There is a story about the Holy Apter Rav, Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel. His Chassidim once asked him, “Rebbe, when your one hundred twenty years on this earth are over… may you live long… what should we write on your grave stone?” The Apter thought for a moment, “When I get up to Heaven, the court will ask me; ‘Did you Daven with all your heart?’ And I will have to admit, ‘I prayed as hard as I could, but, truthfully, I could have done better.’ Then the court will ask, ‘And your learning, did you learn the Torah for real?’ And I will have to reply, ‘I studied the Torah as often and as in depth that I could – but still – I probably could have accomplished more…’ Finally, the court will ask me, ‘And did you really love every Jew with all your heart?’ And to this question alone I can answer ‘Yes, I did.’ So, that is what you should write on my Kever, that I was the Oheiv Yisrael. The one who really loved Klal Yisrael…”
This idea of loving every Jew comes from the famous Pasuk “Love your friend as you love yourself” (Vayikra 19:18), and we know that this is a fundamental rule of the Torah. Friends are perhaps our greatest influence. Who we are around and what we do can have a long lasting effect on our lives. So to surround ourselves with good friends is not only something that’s nice but it’s something we should work hard to do. Rav Dovid Moshe of Chartkov taught, “A close friendship is one to be cherished. By radiating true friendliness, friends can have a positive impact on one another. Superficial, shallow friendship means and accomplishes nothing. Metaphorically this idea is expressed in the Gemara (Shabbos 100b) which says, ‘If two ships belonging to different owners are tied together you may carry an object from one ship to the other, for they are considered as one ship. However, if they are not tied together, not bound to one another, even if they may be docked alongside each other you are not allowed to carry between them for they may drift apart.’ Man can be compared to a ship sailing on the stormy sea of life. The soul too, is like a ship; a ship sent from above to this world that will fulfill a certain task after which it will return to “dock”. Says the Gemara: if two ships are closely connected and bound to one another you may transfer things between them. If two souls are bound together by the strong ropes of a true friendship you can carry between them, meaning you can carry good from one to the other so that one may learn from his friend and his friends learn from him to influence each other for good. But, as the Gemara continues if they are not tied you cannot carry between them; those whose souls are not bound by true friendship even if they are physically close to one another their souls have no connection and we fear they may drift apart. Thus they cannot inspire each other for there is no true rope between them.”
Friends are definitely a big part of and can certainly be beneficial to a person’s growth. In Pirkei Avos we are told to “get ourselves a friend”(1:6). The Gemara in Taanis (7a) also tells us something about friendship, “I have learned much from my teachers, but I have learnt more from my friends.” So again, friends can certainly bring us great spiritual growth, but there are times when our “friends” don’t help us achieve personal growth, and even bring us down to an extent God forbid. “Friends” like these should be distanced from us. There’s a Pasuk in Mishlei(19:4) that connects to this, “Wealth adds many friends, but the poor – his friends are distant”. Many friends can and should add to ones wealth, in Torah, in wisdom, and inspiration. Should we notice, however, our spirituality taking a hit because of these friendships, by those who are “poor”, we must distance ourselves from these friends.
It is still obvious that we must love that person and that we shouldn’t literally distance ourselves, but we can distance ourselves from his negative points, and focus on what is good in him – for to highlight this good is what can transform a person from a sinner into a saint. The Pasuk specifically tells us to love our friend like ourselves because, it isn’t hard to love our self. We don’t need to find excuses and reasons to love ourselves – we just do – so the Torah is telling us, so too by others you should love them unconditionally, without excuses without reasons, for true friendship is someone who loves you unconditionally and cares about you all the time in a deep way. Someone who will be with you through the dark times and the light times – someone who can take away your darkness and show you real light. This is the depth of the Pasuk in this week’s Parsha that during the Plauge of Chosech, “No man saw his friend… No man was able rise up from his place.” (10:23). The worst darkness – the worst Plauge, is the blindness a person can have to his friend – the darkness in which a person cannot “see his friend”, to not notice another person’s misery and help them. One who does “not see his friend” in the times of darkness will not be able to “rise up from his place” – he won’t be able to grow, but a friend who can illuminate our darkness is a friend indeed – a friend who will stand with us and comfort us with an outstretched arm.