Nadav was within a few hours of reaching the 29,028 foot summit of Everest when he discovered Aydin near death. He shook Aydin who moaned slightly. Nadav faced an agonizing choice. The custom among Everest climbers is not to even attempt to rescue another climber in the so-called death zone, 3,000 feet from the summit. It is a place that cannot sustain human life and climbers are dependent on the small oxygen tanks they carry. To rescue another is to almost always guarantee death not for one but for two. Only moments before Nadav had passed two dead climbers, whose frozen graves will forever remain on the world’s highest peak. But Nadav ben Yehuda, a 24-year-old Israeli, and Aydin Irmak, a 46-year-old Turk, had become friends in the weeks they spent at Katmandu’s base camp preparing for the summit.
Nadav decided to attempt the impossible. He carried Aydin on his shoulders part of the way, and at other times, harnessed him to his body, gripping the dying climber between his legs as they descended. Sometimes they tripped over one another and fell 50 yards at a time. Nadav removed two of his gloves in order to use his fingers better, causing immediate frostbite that might still, three months later, lead to partial amputation. Soon Nadav’s oxygen canister froze and he was without the much-needed oxygen. He recalled, “Your body is shutting down. You do not see clearly because you are dizzy.” Even his Sherpa guide, who he met on the descent, could not offer any aid. Then three might die. Somehow Nadav Ben Yehuda managed to carry Aydin Irmak to Camp Four where they both received emergency medical treatment. Nadav has been called a hero for giving up his dream of summiting Everest and becoming only the fifth Israeli to achieve this goal. He does not however see himself as a hero. Saving a life was more important than reaching the top of the world. He says, “I am not a hero but I am completely Israeli.” The choice he faced at 26,000 feet was anguishing. When asked why he flouted Everest tradition and perhaps even good sense, the answer was simple and decisive. “Aydin Irmak was my friend.”
He was my friend. This morning we ask, what is the meaning of friendship? We find ourselves living in confusing times. “Friend me!” we say. Our children count their friends and their likes. Friendship appears no longer measured by such heroic choices but is instead quantified. We tally friends. We accumulate likes. Don’t get me wrong. I use Facebook and Twitter as well. I text. I Facetime and Skype. I do not see evils lurking in the conveniences of modern life. But I also do not wish to shy away from the questions these modern devices pose. What unintended changes do they bring? What is their cost to the meaning of friendship?
There was a recent article in The New York Times (September 9, 2012). The reporter (Emily Layden) tells this story: My little brother went to school on a Friday morning last June, and this is what he heard: That another boy, a sixth-grader, had written a Facebook status the previous night asking his friends to “like” it if they hated my brother. The “like if you hate” question had gotten 57 thumbs-up. Verification for my brother’s generation is a statistical rat race, counted in friends, followers, re-tweets and re-pins. On an ordinary Friday morning, my brother learned that his name had garnered 57 “like if you hates.”
A sad story. When friendship becomes a matter that is tabulated then it leads to an explosion of such incidences. Sure there were bullies when old people like me went to middle school, when computers only existed in university science labs and Steve Jobs was still tinkering in his garage. But you could be sure that if 57 kids surrounded another kid screaming, “We hate you,” even the least caring of teachers and principals would get involved. Today, the school said that such cyber-bullying is out of their jurisdiction. What the school does not understand we must relearn. If you can’t say it, or should not say it, face-to-face then you should not say it online. If you bully someone on their wall, it is the same as bullying them on the playground. Judaism believes that words are as dangerous as pushing and shoving. Our words can harm no matter where they are used.
I have some suggestions about all this. First the solution that I suspect no one is going to listen to but I believe nonetheless. No Facebook account, no Twitter until you are in high school. Some of you might even by typing right now (even though you should not be) and saying things like, “My rabbi hates FB. He doesn’t know what’s real. #still-love-my-rabbi.” You might be saying, “He doesn’t get it. We have grown up with Facebook and texting. This is how we talk to each other.” But how can anything of meaning and substance be transmitted in 140 characters? I will keep going. Should I? Perhaps not. No media plan until you are in 9th grade. Get a phone that has only talking and texting for now. Here is my small hope. You might spend these years trying to master speaking in complete sentences and listening to others. Spend some time making real friends in the real world. Don’t worry about how many. You know that I have always been more concerned about meaning. Content is more important than who or how many. Find a few quality friends. Thank God for sleep away camps. At most iPhones are still not allowed. There you have to sit on your bunk during rest hour talking to others or listening to your iPods together. Late at night when you and your friend can’t fall asleep you can talk about important stuff like what you are really scared about and how you are going to help each other overcome those fears. Try this as another rule. If you have to tell a friend something and it has to be whispered, then it should not be posted on anyone’s wall. Does anyone whisper secrets anymore? Does anyone whisper anymore?
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not trying to eliminate Facebook, if for no other reason than given how many of my friends invested in its IPO. These things are here to stay. We will use them. We will even benefit from them. But I am unwilling to let go of the things that should really matter. Everyone needs not just friends but good friends. Everyone needs someone who can honestly say things like, “You really should not wear that shirt.” Everyone need someone who can tell them the truth, but in private and with love. Good friends are the ones who tell you the things you don’t want to hear. They tell you with their arm around your shoulder. They tell you with love. Flattery is not the greatest measure of friendship. Its true measure is loving critique. Liking is not friendship. What is it that we want from our friends? We want of course love and support. We want, we need someone with whom we can share our most intimate secrets, our fears and our worries. We want someone who will accept us for who we are, but prod us to be better. We need someone who will not judge us when we are broken, but hold us so that we might be find repair. We need as well someone who will rejoice at our successes. They will not be jealous of our achievements but instead celebrate them with us. None of this can be communicated in a limited number of characters. None of this can be conveyed on a wall. It is instead, and only, face to face. It is about looking in another’s eyes. That is how we truly communicate. We lose something when we overly rely on these social media outlets. They do not offer deep and meaningful conversations. They are not substitutes for real communication. We must relearn how to converse. We must relearn how to care. Panim el panim, face to face, is the answer.
David and Jonathan, we read in the Bible, shared the most beautiful of friendships. The Bible tells us that their souls were bound together. They fought for each other. They protected each other. They looked out for each other. When Jonathan is killed in battle, King David laments: “I grieve for you, my brother Jonathan, you were most dear to me. Your love was wonderful to me, more than the love of women.” (II Samuel 1:26) Dare we use such words to describe our friendships? Learn from David. Follow in his footsteps.
The Internet as well has not expanded our horizons. I know everyone says, “But it is the World Wide Web. I can sit in my home and watch live video of people praying at the Western Wall.” Sure that’s cool. It is not of course the same as being there. Even more important we tend to organize our cyber lives around likes. We join groups in which everyone shares the same passions or opinions. We think we are going out into the world, but all we are really doing is finding someone in Russia who shares a similar passion for cycling. How is that helpful? We have only discovered others who share our same ideas and ideologies. We have merely expanded the circle of likes, but not expanded our knowledge and understanding.
Someone recently commented to me that part of the problem with Washington politics is that our elected leaders don’t go out to dinner with each other anymore. If Republicans and Democrats went out to dinner and had a few drinks together, if they became friends, despite their different ideologies, maybe something would get accomplished. Ask these questions about your friends. Do you have friends who are not like you? Have our likes become the same as the ideological litmus tests leveled against aspiring candidates? Our circles appear to be growing smaller rather than larger. Online we read only what we agree with. We friend only those who share our interests and worse, our opinions. Do we have friends of different faiths? Of different cultures? Of different socio-economic standing? Too close to home? Online you can call people all sorts of names, you can dismiss their arguments with the press of a button, but when they are first your friend it is not so easy to cast them aside. And that is exactly how it is supposed to be. Friends first. That alone could bridge the divide in Washington. It is an immeasurable good to expand the circle of friendship ever larger. I fear that the World Wide Web makes the circle smaller rather than larger.
How has something so basic become so confusing? And so what of our friendship with Israel, a friendship debated by our politicians and tweeted about by their super PAC’s. A few things seem clear. Obama and Netanyahu do not share warm relations. I do not think they call each other friends. They do not appear to be the friends that Bush and Olmert or Clinton and Rabin were. To be honest both Obama and Netanyahu disappoint me. Israel and the United States are supposed to be friends. Both Romney and Obama, and nearly every senator and representative affirm this. Look at how many have traveled to Israel on AIPAC trips. (By the way I would love to send a JCB delegation to the Washington conference.)
Here is my worry. This friendship has become defined by talking points. I firmly believe that deep and meaningful friendship involves loving critique. Yet every criticism of Israel or inappropriate word is deemed a betrayal of our friendship and treason against the Jewish people. Don’t reduce my friendship and love to matters of military aid. Are we that insecure that we cannot tolerate critique and disagreement? Israel and the United States both face unimaginable challenges. We face complicated questions that defy simple answers. The unfortunate problem is that everything is being aired in public. I feel like I am watching those 6th graders fight it out on Facebook, posting tirades on each other’s walls. Like if you hate Obama. Like if you hate Romney.
Friends should have more dinners together. They should play some basketball together. Ok, I am sure Netanyahu would prefer soccer but you get the point. It saddens me that the White House turned down Netanyahu’s apparent request for a meeting when the prime minister is going to be here for the United Nations Assembly. Obama’s White House should have said, “Sure come to DC for dinner, but no photo ops and no public speeches, no pointing fingers at one another and no lecturing each other, only a joint statement that says, ‘The United States and Israel share a deep friendship that spans presidents and prime ministers. We share a commitment to peace and security especially in the Middle East. We both cherish democracy. The United States and Israel will continue to work together to make sure that Israel and the United States remain free and secure.” Hammer out the details about Iran in private. Work out the tough stuff not in the media or Facebook, but in private, arms around each other’s shoulders. Ok, I am a dreamer. But dare we forget our dreams?
By the way I did not think Romney’s visit to Jerusalem offered anything better. He said what Israelis wanted to hear, or at least what some Israelis wanted to hear. Know this. There is a significant percentage of Israelis, perhaps as many as 50%, who disagree with the country’s settlement policy. Romney spoke nothing of this. He said only what many Jewish ears love to hear. My Jewish heart might have been warmed by his words but it was not necessarily what needs to be heard. Give me some loving critique. Show me you really understand the internal challenges Israel faces. How is Israel going to remain both Jewish and democratic while expanding settlements in the West Bank? Offer Israel constructive criticism and advice. I continue to dream. And now some adults might be saying, “My rabbi doesn’t know what’s real. #still-love-my rabbi.”
The Jewish tradition speaks of God as our beloved friend. That is what is suggested by its interpretation of Song of Songs. For modern scholars this biblical text is a love poem that at times borders on the erotic. The tradition, and in particular the mystical Rabbi Akiva, insisted it was a love poem between the people Israel and God. “Hark! My beloved! There he comes, leaping over the mountains, bounding over hills…My beloved spoke to me: Arise, my friend, my fair one, come away!—Kumi lach rayati!” (Song of Songs 2) There is an intimacy that is almost embarrassing. Here are words that should never be posted on someone’s wall. And yet here it is in our Bible speaking about God and Israel. The two are depicted as lovers walking hand in hand, arm in arm.
That is what is implied as well when the Bible speaks of Abraham walking with God. The first Jew is described as walking with God. What does this mean? What does it mean to walk with God? It does not mean that Abraham followed God, although he certainly listened to God’s many demands. It can only mean that there was a certain intimacy between the two. They were friends. God calls Abraham his beloved friend. The two walked together. We can learn a great deal from their interactions. We can discern from their friendship how we are to be true friends.
We can learn especially from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18). In that tale, God first decides to share with his trusted friend Abraham the plan to destroy these sinful cities. And that is the first lesson. God seeks advice and counsel from his friend. Then the most amazing story unfolds. Abraham argues with God. Abraham does not say, “You’re God so it must be a good idea. Besides they are sodomites and they deserve all that fire and brimstone.” Abraham bargains for the sake of those sinful cities. He presses God to relent and to reject the punishment of all for the sake of a few. If Abraham is able to find ten righteous then the cities will be spared. God agrees. God says, “Ok my friend.” Alright, I paraphrased. God does not really say, “Beseder, beseder…habibi.” But God does listen to his friend and Abraham doesn’t say, even to God, “You are wonderful. Whatever you say goes.” In the end the cities are of course destroyed. But Abraham and God continue to walk together. They continue to journey together.
And that is the most important lesson about friendship. The Hebrew for friend is chaver. It means to be joined together. We are bound together for better or for worse, just like Nadav and Aydin, lashed together by their harnesses. But everyone seems to think that we are like every other climber scaling Everest. We act as if we share their ethos of everyman for himself. To even try to save another is to invite too much risk. We are not mountain climbers. We are not scaling the world’s tallest peak.
When Nadav returned to Israel he was greeted with a ticker tape parade and medals. The guy who didn’t make the summit got a parade. Why? Because he understood the meaning of friendship. Of course, there will be no parades for us. There will be no accolades on our walls. We don’t really need such things. We do need to relearn the true meaning of friendship. We cannot live without friends. It is not a matter of numbers. We only need one good friend. Or it might only be a few. But we most certainly can never live in isolation. We can never realize our potential without others. We are nothing without friends. We are nothing if we do not look at others panim el panim, face to face, and walk arm in arm.