Over the years of teaching students in the congregations which I have served as rabbi, one lesson I always try to teach (during the adolescent years) about friendship. By the time they reach middle school age, our growing children in our communities seems to have a definite idea about the most desirable and important elements of friendship.
In a recent discussion with my sixth-seventh grade class at Temple Beth-El on this topic, the students noted that they expect a friend to be honest, trustworthy (able to keep secrets and refrain from gossip), cooperative, intelligent (which can include common sense!), caring, mutually respectful, understanding, sharing/giving, helpful, friendly, loyal, creative, brave and inclusive.
This was a thoughtful and comprehensive list. To add some depth to our conversation, I collected quotations from the Jewish tradition, about which I had students write their comments. Here are some of those quotations, which may also help you define and refine your perspective about friendship.
“Your best friend is the one who is a friend without expecting anything (Rabbi Leon of Modena, 16th Century, Italy).” Rather than seeing a relationships as a negotiation, there is an unconditional aspect to friendship that is mutual.
“My friend is a person who will tell me my faults, in private (Solomon Ibn Gabirol, 11th Century poet, Spain).” This is component of friendship directs us to go beyond the path of least resistance and into the realm of deep honesty, with the intention of making personal improvement possible.
“Friendship is like a treasury: you cannot take from it more than you put into it (Benjamin Mandelstamm, 19th Century, Russia).” Friendship requires attention and work based upon a desire to deepen a valued relationship. The “treasury” may even be the simple knowledge that the other person is there for you, even at a distance, but that only comes with years of dedication and commitment to each other.
“Who keeps a secret is a close friend (Wisdom of Ben Sira 31:2, 2nd Century BC, Apocrypha).” My students understood this crucial element of friendship based on their own experiences. Many of us know how important keeping confidences can be and how we need people in our lives to whom we can say almost anything, knowing it will go no further.
“A friend will prove himself/herself in time of trouble (Moses Ibn Ezra, 11th/12th Century Poet/Philosopher, Granada, Spain).” Our real friends are the ones who remain by our side to see us through even our most difficult challenges.
“Who is the greatest of heroes? A person who makes an enemy into a friend (Rabbi Nathan’s commentary on the Sayings of the Rabbis, 9th Century).” We might think, “Is this even possible?” Some people who agree with each other on everything may be unable to be friends. People who vehemently disagree on a wide range of issues are sometimes able to maintain a strong friendship. This may belong in the realm of “expect the unexpected,” but our world could use a lot more people who can transform enemies into true friends.
Any definition of what makes a true friend will likely grow and change as we move along the life cycle, based upon our own relationships and situations which have demonstrated to us the resilience and persistence of the bonds we develop with people close to us. We know that we need friends because they do enrich our lives and hold us up, as stated nearly 2200 years ago in the Wisdom of Ben Sira: “A good friend is a tower of strength; to find one is to find a treasure.”