Early next month, we celebrate Passover. Often, friends and those more alone are invited to generous and compassionate homes for Passover meals. We have often been the recipient of this mitzvah for the second night.
From this, one might think that such a practice is reflective of a long Jewish principle of valuing friends. But that may not be the case, as I found out after my best friend of 70 years died last Dec. 1. As part of my grieving, I researched what friendship has meant for mental health and in Jewish history. Here is what I found from the literature and asking rabbis from near and far.
Passover celebrates and commemorates our journey to the promised land of Israel. On the way, we received the Ten Commandments. None of these commandments clearly mentions friends. Nor does the Torah. Perhaps the strangers are our would-be friends, or maybe what’s most like friendship is the relationship between God and Moses.
Jewish literature eventually seemed to recognize the omission. There is the friendship of David, who would become King, and Jonathan. Ruth and Naomi seem to qualify because it is a relationship of choice, essential to friendships, though it is based on a prior mother-in-law family relationship. The Talmud emphasizes the greatly desired value of having a friend study Talmud with you.
Friendship plays a role in mental health. It raises self-esteem and provides meaning and joy to life. It is something that we have some control over, which also means that new friends are always possible. Yet, in our divisive and online society, deep friendships, especially for men, seem on their way to becoming an endangered species.
It should be noted that friendship can also at times be harmful to mental health. Unresolvable conflict can arise or one party can be a false friend.
So, how to avoid this kind of friend? The rabbi and physician Maimonides from the Middle Ages wrote that a true friend is someone who is positively involved with most every aspect of the friend’s life. Friendship can also be part of other kinds of relationships. In our Internet age, though the term “friend” is applied widely and casually, some benefits can emerge all along a range of intensity.
Like its omission from the Torah, there is no mourning Shiva ritual for friends, as there is for family. Yes, my friend’s family had a Zoom Shiva, but 10 days later, just a drop in, and 2,000 miles away. Now, in retrospect, I just wonder. Would something, maybe just a designated day, religiously based or not, be helpful to move successfully through the stages of grief? Good and great friends can be that important.