Parashat Kedoshim

Rabbi Boaz Tomsky

      The Mishna in Pirkai Avot quotes the words of Yehoshua ben Perachyah. He used to say, "Accept a teacher upon yourself, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge everyone favorably." The words, "acquire for yourself a friend" require further elaboration. I could understand the importance of having one teacher but why only one friend? Shouldn't we strive to be more popular than having just a single companion? Also the manner in which we are advised to make friends goes against the very grain of what we were taught as children. We should befriend people who like us for who we are, not for what we can give them. That isn't a friend, but someone who uses and takes advantage of others. The fact that you need to pay someone to be your friend is a clear indication that you aren't really their friend! Why then, does Yehoshua ben Perachyah advise us to acquire a friend? Finally, what is the significance of the juxtaposition of acquiring a friend and judging everyone favorably? What do these statements have to do with one another?

      In order to answer these questions, we need to examine one of the most famous verses in the Torah. Our Parsha commands Vahavta Lerayacha Kamocha - to love your neighbor as yourself. The Ramban (1194-1270) is troubled by this Mitzvah. It is a daunting task to fulfill this Mitzvah properly if one is actually required to love another person as much as they love themselves. Furthermore, in a situation where two people are dying of thirst and only have sufficient water to sustain one life, you are obligated to take care of your needs first even at the expense of your friend.

      Therefore, the Ramban explains that the Torah is commanding us to rejoice when something good happens to our friends, just as one would rejoice for your own fortune. This too is a difficult task. So very often in our lives, we become jealous at the success of others. It is within our nature to only be happy for someone else when it is for our benefit.

      Rabbi Yochanan Zweig, Rosh HaYeshiva of Talmudic University of Florida, says that this is the source for the custom of handing out cigars when a child is born. If you want someone to rejoice in your simcha, it is necessary to give some external stimuli so that they too will benefit from your celebration. This further explains the expression: ain simcha elah bamakom seudah-rejoicing can only occur in a place where there is food. By receiving something tangible for ourselves, we become more capable and willing to take an active role in someone else's simcha.

      Most translate the Passuk as “love your neighbor”. The more accurate translation of “lerayecha” is a friend or companion. The Ramban is teaching us a novel lesson about friendship. A true friend is someone who is genuinely happy for everything that happens to you, without the need of any personal gain. They are wholehearted and sincere in their rejoicing even when it surpasses their own success.

      Imagine, for a moment, someone else getting the promotion you were hoping for. Imagine attending your friend's wedding while you, although older, remain unable to find a suitable shidduch. How would you feel? What emotions would you experience? If you are completely happy for him in such a scenario, you can be rest assured that you are a true friend.

      This is the meaning of the Mishna. If you can find an individual person with a deep love for you to the point that they are genuinely happy for all of your successes, than you indeed have found a friend.

      There are few people that can honestly say they feel this intense bond with another person. This isn't a trait you are born with. Robert J. Harvighurst, a noted American author of the 1900's, once said, "the art of friendship has been little cultivated in our society." Our Mishna is teaching us that the only way of becoming a true friend is through acquiring this trait of genuineness. This requires a certain degree of selflessness, a trait that needs to be acquired and cultivated.

      Alternately, the Mishna uses the word konah, commonly used with acquiring a servant. The Gemara (Bama Metziah 12A) states that any lost object your servant acquires automatically belongs to the master. Why? Since he was acquired to you as a servant, his gain becomes your gain. The Mishna could be saying konah your friend, like the laws of a servant. Anything beneficial that happens should be viewed in a positive light. Consider yourself equally as fortunate and let his gain be your gain.

      At a wedding, we bless the chatan and kallah with ahavah, achvah, shalom, verayut-love, brotherhood, peace, and companionship. These expressions of devotion are seemingly not written in order of importance. Why does love proceed companionship? Shouldn't it be the other way around? We are teaching the chatan and kallah that marriage is more than just two people sharing their separate lives together. The ultimate level they should strive for is that of friendship, the feeling and sense of companionship for one another. This includes more than just being empathetic toward your spouse during their troubling times, but to sense their pain from within. A spouse should strive to do more than just act happy for each other's personal accomplishments, but to sense their joy from within. Such a relationship, chazal say, is eishto kagufo-the wife is an extension of her husband's very self. This is the goal. This is the ultimate blessing for a healthy marriage, when two become as one.

      A synonymous word for friend in Hebrew is a chaver. Chaver and mechubar-attached share the same root. Friends are, metaphorically speaking, attached to each another just as a strong rooted tree remains firmly attached to the ground. They support each other and complement each other to the point that one's success becomes the joy and pride of the other.

      Someone to care about you on this level could make all the difference. Every person has the ability to reach this level, but it must constantly be refined and cultivated. Without a friend, even the great Choni Hamagil pleaded with HaShem to not continue living. Aristotle (384 BCE- 322 BCE) once said, "Without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods."

      But how could we reach this level of friendship? Yehoshua ben Perachyah answers this by concluding, "judge everyone favorably." If we look at people with a negative and cynical lens, we will never grow. By saying, "he didn't deserve this" or "she isn't entitled to that", in essence what you are doing is judging your fellow unfavorably. If you remain positive and find the positive qualities of each person, it is easier for you to accept their accomplishments and overall success. By judging each other favorably, you become capable of being genuinely happy for your friend's accomplishments. This is the Mishna. This is the pinnacle level for a husband and wife. This is Vahavta Lerayecha Kamocha. This is a true friend. 

First Published May 3, 2003  for National Council of Young Israel Weekly Divrei Torah