Friendship in Jewish Thought


Arnold Lobel, Title page from Days with Frog and Toad, 1979. Graphite, ink, and wash on paper,
19 15/16 x 15 15/16 in. (matted). Courtesy of The Estate of Arnold Lobel. Copyright © The Estate of Arnold Lobel.
Frog and Toad and the World of Arnold Lobel is a new exhibition at The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM). Although frogs play an important role in the epic biblical Exodus story, Lobel’s playful illustrations do not immediately conjure Pharoahs, plagues, and ancient Egypt. Rather, these are stories about the friendship between two amphibians.

My title at The CJM is Jewish Community Liaison. While much of my work is in the “liason” area, fostering relationships with local organizations, I also like to highlight the Jewish part, which had me wondering what insights about friendship might we find in Jewish texts?

When I first asked myself this question, I immediately thought of, “Aseh lecha rav, v’kaneh l’cha haver,” from Pirke Avot 1:6 translated approximately as “make for yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a friend.” I have always thought of this as a pillar teaching of Jewish living—to have a friend. But the verbs of this little guideline for good living seem reversed—don’t we “make” friends and “acquire” teachers? What is this passage trying to tell us?

In my quest for sources on friendship, I was surprised by the paucity of references in the Torah. Most of the human relationships described are in relation to family, enemies, or priests. I found the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” (Leviticus 19) which could be interpreted as a reference to friendship. There’s Jonathan and David in the Book of Samuel, who remain true friends even when it seems David will receive Jonathan’s royal inheritance; Ruth and Naomi demonstrate steadfast companionship in the Book of Ruth, when Naomi encourages her daughter to return to her family home, but Ruth insists on staying with Naomi. “Where you go, I will go, where you lay down, I shall lay down. Your people will be my people, and your God shall be my God,” Ruth declares. These are amazing commitments between people who are not related. But about friendship in general, I could not find much in the text sources.

The Hebrew word for friend is haver. I learned from scholar Rachel Adler that the root of this word, CH-B-R means “to join together at the boundaries.” The curtains of the tabernacle, for instance, are chevrot isha el achotah, joined one to another. Friends, like curtains, help to protect us from overexposure and help us to reveal ourselves. Like curtains in our homes, friendship is part of our daily lives, it helps us to wake up in the morning. The friendship between Frog and Toad shapes their lives, revealing and forming each of them.

Another word that shares the same root as “haver” is the Aramaic” hebruta, which refers to the practice of learning in pairs, described in the Talmud and still favored in Yeshivas to this day. The Babylonian Talmud suggests “Two scholars sharpen one another,” through discussion and debate, forming each other’s insight into the text (Ta’anit 7a).

Arnold Lobel, “The Story,” final illustration for Frog and Toad are Friends, 1970. Graphite, ink, and wash on paper with pasted text, 15 7/8 x 19 15/16 in. (matted). Courtesy of The Estate of Arnold Lobel.
Copyright © The Estate of Arnold Lobel.

In another Talmudic reference (Ta’anit 32s) the speaker says, “give me friendship or give me death” (o havruta o mituta). Checking in with a friend at the end of a long day has kept me going through difficult times. What would life be without our friends? We may not all have familiarity with these esoteric sources, but many of us grew up with examples of strong friendships in popular culture, such as Winnie-the-Pooh and Eyore; Ernie and Bert; and Fred Flinstone and Barnie Rubble, just to name a few.

For me, friendship requires mutuality, a dialogue. Rabbi Donniel Hartman writing on the results of the Pew Survey said, “the human being is still a social animal in need of community, particularity, and individual connections. We are still in need of partners, friends, services, assistance, guidance, and leadership at different moments of our lives. We still experience moments when a connection to our past is a source of strength and inspiration.”

I will leave you with one last quote from Frog and Toad, the series of books that inspired this inquiry. I hope we will draw strength and inspiration from each other.

“After a long day when Frog wanted to be alone and Toad was worried about their friendship, Frog declares,
I am happy. I am very happy.
This morning when I woke up
I felt good because
the sun was shining.
I felt good because
I was a frog.
And I felt good because
I have you for a friend…”
(from “Days With Frog and Toad” by Arnold Lobel.)

Grab a friend and come visit The CJM.


About the Author
Elizheva Hurvich has served as Jewish Community Liaison at the Contemporary Jewish Museum since March 2011. Native to Northern California, she had an eclectic childhood infused with Jewish life, art, and adventure. She holds a master’s degree in Jewish Art and Material Culture from the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University. This creative world-traveller lives in Oakland with her life partner Robert, their son, dog, and fish.

Comments

Sigal said…
Thank you, Elizheva. Wonderful piece of writing which leaves each of us to think some more!
What a discussion around a table and finding the appropriate language can do !
Shari said…
I'm so happy to have you as my incredible friend, Elizheva (and to be related is a huge added bonus!). Great blog - I'm looking forward to more! I loved how you combined Torah and other sources to build a message of caring and the importance of friendship. Kol Hakavod!
Fraidy Aber said…
Elizheva, you inspire me! Thank you for helping me reflect on friendship in our lives and teaching me some Torah too. The references you wove together are powerful and so sweet to think about in the context of the endearing friendship of Frog and Toad. Thank you!
barry barkan said…
Elisheva, I am blessed to be your friend. Thank you for spreading the seeds of friendship and community.
Sandra Razieli said…
A lovely way to begin blogging - especially since you have not only been a great friend to many, you have also guided many people of all ages to deepen and develop their friendships.

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