Thirty-year old Colin Weatherby, is a staff writer at the website Buzzfeed who moved to California from New York to start a new job. But when Colin arrived in his new city, he had a lot of trouble making new friends. Sure, he had plenty of friends in his old city, longtime friends from high school and college—there was nothing particularly odd or unlikable about Colin, just that being all alone in a new city as an adult made it really hard to meet people. But instead of inviting over his colleagues from work or joining a gym, Colin took the friend search one step further. With an old fashioned stapler and Xeroxed fliers, he went around town hanging his own personal ad: it simply read, “Hi I'm Colin, I'm new to town and I'm looking to make friends. If you are interested, here is my email and phone number.”

Sophie, a responder to the ad, met Colin over tacos and beer. She said, "I think one of the hardest things about making friends is admitting that you want to make new friends. You feel like, when you're an adult you should already have friends and you should already understand your place in the world. Admitting that you need or want friends is a way of admitting you may not have parts of your life in order." Sophie validated Colin’s idea that perception and ego often stand in the way of people reaching out to one another. We have to set aside our assumptions about what it means to be vulnerable and acknowledge that if we’re feeling lonely, no one is going to fault us for trying to get out there, being persistent, and work on making friends. [1] 

It's hard to talk about friendship where adults are concerned. In fact, most contemporary research in the field of friendship is focused on children and adolescence, overlooking the fundamental value friendship brings to middle and later life. In her book, The Friendship Fix, Psychologist Andrea Bonior notes how common it is for adults to feel like they are in need of friendships at every new turn. Life transitions like relocation, a job change, a divorce, marriage, becoming a parent, or an empty nester, can cause us to grow apart from old friends. Bonior acknowledged that finding ourselves in a position to want new friends undoubtedly leaves us feeling alone, embarrassed, and confused. She also acknowledges that there are not many official friendship courting rituals, and that navigating the friendship building process can be downright confusing. The internet offers an expanse of opportunities to meet new people—from meetup.com to the standard Facebook; we know there are many friends created through social networking. But while Web-based friendships may be interesting, entertaining, and enhance social capital, they rarely seem to replace the strong bonds we truly seek.[2]

We seek out friendship because it is crucial to our feelings of wellbeing and personal happiness. Friends, past and present, help us to know ourselves better, inspire us to reach goals, and help us develop emotional intimacy. Through our friendships, we define our priorities and express who we want to be as people.

Jewish tradition too teaches us to value friendship. Judaism defines friendship as one of the primary relationships in life; a tie at times which exceeds even blood. Arguably the most important aspect of friendship in Judaism is the notable lack of contract. While other relationships are characterized by a series of duties clearly defined in the Torah, from parenthood to marriage to business associations, there are no such measures of propriety or legality among friends. Of course, friends do have obligations to one another. But friendship becomes both freer and more fragile than any other kind of relationship. All acts of kindness or support among friends are entirely voluntary. This is one of the reasons why true friendship is a prized virtue in the eyes of our sages. It is goodness compelled by no other force than the desire to do good.[3]

A famous friendship from our Talmud illustrates this balance of freedom and fragility in our relationships: Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan couldn't have been more different at first glance. Lakish was a big and burly man whose humble pedigree was that of a common bandit. Yochanan was a small and delicate man who spent his days in the yeshiva studying and taking on disciples. The relationship these two men build can only be described in today's terms as a bromance.

While bathing by the river Jordan, Rabbi Yochanan notices the great strength and size of Lakish and sees in him—not his criminal past, but the potential to be a great teacher of Torah. Yochanan invites him to join the Yeshiva, to leave his vagabond lifestyle behind in exchange for the pious one of study and spiritual discipline. Lakish is taken back by the interest Yochanan shows to him and agrees to start on this new journey with his new found friend.

As chevruta study partners, the men spent their days combing through the details of Torah until Lakish indeed became a great and learned man like Yochanan. Yochanan loved teaching Lakish precisely because he was not like his other students. Lakish had lived outside the Yeshiva walls and brought his worldly experience and real life challenges to Torah. And Lakish loved learning from Yochanan who day by day increased his connection to God, tradition, and personal holiness. It was said that for every line of Torah they read, Lakish would ask 24 different questions and Yochanan would think of 24 different answers. They were the Lennon/McCartney of the Yeshiva—balancing each other in beautiful brilliance and love.

Years later, when Reish Lakish died, Rabbi Yochanan was distraught beyond repair. His students noticed their teacher moping and crying and said to one another: "How can we console Rabbi Yochanan? They sent him their smartest student to be his new chevruta, but this student wouldn't do. Every time a question arose Rabbi Yochanan would recall “When I studied with Laksish he would ask me twenty-four questions, and I would respond with twenty-four answers. What do you ask? He tore his garment, and wept, crying, "Where are you, Reish Lakish? Where are you?" He was crying out until he lost his mind. So his students asked for mercy on him and he passed away.[4]  There is related Jewish teaching, “Either Friendship or Death.”[5]

We learn from Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan that friendship is much deeper than just a social connection. Friends learn from one another and are unafraid to challenge each other. In the spirit of always helping one another grow into the best people we can be, our Talmud teaches that Friendship fulfills three major functions of Jewish life: The first is greater success at Torah study. The second, to help us fulfill mitzvot; and third, to be a trustworthy confidant and provide good advice.[6]

So often I with meet members of our community who share stories of their search for friendship. You say, "I just moved to the area and I'm really hoping to meet other Jewish adults" or, “I think the temple is a place where I can find others who share my values.” Maybe it’s, “I want to celebrate Shabbat and holidays with others.” And in the religious school, it's most explicit, “I want my child to make Jewish friends!” Your stories serve as a reminder to us all that we come to this Jewish community at our most basic level in search of connection to others. Friendships have the potential to bring us closer to the godliness in others, and ourselves. Building friendships is part of the holy work of this congregation. I am confident that if we are willing to do the work, we can even better fulfill the three major functions of friendship that our Talmud places before us:

We’ll start with Torah:

The rabbinic world of study is centered upon the concept of chevruta, of studying in pairs. Pirke Avot commands us to, “Get for yourself a teacher; acquire for yourself a friend.” (Pirke Avot 1:6) At the center of this model is a shared pursuit of improving ourselves and our lives, primarily through the study of Torah.

An article published in the Jewish Forward just a few weeks ago shares the personal journey to Torah study of the author Laura Diamond. In it she writes, “I used to think Torah study was for pious Jews who kept two sets of dishes, wore kippot 24/7, and believed in a God that intervened.” She imagined a room filled with serious men in black hats, murmuring in unintelligible Hebrew. Just looking around THIS room, you may be able to see where this story is headed. The big secret Diamond discovered about Torah study is it’s not really studying — It is a dynamic conversation about what it means to live with meaning, purpose, and compassion. In every class Laura attended, she felt as if she unlocked a spiritual truth that she was seeking. But we can’t do it alone! When we are in a class with people also pursuing questions of deep meaning, we come to realize the people sitting around the table are our chevruta, or chaverim-friends. It is taught that when two people study Torah, the divine presence sits between them.[7]

It might feel intimidating at first to begin studying as an adult, but I can assure you that everyone brings wisdom to share. And, Saturday morning Torah study is not all I’m referring to when I use the all-encompassing “Torah Study.” There are ample opportunities for education going on at PTBE. Hebrew classes, Israel conversations, Movie Midrash, parent learning opportunities in our Ed Programs, even cooking classes—all are ways to get to know the other members of this congregation while pursing shared interests.

Which brings us to our next function, the fulfillment of Mitzvot:  

As Jews, we join together to do the work of making this world a better place, and our time on this earth more meaningful. Social justice commitments, pPrayer services, and holiday celebrations, challenge us to be our best selves. When you put your arms around someone as you sing Oseh Shalom, when you pass a PB&J Sandwich down an assembly line, eat a nosh in our Sukkah, or cook a meal for Home and Hope, you have the chance to engage with others in a different way than you would over a dinner downtown, a night at the theater, or over a game. Friendships cultivated in these sacred moments allow for reflection, intimate sharing, and open our hearts to the world and each other in a way that secular activities just don’t.

We also know we are a part of this community to give and receive support. I remember one of the first shiva minyanim I led for a member of the congregation. It was for a man, active in Brotherhood, whose father had died back east. No one here attended the funeral, no one even knew the deceased, but over 20 of the bereaved Brotherhood friends showed up at this man’s house with dessert, drinks, company, and support for their fellow brother—because it was a mitzvah. We also celebrate at each other’s simchas. I remind you that for b’nai mitzvah, no invitation is needed to join in services, and everyone who attends is always invited to stick around for some frosted challah. Every card you receive after a death in the family, every phone call you get to wish you a happy holiday, every name read aloud on a misheberiach list, has the potential for a deeper connection. The more you participate in the rhythm of Jewish life, the more relationships you will build.

And our third function of friendship:

Acting as a trustworthy Confident. In other words, be available for one another and be a mensch. Sometimes our congregation gathers just to enjoy being together, and that’s important too. Drinks for a parent’s night out, Shabbat dinners, brunches, bowling outings, baseball, poker games, and overnight retreats are all part of what we do because we understand that Jewish friendships strengthen Jewish identity.

It just takes effort. We are all busy with careers, partners, and families, but building relationships is not the place to cut corners! We can't call ourselves a community if we don't know each other! Our expectations don't have to be huge, but we have to make some effort.

To help, I’ll offer you some Cliff Notes from the original self help book, Dale Carnegie’s 1936, How to Win Friends and Influence People. In helping to make new relationships in the congregation start with a smile; just be happy to be here, it attracts others. Wear a name tag so we can learn each other’s names, and don’t be ashamed if you forget—just ask! Ask people about themselves and then listen with genuine interest—you may have things in common. I’m going to throw in some of my own here too. First and foremost, please introduce yourself to a stranger whenever you are in the temple, whether for a service, a class or school drop-off and pick-up. Just say: "I'm following up on Rabbi Lisa’s sermon and wanted to say, hi.” Exchange contact info (Helpful Hint: It’s also in our temple directory). Follow up with each other on social media. If you are coming to a program or event, let each other know—better yet—invite each other along. And don’t stop there! Go out for dinner, dessert, or make a play date for your kids. These are the rituals we must create in order to make relationships happen. We have to be the ones to say, “Hineni” I’m ready to take the first step in a journey towards new friendships.

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber calls attention to the life-giving distinction we must make if we are to value, respect, and take responsibility towards each other. He distinguishes between relating to others in an objectifying, utilitarian way he calls It in contrast to relating to each other and the world in the most present way as Thou. Only if we address the other as Thou do we acknowledge the full dignity of our personhood. And when the relationship of I and Thou takes root, then deeply human ties of respect, affection, and shared commitments grow into committed and close relationships we come to call friends. It is within those friendships where God dwells. God is the meeting place for all meaningful human experience and interaction. According to Buber, one encounters God through one’s encounters with other human beings. He writes, “Meet the world with the fullness of your being and you shall meet God.”[8]

Dear God, on this Yom Kippur help us to see the holiness in the relationships we share, let us not take them for granted, but be reminded of the sacred roles they play in our lives. Allow us to feel connected to our congregation and to the community here that allows us to pursue sacred work, as we meet one another, and open our eyes to the potential friendships we have yet to create here. For it is in our friendships that we can come to know you.

Amen.


[1] “How to Make Friends the Grown-Up Way.” The Brian Lehrer Show. WNYC http://www.wnyc.org/story/why-cant-we-be-friends/

[2] Andrea Bonior, Ph.D. The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing, and Keeping Up with Your Friends. MacMillian, 2011.

[3] M. Sarko. “Friendship in Judaism” Blog: Judeo Talk http://judeotalk.com/article/friendship-judaism#sthash.8bC5ZFMc.dpuf

[4] Adapted by Rabbi Lisa Kingston from Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 84a

[5] Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 23a

[6] Marlene Myerson. “Cleaving to Friends: Middah Dibuk Chaverim. (www.reformjudaism.org/cleaving-friends-middah-dibuk chaverim#sthash.SR9XImHh.dpuf)

[7] Laura Diamond. “How I Gained an Unlikely Love for Torah- And a Guatamalan Daughter. The Forward. August 4, 2015. (http://forward.com/culture/318158/how-torah-study-changed-our-lives/)

[8] Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachimi. “The Experience and Nearness of God.” www.myjewishlearning.com