep overs, went to the movies together and of course, watched Yankee games together on TV.  Even when my family moved to the suburbs and my friend stayed in the city, we continued to see each other on weekends. As a teenager I developed a friendship with my friend Marv who went to summer camp with me.  We ended up attending the same college where we developed a routine of ordering milkshakes and toast every night at  Tom’s Restaurant (later made famous by Seinfeld) on New York’s Upper West Side, singing together on weekends in a folk rock group, and sharing each other’s family life cycle events as adults with our own families. We still stay in touch, even though he has lived in Florida for decades.

These days we are witnessing increased individualism on the one hand and more talk about social relationships on the other. Some assert that true friendship may be on the decline. A recent article in New York’s Jewish Week cites the findings of Cornell University sociologists that adults now have only two friends with whom they can discuss important matters, down from three in 1985. Half of those surveyed said they had only one, while four percent had none.

The Bible recognizes the benefits of a good friendship. Ecclesiastes wrote: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor.  For if they fall, the one will lift up the other. But woe to the one who is alone when he falls, for he has no other to help him. (4:9-10)

Back in Talmudic times life without companionship was considered unthinkable. In one rabbinic tale (Talmud, Taanit) when Honi the miracle worker awakened after a sleep of seventy years, he despaired because he felt shunned by a new generation of people who did not recognize him. In his immense suffering, Honi prayed to be released from his loneliness, prompting a sage to say: “Either friendship or death.”

Jewish tradition especially values finding friendship with a special partner through study. This partnership, known in Aramaic by the term hevruta, literally meaning a friendship group, is fueled by passionate energy and concern for each other’s spiritual welfare. Friendship is the primary model in Jewish learning. The Talmud (Taanit 7a) teaches that in religious learning and growth, a friend is even more important than a teacher: “I have learned much from my teachers, but from my friends more than my teachers.” A friend, on the highest level, is primarily a learning partner, a partner in life.

A recent New York Times article by Tara Parker-Pope describes the benefits to health and happiness of spending time with the right people as friends. She quotes a study by author Dan Buettner who studied the health habits of people who live in so-called “blue zones”—regions of the world where people live longer than average. Blue zones include the Italian island of Sardinia, Okinawa, Japan, Loma Linda CA, Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula and the Greek island of Ikaria. Buettner notes that positive friendships are a common theme in the blue zones, writing that “friends can exert a meaningful and ongoing influence on your health behaviors in a way that diet never can.”

The ancient rabbis understood that one’s peers create an environment in which the self develops. And so we find in the Talmud advice on the importance of selecting one’s friends: “Come and learn which is the right path to which a person should adhere? A good friend.” (Ethics of the Fathers, 2:3)

No doubt many of you have scores of Facebook friends. Some of these friendship relationships are likely transactional. One can “friend” or “defriend” someone with the simple click of a finger. Web-based relationships may be interesting or entertaining, but not necessarily long lasting. Buettner argues that one ought to focus on only 3-5 real-world friends rather than one’s more distant Facebook ones. He writes: “In general, you want friends with whom you can have a meaningful conversation. You can call them on a bad day and they will care. Your group of friends are better than any drug or anti-aging supplement, and will do more for you than just about anything.”  As Hubert H. Humphrey once said: “The greatest gift of life is friendship. “

Wishing you a tranquil summer that includes many meaningful opportunities time to get together with good friends!


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