“Friendship or death.”
This short quote on friendship packs a powerful punch. Without friendship, the quality of life dwindles. Friendship can save lives; we learn this both in BT Ta’anit 23a and read it in the book of Ruth. Naomi, powerless and alone, rebuilt her life because another woman even more powerless than she, made her a companion for life. Aristotle wrote that, “A friend is a second self, so that our consciousness of a friend's existence...makes us more fully conscious of our own existence.”
I thought, reflecting on the two central texts of Shavuot, to merge the Mount Sinai narrative with story of Ruth and Naomi.
The Ten Commandments of Friendship I’ve Learned from the Book of Ruth:
#1 Under-promise and over-deliver. Naomi tells Ruth not to follow her because she did not want to be responsible for Ruth’s welfare, nor would she be able to find her a husband. But she did, encouraging Ruth to glean in the fields of a relative and prompting Ruth to reach out to Boaz in chapter three. Too many times friends tell you they were going to do something nice but fail to deliver. Intentions are not the same as actions, not in law and not in friendship. It’s better to under-promise and over-deliver.
#2 Be a friend when times are tough. The friendship of Ruth and Naomi emerges from shared loss and shared companionship throughout loss. “Wherever you go, I will go ends with, “Wherever you die, I will die and there I shall be buried.” As people, we are often drawn to success and not distress. Note: friends remember who was there at a shiva and who was at a bedside during illness. They see through us when we do not make the time or effort.
#3 Be a friend when times are good. Don’t only show up for funerals. Dance at weddings, too. After he won the Nobel Prize, Elie Wiesel shared in an interview that he could tell who his friends were by those who took genuine pleasure in his success and shared his joy. True friendship is not feeling like another person’s success takes away from our own or threatens us. It enhances us. Naomi and Ruth are together at the book’s end, sharing in the love of a new child as they shared in mourning at the book’s beginning. Stick around for happy endings.
#4 Friendship isn’t always even. When Ruth makes her magnanimous speech, Naomi does not respond in words. Sometimes we are too personally depleted to offer back much. Sometimes we cannot reciprocate evenly. But life is not even. The great biblical friendships of Naomi and Ruth and David and Jonathan were not even in terms of giving and taking.
#5 Kindness is the glue of great friendships. When Boaz acknowledges Ruth’s difficult journey to Judaism in the same language used to describe Abraham’s journey, he gives her the gift of kindness and validation. He shows her empathy in a world of harshness. A midrash tell us that these two individuals were divided by every external measure: he was 80, she 40. He was rich and influential. She was poor and an outsider; the glue that transcended these factors was their capacity for chesed, loving-kindness.
#6 Friendship is not static. There are cycles of intimacy and distance. When children are little, they have friends for a day. If you share your snack, you are my friend. If not, I will not speak to you. Adults have better snacks, but they don’t always share. Sometimes life interrupts friendship. Good friends understand that friendship is not static. It evolves and changes, just as individual human beings do. We grow out of certain friendships and mature into others. Naomi emerges as a woman who can give more of herself when life begins to nurture her again, and Ruth was there for her.
# 7 Be a giver. We all know friends who are givers and friends who are takers. Ruth and Boaz were givers. Strive to be the giver and not resent the taker. But also identify other givers so that your own friendship energy is replenished, not depleted.
# 8 Great friendship has staying power for generations. The child born to Ruth and Boaz is named Oved. Oved means service in the most authentic sense of the word. Boaz and Ruth saw themselves as servants of others and acted as if serving others was the very purpose of their existence. As a result, their union resulted in someone named for the humility and generosity that translated into the next generation of love.
#9 Great leadership can emerge from great friendships. We all know that we go places by virtue of hard work and connections. Rather than minimize the significance of those you know and leave it all up to meritocracy, we might understand the favor bank in more generous terms. When we invest in social capital, others also invest in us. Ruth’s friendship with Naomi led her to love Naomi’s people, country and God and eventually produce an heir to it all.
#10 The best kind of friend challenges you to be a better self. Naomi becomes a more generous and loving person as a result of Ruth’s unconditional love and nurturing. The older woman learns from the younger and grows as a result. Naomi moves from someone who self-identifies as bitter to someone who can truly love and give again. She does this because her friendship with Ruth is aspirational. Maimonides explains that there are three types of friends: the utilitarian friend, the delightful friend and the ethically inspiring friend. Seek out friends who inspire.
If you’ve learned a friendship commandment from the book of Ruth – or discover one this Shavuot – please send it over.
Happy Shavuot and Shabbat Shalom