Parshas Chayei Sara (5777)
Stephen Ambrose, in his book, Comrades, writes:
“Friendships are different from all other relationships. Unlike acquaintanceship, friendship is based on love. Unlike lovers and married couples, it is free of jealousy. Unlike children and parents, it knows neither criticism nor resentment. Friendship has no status in law. Business partnerships are based on a contract. So is marriage. Parents are bound by the law. But friendships are freely entered into, freely given, freely exercised."
This is the typical Western view of that most precious of relationships. No strings attached, no criticism, no responsibility - just be my friend and don't bother me.
It is very telling that a popular saying in our North American culture is: A dog is a man's best friend. The dog may bark at us, but he'll never criticize us. He may smile at us and make us feel good, but he'll never point out our flaws and make us feel like we need to change. Basically, our relationship with our dog is hassle-free (at least until it poops all over the couch!), and that's probably why it's considered our best friend.
"DO YOU KNOW A NICE JEWISH GIRL FOR MY SON ISAAC?"
As with many things, however, the Torah has a completely different view of friendship, as illustrated by a very strange story recorded in this week's portion, Parshas Chayei Sarah.
Abraham and Sarah, like all good Jewish parents, were getting worried about their son, Isaac. He was already pushing 40 with no good local marriage prospects in sight. So they decided to send their trusted servant Eliezer to find a nice girl for Isaac from their old hometown, Charan (see Genesis Chapter 24).
Eliezer traveled the distance, and when he approached the watering hole outside town, he said the following prayer to the Al-mighty: "When I approach the well to get a drink, if a young girl shall offer me fresh water from her pitcher, and, without my asking, also offer to draw more water to quench the thirst of all my camels - she is the one who is fitting to marry into the illustrious family of Abraham and Sarah. So, please, G-d, help me be successful in finding the right girl".
Well, to make a long story short, along came Rebecca and offered Eliezer and his camels plenty of water to drink, and she then consented to travel back to Canaan with Eliezer in order to marry Isaac. (And they lived happily ever after... )
Wow! What an unbelievable story! I mean .... would you choose your spouse for a lifetime just because you bumped into her at a bar, and she bought you a drink and even offered to fill up your car with gas?! Let's get real!!
A WIFE IS A MAN'S BEST FRIEND
The truth is that we are being taught here a very valuable lesson in what it means to be a true friend. You see, in the Torah system of values, it's not the dog that's your best friend - it's your spouse. The Talmud teaches that when the Torah writes in Leviticus, "Love your friend as you love yourself", it is referring to your spouse, your true best friend.
Whom Eliezer was looking for as an appropriate wife for Isaac, was someone who possessed an exquisite sensitivity to the needs of others, like a true friend should. Because the very core of a good husband/wife relationship is that they be each other's best friends. Isaac's wife must be a person who will not only be there when her husband requests her help, but will anticipate his unspoken needs and respond to them, as well. And when Rebecca not only gave Eliezer to drink, but anticipated the need he had to water the camels - without his asking – he knew that she possessed the sensitivity that is so basic to a good relationship.
Friends, in the Torah view, must be able to anticipate our spiritual needs as well. Sometimes, whether we realize it or not, we need someone to give us advice or criticism about a flaw in our character, or about a problem in the way we are handling a relationship. But we are naturally resistant to such criticism, even when it comes from someone whom we know loves us very much, like our spouse or close friend. We might say to him/her, "When I ask you for advice, you can give it to me!"
But we are then missing the entire point of what friendship is meant to be. Precisely when I don't open myself up to my friend or spouse, but desperately need his/her help, is when that friendship is needed most. It's when I don’t ask for help, but truly need it, that the advice and assistance of my true friends is most crucial.
And think about this - if my wife or best friend won't spur me on to become a better, and more refined, human being, through sensitively presented advice and criticism ... then who else will? That's what friends are really for! And that's also why good friends are so hard to come by.
"WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE, I NEED ENEMIES"
King David writes some really strange words in Psalms 92:12: "My eyes have seen my enemies; when those who would harm me rise up against me - my ears have heard". My ears have heard what? What exactly were David's enemies saying that he was so interested in hearing?
The Bible commentators explain that King David realized that whatever faults and flaws he might have - he sure couldn't count on his "friends" to point them out to him. They would just smile at him, make him feel good about himself – much like our dog friends do - but never would they "risk the friendship" by commenting on something they felt he needed to improve upon in his relationship with them or with others.
King David's enemies, on the other hand, could always be counted on to point out to him every possible perceived flaw in his character - and, more often than not, there was a grain of truth in their accusations.
So that whenever his enemies would rise up against him - and that happened quite often in his lifetime - King David would perk up his ears, and listen closely to what they were saying, hoping to pick up on important things he could never hear from his friends.
Now that is a very different way of looking at the world - but one, I believe, that reflects the essence of true friendship. So if we are fortunate enough to have a true friend - or to have married one - who is there for us at all times, and who is sensitive to all our needs and problems way before we express them ourselves, and who can tell us things we need to hear even if they aren't always so flattering … then we are truly way ahead of the game.