What Makes a Friend

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25 Jun 2018

Last week, I lost a friend.

Do I get to say that, when I can’t remember the last time we spoke or saw each other? When, if I had been tasked with eulogizing him, I wouldn’t have been able to summon up a single anecdote or description, other than the generic “funny” and “smart”?

But he was my friend. He was my friend during the most formative years of my life, when I was a socially-struggling teenager gratefully overwhelmed to have found a place in NCSY’s now-defunct Midwest S’dei Emunah region. I had a whole bunch of friends there, and Yosi was a crucial piece of that experience regardless of what my discouragingly faulty memory would have one believe.

He was funny, and he was smart, and he was more. He was just… him. I can’t think of him without a smile, even if I can’t put into words what made me smile. We did silly things and had fun conversations – meaningful, important ones – even if I can’t seem to recount a single one.

Sometimes, I think, it can be a little daunting to listen to eulogies. We sit, half mourning the person who is gone and half in awe of all the accolades, wondering how all those wonderful things could possibly be true – and whether people will one day say them about us. I know I’m not alone in this occasional sense of inferiority, because I’ve heard it from others. We mourn the passing of someone’s grandmother who always had a plate of cookies ready, and the grandmothers among us wonder whether they should be baking with their grandchildren more (or at all). We mourn someone’s mother who is lauded as tireless, selfless, and infinitely encouraging, and the mothers among us wish they hadn’t snapped at the kids in a moment (or five) of impatience the other day (and the other day, and the other…). We mourn someone’s friend who was always available to help or just offer a shoulder and an ear, and the aspiring friends among us wonder how they can ever make the time to live up to that example and which of their qualities others would really miss, if they were gone.

It’s hard, sometimes, to pinpoint what it is about others that makes them mean so much to us – and sometimes it’s hard to sense what it is about us that means so much to others.

I remember when I got engaged, the director of the program I was in called me into his office, full of excitement, wishing me a hearty mazel tov and wanting to hear about my chasan. “Tell me about him!” he exclaimed with a huge smile. “What’s his penimiyus like?”

His what?

I sat frozen for a second, managed to mumble something, and then escaped to go wonder whether it was a bad sign that I couldn’t define the essence of my fiancé’s internal nature at the drop of a hat.

Fortunately for our continued relationship, he demonstrated the answer himself when I told him about the conversation and he responded “I have penimiyus? Is it contagious?”

Ah, yes, there it was. I still couldn’t define it, but I was reassured. This would work out just fine.

The incident reminded me of something my friend’s mother had once said, that everything in life was more fun with her husband there. She didn’t say “I love him because he’s the most ____,” though I’m sure she could have provided descriptions if asked. The main thing, what made him important to her and the man she wanted to spend her life with, was the very knowledge that she preferred to have him in her life.

Maybe other relationships are the same way. I have friends that make sense on paper, and friends that don’t. Sometimes we’re brought together by shared experiences, or a similar perspective on life, or a shared sense of humor… and sometimes, I have no idea why we like each other. Do we need to define all those relationships and list the ways each friend is important? Or can we simply say “This is a good person to have in my life” because we just know it to be true?

We are instructed in Pirkei Avos “קנה לך חבר” – “acquire for yourself a friend” (1:6). Some commentaries, such as Rambam, discuss at length the different types of “friendship” and which type is so important it must be acquired at all costs, while others leave it as is. “A friend.” Maybe it doesn’t matter what type, what brought you together, or the precise nature of your interactions. Maybe not everything has to be defined or measured. Maybe some friendships are just there, pure, beyond our understanding. Maybe we all mean something to someone even if we’re occasionally grumpy, we don’t bake, and we haven’t called in weeks.

We shouldn’t minimize the value of those connections, however they play out into friendship or acquaintanceship or marriage or whatever. All positive connections are valuable.

At the risk of sounding cheesily like a certain childhood hero of mine, each of us really is “special, just for being you.” We’re all more important to others than we could ever realize, in ways we and they might never be able to fully define.

While those close to Yosi, especially more recently, have shared specific descriptions and anecdotes in recent days, others of us can’t seem to manage more than “He was just…Yosi.” Those who knew him, I think, understand how much that really says, even if we can’t articulate it.

I can’t define your penimiyus, Yosi, but you had it, and it was contagious. Every time I try to remember some specific conversation or anecdote to bring some comfort, the best I can do is picture the look on your face when we talked. I see your smile, and I can’t help but smile too. I see the attention in your eyes but also the twinkle, letting me know that you understood and respected me yet wouldn’t make the mistake of taking either one of us too seriously. Life was more fun with you there.

I wish you could know, Yosi, how heartbroken we all are at your loss. Even those who, like me, had barely been in touch for years. I wish you could know how we are all lamenting that we missed our opportunity to maintain an active friendship with you for all those years, and how important you were (are) to each of us regardless. That we are sharing resolutions, because of you, to reach out to our dear old friends more often. That maybe we’ll actually do it.

I wish all of us could know and remember, when struck by those occasional bouts of insecurity or a sense of inferiority, that there are people out there we care about who may not even know it, and that there are certainly people out there who care about us though we may not know it. Even if we can’t quite articulate what it is about each other.

And I wish, at times like this, that we would all just tell each other already. Because all those positive connections are worthy of investment. Acquire for yourself a friend, and don’t let go.

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.