Marc Katz

Beyond Virtue - The True Meaning of Friendship - Kol Nidre Sermon

Marc Katz
Beyond Virtue - The True Meaning of Friendship - Kol Nidre Sermon

One of the most tragic scenes in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby appears toward the middle of the book. After hosting a party, the narrator, Nick Carraway observes the wealthy and mysterious protagonists of the novel, Jay Gatsby standing by a window, watching as the other guests leave. Gatsy is filled with emptiness. Looking out at his admirers he is “endowed with complete isolation.”

Rich with friends, fame, and money, Gatsby had everything. Living in a world of comfort and company, Gatsby was constantly surrounded by people. They praised his virtues, worshipped his social standing, and loved his successes. Yet in spite of these things, Gatsby felt entirely alone.

A little more than a century earlier, a similar scene took place in the life of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav. A great rabbi, with many followers, Nachman should have been overjoyed when in the midst of his students. They loved him for his learning. They adored his compassion. They drank full his wisdom. Yet, the more they fawned over his presence, the more Nachman shrunk into himself.

Nachman famously found spiritual fulfillment by going into the woods, where he would speak aloud words to God in a solitary practice known as “hitboddedut.” Yet, that same outpouring of heart, that same openness and emotive power was unavailable to him when around his followers.

In his biography of Nachman, Rabbi Arthur Green observed that when surrounded by his students, Nachman would feel the most alone. He would fade into himself saying “When everyone is standing around me and I am seated in their midst - that is when I practice hitbodedut.”

Though he was beloved, Nachman was misunderstood. He was a “hidden and lonely figure” asked to perform in the midst of his “admiring crowd.” They saw his allure, they praised his magnetism, but this wasn’t enough. Like Gatsby, he was utterly lonely.

Both Gatsby and Nachman were loved and admired, but neither were happy. On the surface, the reason for their isolation was the knowledge that their friendships were dependent on something else. For Gatsy it was power and money. For Nachman it was learning and charisma. And as the Talmud teaches, “Any love that is dependent on something, when that thing perishes, so too does the love. [But a love] that is not dependent on something, does not ever perish” (Avot 5:16).

Yet, in addition to this explanation, there is something else at play. Both Gatsy and Nachman were victims of a fundamental fallacy about friendship that has been around since philosophers first explored the idea. Aristotle famously wrote that the highest form of friendship, is two people who are equally good and resemble one another in virtue. In other words, our friendships blossom when we meet others who share similar good traits with us. I value intelligence in myself, so I meet someone who shares a similar intelligence. Being compassionate is important to me, so I seek out others who are also compassionate.

For thousands of years, Aristotle's definition of friendship became the way all good peer relationships were measured. Am I proud to be your friend, do I admire your goodness, do we greet one another with affection, admiration, and kindness? Then we deserve to be friends. But if I fail in these tasks, it makes sense to let my friendship go.

This idea even made its way into Jewish thought. Maimonidies famously wrote about friendship that “a person must associate with the righteous and dwell near the sages in order to learn from them.” (Deot 6:1)

Yet, it was this definition of friendship that was the reason that Gatsby and Nachman were utterly lonely. We are not the sum of our virtues. We are not only goodness and intelligence, kindness and honor. Yes, these are important but we are also our brokenness and our worries, our sufferings and our remorse.

Our tradition understands that our beauty is in our complexity. They liken the creation of humanity to the building of a city with underground chambers, passages, and caves. Although, our Rabbis understood that God, who was the architect of this city, could easily find us when we hide within the crevices of these caves, they acknowledge that others cannot. To be human is to be created with a complex inner life that others cannot access. Maybe this is the reason that the blessing we recite when we see a large group of Jews is “Blessed are you God...the Knower of Secrets.” No one but God has the capacity to see deep within us and know what we hide from others.

Like Gatsby and Nachman, many of us have much hidden within the walls we have built. And like them, unable to share these burdens we hold them inside, trapped and toxic. For some their damage is benign but for others it is malignant, eating away at the core of our self-worth. While certainly some of the ownness to unearth these messier parts of ourselves falls on us, much more falls on our community to unite and redefine the terms of friendship.

Writing in her magnificent memoir, The Odd Woman and the City, Vivian Gornick explains:

Today we do not look to see, much less affirm our best selves in one another. To the contrary, it is the openness with which we admit to our emotional incapacities - the fear, the anger, the humiliation - that excites contemporary bonds of friends. Nothing draws us closer to one another than the degree to which we face our deepest shame openly in another’s company...What we want is to feel known, warts and all: the more warts the better. It is the great illusion of our culture that what we confess to, is who we are.

Yom Kippur is a day for confessing. And if we do it right, we open ourselves up to the raw truths of our existence. We bring ourselves closer to God by revealing real certainties about our faults and flaws. Honesty is the hallmark of the day. But how often do we withhold authentic truths from those we love? How often do we fear confessing a part of ourselves because we worry that it is too ugly?

True friendship, says philosopher Alexander Nehamas should not be easy, but honest. It should be akin to way we see art. Art can be disturbing, it can make us uncomfortable, it can push us, prod us, and challenge us. And often we can grow to love a picture or a song and we cannot understand why. But the more we engage with a piece of art, the most we appreciate its uniqueness, and the more attached we will grow to it. People, he says, are the same way. Our virtues make us beautiful, but no more than our blemishes. Friendship doesn’t have to be easily understood or easily stomached. The hallmarks of friendship are not simply goodness and value but also openness, honesty, and truth.

Today is Kol Nidre and a few moments ago, we heard chanted one of the most haunting and beautiful melodies in the Jewish musical cannon. But in our rush to make it there, we often overlook the prayer that appears directly beforehand.

By the authority of the heavenly court and of the earthly court: with the consent of God and this congregation, we give permission to pray with avaryanim, with sinners in our midst.

Much ink has been spilled over defining these avaryanim. For some, they are people whose sins are so grievous that they are facing excommunication. For one day, because Yom Kippur is so central to Jewish practice, we allow these people back in to pray with the community.

Yet for others, the presence of these avaryanim takes on a more spiritual element. The Talmud explains, “Any fast that does not include the presence of Jewish sinners is not a fast.” (Keritot 6b). Our rabbis take their proof for this statement from galbanim, a certain foul smelling spice that was mixed up into the cocktail of incense used in Temple times during sacrifices. Just as the Temple service would not be whole without the uncomfortable smell of the galbanim, a community needs everyone to feel whole. We need those that comfort and those that test us, those that celebrate and those that struggle. Today, we stand here, a congregation on the brink of another year. Are we doing enough as a community and as individuals to foster the deep relationships that would sustain the Gatsbys and Nachmans in our midst.

It’s hard to be present in another’s pain. We don’t know what to do with another’s tears. We worry that when we face the demons within others, we will see reflected parts of ourselves we don’t like. So we build a fence around our friendships admiring from afar but failing to get too close.  Yet, while this version of friendship may have been good enough for Aristotle, it is not good enough for us.

We need relationships like the kind described by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev who was once visiting the owner of a tavern in the Polish countryside. When he walked in, he saw two peasants at a table, gloriously drunk. Arms around each other, they were protesting how much they loved each other. Suddenly, Ivan turned to Peter, “Peter, tell me, what hurts me?” Bleary eyed, Peter looked at Ivan. “How do I know what hurts you?” Ivan replied disappointed: “If you don’t know what hurts me, how can you say you love me?”

How many of our relationships can we describe with this kind of love? When the gates close at Neilah and we return to our everyday encounters can we approach our family and friends with confidence that we know what pains them?

Love is found in the honest and open discovery of another. It exists when we uncover their secret and sacred yearnings and we don’t turn away. It means seeing the whole person, even the things we don’t like and accepting them with love. Loneliness follows when we feel that we are not seen in our wholeness by others. Surface friendships like the ones felt by Gatsby and Nachman only exacerbate our isolation because they walk us in the direction of being seen, only to leave us off before we have revealed our full selves. Isaiah reminds us that God is the “creator of light and darkness, the maker of peace and calamity” (45:7). To love another is to live in the complexities of these opposites.

If only Gatsby and Nachman had friendships like the one between Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Chanina who would visit one another in their deepest moments of pain. One day, Rabbi Yochanan became ill. Upon learning of his friend’s plight, Rabbi Chanina came to visit. Looking at his friend who was suffering, Chanina asked a simple question, “Are these afflictions dear to you?” While answering in the affirmative might have made him look weak and unfaithful, Yochanan responded yes. He did not appreciate his suffering. “[I appreciate] neither [my sufferings] nor their reward” he proclaimed.

In one simple statement, Yochanan showed a tremendous amount of bravery. He spoke against God and against his sickness. By being honest he sought connection to Chanina. He told his truth and cried out in his pain. His sickness was not fair in his eyes and he wanted a remedy.

But Chanina also showed bravery in appearing before his friend. According to rabbinic lore Yochanan had many demons. His life was not easy. He lost many of his children to sickness and disease and remained broken throughout his life. In one symbolically salient and heartrending account we learn that he carried the bone of his youngest son as a reminder of his loss. Yochanan on any given day must have been hard to be around. So, confronting him on his deathbed must have been excruciating. But in spite of the discomfort, Chanina showed up. He did not praise his friend’s learning or admire his intellect. He sat with him in his pain, warts and all, and spoke openly and honestly in that moment.

Quietly, Chanina turned to Yochanan and responded. “Give me your hand.” Rabbi Yochanan gave him his hand and Rabbi Chanina revived him.  Reflecting back on this story, the author of our Talmud asks an important question: Why did Yochanan need Chanina’s help? He was just as powerful and gifted as his colleague. Couldn’t he have helped himself? The Talmud answers its own questions with a power teaching “A captive cannot release himself from prison” (Brachot 5b).

All too often we are trapped by our troubles. Our brokenness weighs us down, it binds us and keeps us from moving forward. Our suffering becomes a prison from which we struggle to escape.  We need others to release our burden. Community and friendship are forged in the fires of discomfort. It is facing the ugliness of life together and moving forward. A captive cannot release himself from prison, but a true friend can open the door.

This coming year, be that friend. And if you are in need, demand that others meet you with true friendship. Aristotle was wrong, we don’t connect through our virtues. Love is merging our virtues with our troubles. It may seem uncomfortable. It may make you feel vulnerable. But mining the depths of yourselves and others is the only avenue to true connection.

If you aren’t sure about how to do this, Yom Kippur can provide a model. Many of us are better at pouring our hearts out to God than to others. Many can be open and true to our maker but fear doing so to even in our most meaningful friendships. Vulnerability is a muscle. The more comfortable you are with it in any realm, the easier it will be the next time we need to employ it. So if you aren’t sure how to be open in your human relationships, practice today on the Divine.

In honesty we find love. In openness we find comfort. So, leave it all on the table. Turn to others with faithfulness and hope. Seek one another fully. Some may disappoint you, but most won’t. Show your loved ones your full selves, and seek theirs, warts and all, and trust that they will grow to love them too.