Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Accidental Friends

What follows is my Yom Kippur evening sermon.

A friend recently shared the following story with me. A few years ago, the nursery school that he oversees assigned their three-year old’s to classes. Emails were sent to parents informing them of their children’s class assignments. Within an hour, the phone began ringing non-stop. Parents were irate. The school had neglected to accommodate the majority of class placement requests. Little Samuel was not with his best friend David. Abby was not with her best friend Shoshi. They have been best friends for their entire lives—or at least since the day they could say each other’s name, which to be honest was only since they were in the two’s. Parents threatened to remove their children from the school. They demanded refunds—or at the very least, discounts. The requests, however, could not be accommodated. Guess what, the kids all made some new friends. Samuel and David did continue playing on the playground during free time, but Abby and Shoshi were soon just as excited about their new friends. I promise, this is a true story, although I have Hebraicized the names to protect the innocent.

Everyone has heard about helicopter parenting. This is when parents swoop in and pick up their children. They protect them before they can even fall. But if you never fall you can never learn. If we take one certain someone’s favorite example, you certainly cannot learn how to ride a bicycle, if you are never allowed to fall. If you never fall or for that matter, you never take off the training wheels, you cannot learn. Bruises, scrapes and pain are part of learning. I have long believed that if you never know failure, you cannot grow. And yet today’s new term is not called helicopter parents but lawnmower parents. Rather than swooping in and protecting children, lawnmower parenting is about racing ahead and mowing down all the obstacles that stand before our children. For such children the world is perfect. It is manicured grass. I am certain all agree that the world is not even close to being manicured perfection. And yet this is what is happening around us. Let’s be forthright, if you are given the impression at three years of age that life is a beautiful, putting green then you are going to face untold difficulties when you discover that it is not. That day may not come until the age of 15 or even 30, but it will come. The world’s challenges can never be fully smoothed out or mowed down by others. We have to do this for ourselves. We also cannot do this alone.

Friends lift our spirits. They will also of course break our hearts. No one can fix that but ourselves. No one can repair that but our own hard work. Three-year old’s will cry. And by the way, so will thirty-year old’s. People will disappoint. Situations will madden. No one can smooth it but ourselves. The only thing that makes it easier is that you have someone who is willing to stand by your side; you have a friend who will call you a friend no matter how it turns out or even how poorly you respond.

So, let’s talk about making friends. I have a couple of theories about all this. This should come as no surprise. If you are a rabbi, you get to make theories about everything. Here it is. First of all, you have to make friends for yourself. You have to work on friendship yourself. And the second is that our closest friends are often what I would call accidental friends. They are the friends you make because of chance encounters or because you are both thrust into the same situation. It is the person you become friends with because you both happened to sign up for the same yoga or spin class—or even because you are both devotees of the same Peloton instructor. It is the friend you make because you serve together on the same volunteer board or because you happen to sit next to each other in synagogue or because the school puts you in the same class together. Mom and Dad can’t arrange this for you and should not arrange this for you. They certainly should not try to smooth this out for you. And finally, you have to keep making new friends. If all of your friends are made in the two’s then how can you ever grow and change.

It is the accidental friends who move our lives. As I reflect on the many friends who continue to bless my life, with the exception of my brother, who my parents assure me was not an accident, the vast majority grew out of unintended meetings. Speaking about my brother I would say it this way, one day, when I was in the three’s actually, my parents dropped this kid named Mike in my room and they said, “Play nice.” They, more or less, left us alone to figure out this thing called brotherhood. And we have been best friends ever since. I know it does not always work out that way, and I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate. Or let’s take another example, perhaps you become friends with the guy who happened to marry your wife’s best friend. At some point you decide, “Well it looks we are going to be spending a lot of time together, so we might as well be friends too.” And then somewhere along the way you forget about that initial, happy accident. And you imagine you have been friends for a lifetime.

The Bible holds up the friendship between King David and Jonathan as one to emulate. They were like brothers. As the young David was gaining power and renown the first king of Israel, Saul, grew increasingly jealous. He plots to kill David. (This is part of what makes the Bible exciting reading.) Saul’s son, Jonathan, and David’s best friend devise a scheme to protect David. Jonathan saves the young king from certain death. The Bible declares: “Jonathan’s soul became bound up with the soul of David; Jonathan loved David as himself.” (I Samuel 18). But soon Jonathan is killed in a battle against the Philistines. David’s heart is broken. He said, “I grieve for you, my brother Jonathan, you were most dear to me. Your love was wonderful to me.” (II Samuel 1)

Rarely when extolling David’s renown do we recall his friendship with Jonathan. But if not for Jonathan, David would certainly have been killed. If not for Jonathan’s friendship David would not have become the king who unified our people and declared Jerusalem our capital. It was the friendship between David and Jonathan that moved our history 3,000 years ago. Never underestimate the power of friendship. Walking together, with a friend, one can overcome anything. Walking with a friend one can write history. Even King David did not walk alone.

The Bible is silent about how they became friends. One day they found themselves together. Can you ever really pinpoint the moment you declared someone to be your best friend? Can you ever really say it was this day, at this occasion, when we became friends? More likely you were pushed together by some mysterious, and unknown forces that made you into the friends you are today. Maybe, I admit, it was your moms or dads who pushed you together. Still, that opening moment, remains mysterious and unplanned. It is an unscripted piece of the fabric of our lives. We cannot write the script for our children and manicure the lawn for them. We cannot fight to make sure they are only with the friends they already have. Let the accidents happen. Let the coincidences surprise. Let serendipity guide you. It is the accidental friendships that move history and move our own stories.

The worst thing that has happened to friendship is the like button. It has made being friends more a matter of affirmation than commitment. David and Jonathan shared a covenant, a bond. Their lives were bound to each other. In fact, the Hebrew word for friend, chaver, comes from the Hebrew meaning to unite. The measure of David and Jonathan’s friendship was that their souls were bound together. Sure, friends sometimes make you angry. There are times when friends are there for you and times when friends seem to abandon you. But if friendship is about commitment rather than likes it will last. Judaism calls friendship devekut chaverim—clinging to friends. It suggests an enormous amount of work. Holding on tight is exhausting. It demands holding on even when you may not want to. Don’t get too clingy, of course. Hold on to friends and work on that friendship. Being friends requires patience. It requires understanding. It demands forgiveness. Affirmation and likes are nice, but they do not build meaningful relationships. Look into a friend’s eyes rather than through their posts. Sometimes the old-fashioned way is the right way.

The rabbis offer this counsel. “K’nei lecha chaver—acquire for yourself a friend.” (Rabbi Yeshoshua; Pirke Avot 1). It is such an interesting word choice, k’nei. It can be translated as acquire or even purchase. That means friendship entails not only work but sacrifice. Go out and make some friends. Judaism’s great counsel is that we require others. We require others to pray. We require others to learn. We require a friend to uncover truth. Think about this. When studying in traditional circles one always learns in chevruta—a word that is usually translated as fellowship but shares the same root with chaver, friend. You pair up to study this page of Talmud or that page of Jewish philosophy. You sit across the table from another and you read, and you discuss and most important, you argue. You cannot gain true understanding by yourself. You have to sit across the table and look into the eyes of your study partner and debate the meaning of the teaching before you.

I remember years ago when I hiked Wadi Qelt in the desert outside of Jerusalem. There in the canyon’s walls were holes where Christian monks secluded themselves for years on end. Once a day they lowered a bucket to be given their day’s meager rations. I remember staring up at the cliffs and saying to myself, “How un-Jewish.” At the time I was thinking about their paltry food rations. (Did I mention that I don’t very much like fasting?). How can one be religious and not feast? And most especially, how can one be observant and not be surrounded by others? I think about this when I am tempted to retreat and be alone with my books of poetry, or when I take up Wallace Steven’s advice. He said, “Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around a lake.” Stevens might have been right about the walk. But about solitude Judaism says no. True, there is nothing wrong with being alone with one’s own thoughts. The question at hand is, can it lead to discovering more truth. Judaism insists, if you are searching for truth, then go find others. Make a friend. That is the only certain answer to all our questions.

You might think Jewish mystics suggest otherwise. This is not true. Moshe Cordervero, one of the greatest Jewish mystics, who lived in sixteenth century Safed, developed the following spiritual practice. He and his friend, and fellow mystic, and brother in law, Shlomo Alkabetz, who authored one of our favorite Friday night prayers, Lecha Dodi, would go on long walks in the fields surrounding Safed. Their goal was to see where their friendship led them. Cordevero offered this advice: “One should desire the best for his friend, view his good fortune favorably and cherish his friend’s honor as his own.” Imagine if we heeded that advice. Friendship means acceptance. It means relishing in friend’s successes. What they discussed on those walks were recorded in a book called the “Book of Wanderings.” I love that title. Go get lost with a friend. And there you can be found. There you might discover some truth. The mystic offered this advice for taking such walks. #1 always walk with a friend. And #2 only discuss matters of great importance. No discussions about the weather. Or what this person or that is doing or wearing or buying. Discuss Torah. Talk about the world. Argue about weighty matters. Imagine again if we listened to this advice.

Take note. This is Jewish mysticism. It is not about secluding ourselves or divorcing ourselves from the world. It is about binding ourselves to others. We need others to face the world’s challenges. True friendship means that we accept our friend’s strengths and their weaknesses. It is not about affirmation. It is not about always saying, “You look great. You’re so smart.” All those Facebook likes are about looking at friendship from the perspective of what do I gain from this friendship. Social media has transformed friendship into a commodity. Too often we confuse acceptance with such affirmation. We are supposed to be trying to figure out how to better ourselves, how to improve our world, how to face the challenges of tomorrow. We can only do that with friends. It may sound corny, but it is our tradition’s most important counsel. Go on a walk, perhaps even around a lake, but find a friend to go with and talk about really, really important stuff. You may not agree with each other at the end of the walk, but you might get closer to some truth. At the very least you might find the inspiration for some song, perhaps even one as great as Lecha Dodi. That’s what I imagine led to Alkabetz’s writing the words that hundreds of years later continue to move our hearts. And think about this as well. They only became friends because of a marriage. That’s what made them brothers in law. That’s what pushed them together. It was not their choice, but their accidental meeting that wrote their story. Serendipity is what moves history.

Over 70 years ago the State of Israel was founded. Let us breathe that in. On November 29, 1947 the United Nations voted for the partition plan in which there would be Jewish and Arab states in British controlled Palestine. 33 nations voted in favor. 13 against. 10 abstained. Among the countries voting yes was of course our United States, who was then led by President Harry Truman. The reason why the Truman administration voted in favor of the partition plan was in fact the story again of how friendship moves history. That yes vote, as well as the immediate recognition of the State of Israel when Ben Gurion proclaimed it on May 14, 1948, was a result not so much of Truman’s unparalleled leadership but instead the result of his friendship with a Jewish man named Eddie Jacobson.

Truman’s own State Department argued against partition. Zionist leaders clamored to meet with him to convince him otherwise. Truman grew so frustrated with all the pressure that he said he did not want to hear anything more about the partition vote. Jacobson and Truman were lifelong friends. Thrown together during their army years serving in World War I, they later opened a men’s clothing store together in Kansas City. Jacobson was at first hesitant to get involved, but Zionist leaders implored him. And so Jacobson wrote the following letter to Truman: “The lives of one and one-half million souls depend on what happens at the United Nations meeting within the next few weeks. I trust God will give you the strength and guidance to act immediately. I think I am one of the few who actually knows and realizes what terrible heavy burdens you are carrying on your shoulders during these hectic days. I should, therefore, be the last man to add to them; but I feel you will forgive me for doing so, because tens of thousands of lives depend on words from your mouth and heart.” Jacobson continues: “Harry, my people need help and I am appealing to you to help them.” He then adds the most remarkable of conclusions: “Everyone at home is well and my business is keeping up fine. Just enlarged the store and am very proud of it. Wishing you and your family the best of everything, I am; Sincerely, Your friend, Eddie Jacobson.” The rest is history. It is one we know and love. But it’s that last line that made it. “Your friend, Eddie.” Those were the decisive words.

Soon after writing that letter Jacobson hopped on a train to DC and marched into the White House unannounced. He demanded a meeting with his lifelong friend. Truman remained stubborn. He had had it with all the talk about Zionism and the UN partition plan. Remembering that Truman greatly admired Andrew Jackson, Jacobson then pointed to the seventh president’s bust and said, “Weizmann is a national leader cast in the same mold and temperament as the great Tennessee President.” Truman laughed, and told Jacobson to make an appointment for the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann to see him. That was the moment. Jacobson convinced his longtime friend that he must meet with Weizmann and take up the case of the nascent Jewish state.

It is remarkable what some laughter and friendship can accomplish. “Your friend, Eddie.” Sometimes that’s all we need to add and all history requires.

And while we may not be writing history, you never know what a chance meeting, and a new friendship can accomplish. Let go of the script and the plans. Go get yourself a new friend this year, if not to write history, at least to write some new stories, and to discover some new truth.

K’nei lecha chaver—acquire for yourself a friend.

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