“Your best friend is the one who: seeing him reminds you of Allah,
speaking to him increases your knowledge,
and his actions remind you of the hereafter.” — Al-Muhasibi
I want to tell you a story:
There were two close friends who had been parted by war so that they lived in different kingdoms. Once one of them came to visit his friend, and because he came from the city of the king’s enemy, he was imprisoned and sentenced to be executed as a spy.
No amount of pleas would save him, so he begged the king for one kindness. “Your Majesty,” he said, “let me have just one month to return to my land and put my affairs in order so my family will be cared for after my death. At the end of the month, I will return to pay the penalty.”
“How can I believe you will return?” answered the king. “What security can you offer?”
“My friend will be my security,” said the man. “He will pay for my life with his if I do not return.”
The king called in the man’s friend, and to his amazement, the friend agreed to the conditions.
On the last day of the month, the sun was setting, and the man had not yet returned. The king ordered his friend killed in his stead. As the sword was about to descend, the man returned and quickly placed the sword on his own neck. But his friend stopped him.
“Let me die for you,” he pleaded.
The king was deeply moved. He ordered the sword taken away and pardoned them both.
“Since there is such great love and friendship between the two of you,” he said, “I entreat you to let me join you as a third.” And from that day on they became the king’s companions.
And it was in this spirit that our sages of blessed memory said, “Get yourself a companion” [Mishnah Avot 1:6].
It’s just a story, of course. But it sheds light on why at the end of “Love your neighbor as yourself,” there’s this: “I am the Lord.” Really? Who else might it have been? Is God telling us something here? Of course, God wants to be the third friend!
Chazal are firm on this point: Get a friend!
But, what is so special about friendship? Why so imperative? Well, it’s a special relationship. Unlike the other relationships in Torah – marriage, parenting, work, commerce — there are no obligations or duties connected to friendship. It is completely voluntary, and also unprotected and fragile. That is why when you find a good friend you should care for them like a precious thing… because they are.
I once had a friend like the one Iman Al-Muhasibi describes in the quote above. Her presence in my life reminded me that my life is not my own, I belong to God; and she increased my knowledge, that’s for sure; and, now she is in the hereafter, and I am thinking about that. Her name was Ann. She is gone now, and she’s not coming back. We’ll have to adjust to that. Even now I don’t quite know how to write about her in the past tense. Grammar can be hard.
I am not going to reminisce about Ann’s priestly ministry. Others have done that. I know that it was serious and holy work to her. She was good at it, and she worked hard at it. But, she knew that like life itself, it was temporary. Except to hear her preach a few times I wasn’t really involved in that part of her life.
I don’t even remember how I first became acquainted with Ann — on the internet, I guess — but over time… over some years… my day became bookended with messages back and forth with Ann. Sometimes we’d chat all day long about some project to save the world and/or the diocese, or something about her children, or some project that one of us was working on, or what we had for lunch, or the latest in our personal lives. Frequently it was somebody who was driving her nuts on the internet. In the last couple of weeks, though, it was just “Well, I am still here.” But, even if our days were busy with meetings and work we’d say good morning and good night.
Staying in touch was not always easy given some of the places I wind up, but I always checked-in because Ann would fret if I didn’t. In retrospect, I realize what a comfort it was to know that somebody would fret if I didn’t check-in, and I wonder if anybody will fret over me now. Probably not. I don’t really know what to do in the mornings anymore, or the evenings. I might start sleeping in, or going out. Maybe I will take up a bad habit.
Ann and I talked about God and the Bible a lot. She was really the best Bible study partner ever. She had a mind like a steel trap, and she was always asking me some question, like a rabbi or something. One day I typed back in frustration, “Don’t you have any answers?” The reply was a quick, “nope.” So, even though we talked a lot, we didn’t come to many conclusions. That wasn’t the point, though. It’s just that neither of us could think of anything more interesting than to faff about with God and the Bible for a while.
Ann was not just a fine study partner, though. She could also tie a knot, ride a horse, tell a story, and even build a fire. She knew all the words to the Camp Namanu song. I mean, she was just the coolest pal. One time we built one of those stone cairns, you know, where you stack one stone on top of another. It was almost as high as Ann, which is not very high, but still. She had a steady hand. Ann made me gather the stones, but she told me exactly what kinds to get. Flat on the bottom, and she would throw them back if they weren’t flat enough. Ann showed me all the best places from Astoria to Tillamook, and had a story to tell at every stop, and I never complained if it was “a repeat,” because she was so good at telling the tale. She explained all about tides. We stopped to look for whales and she would say, “Don’t you see it… a plume!” and I would look and look, but I didn’t have the eye for it.
Besides our Bible study, we were just as likely to argue over the proper condiment for a turkey sandwich. Or, which was better, the dry climate of the desert or the dampness of the coast. Or, and we talked about this a lot, we might pass some time extolling the superiority of one breakfast cereal over another. Ann always came down on the side of Wheaties, justifying her preference with the fact that Wheaties don’t get soggy in milk. This, of course, ignores the fact that Rice Chex do not get soggy in milk either. Ann’s contention was that since Rice Chex has tiny holes in it the milk gets inside and that is just one step up from being soggy. I advised her to eat them faster, before the milk got in. There was no convincing her, though. She had some opinions, you know.
We talked through our problems. Over the years, I had some and she had some. It was from Ann that I learned what it is to carry one another’s burdens. Since we were mostly on opposite sides of the world one of us was always waking up as the other was going to bed and after we shared our troubles one of us would say, “Over to you…” which was code for “You worry about it for a while, I’m going to bed.” And the other one would say “OK. I’ve got it.” Of course, neither of us actually ran the world while the other slept. Hillary Clinton did that. But we handed off our troubles. If you’ve got troubles, that’s something.
We shared our daily adventures. It was the mundane ebb and flow of life that defined our friendship, not the big issues.
Ann loved her children and their spouses and children too. Sometimes she fretted over them the way parents do, but mainly she was just so proud. She could always tell me exactly how many days until one of them would be in for a visit, or if they had a cold, or got a new job. And she loved Jim. “He buys me Wheaties by the case,” she told me several times. She reported on that a lot, actually. She was delighted most by the little things he did. “The children are all well and Jim is in the shop…” that was her contentment touchstone. She loved her brothers too, that’s for sure. And she had stories about them. And when her niece embarked on an expat journey, Ann made sure we became FB friends. “In case Sara needs anything,” she said, as if I would be able to help.
But, Ann was a collector and connector of people, as Kirstin highlighted in her essay. Ann had a way of knowing who should know whom and she connected me with several of her family and friends, most of whom became, you know, actual friends. Ann may have called that serendipity, but it’s a skill which she shared with the church, her activist community, and her friends too.
I have read some pretty great things about Ann this week, and I suspect that most of it is true. But Ann was conversant in her failures too. We all have them, even the giant prophetic voices among us. But she approached every failure as if it were just another turn in the road. Even big failures didn’t surprise her, mine, hers, anybody’s. We’re just human, after all. Ann was always turning, turning, turning to right a wrong, to repair a relationship, or to heal an estrangement. It has been an example to me as I deal with my own failures. She was always turning, always growing, always becoming.
Above all, Ann was honest. She was exactly who she said she was, and her friendship made me more honest too. I am thinking way back now to when I first became acquainted with Ann. I knew she wouldn’t put up with any bull-shit from me, and she never did, but as we were just getting to know one another I was afraid that I’d be revealed to be something of a hypocrite. The opposite happened, though, and over the years I became more authentically myself. Ann had a way of drawing that out in others, and I am so grateful that she took the time, and it must have taken a pretty good amount of effort too, to find it in me.
Ann and I agreed about most of the big theological things that you can agree or disagree about, but not everything. Even before she was diagnosed we talked about… you know… after. We didn’t see eye-to-eye on it, but as the end grew closer we agreed that if it were possible she would find a way to let me know which of us was right. Surely one of us is right, after all. And, so, I will be waiting and listening in the wind and looking out across the desert, wherever I go, I’ll be waiting. I’ll keep my ears open. I am waiting to hear her say, “You’re not going to believe this…”
Go tenderly dear friend…. my champion… my hero… and fly high. I’m cheering for you just like I promised. It’s over to me now. I’ll pray for you, and I’ll pray for The Cubs, and I’ll remember what you taught me about how people die but love never does. Oh, and baseball.
Linda McMillan lives in Sakaka, Saudi Arabia… for a few more weeks.
Image: Ann, by Linda McMillan, 2016
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Iman Al-Muhasibi was a 9th-century Muslim theologian and founder of the Baghdad School of Islamic philosophy.
The story about the two friends is from Bet Ha-Midrash. I found this translation in Voices of Wisdom by Francine Klagsbrun. You can buy it here. Bet Ha-Midrash is not available but be like me and keep your eyes peeled at Half-Price Books. That’s where I got mine.
Leviticus 19:18… ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.”
The word frequently translated as neighbor might just as easily be translated friend, by the way. Sometimes I would do the Bible differently, but nobody asks me and that’s probably for the best. But it could be friend.
Pirkei Avot 1:6… Joshua the son of Perachia and Nitai the Arbelite received from them. Joshua the son of Perachia would say: Assume for yourself a master, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every man to the side of merit.
Rabbi Nassan had some advice on how to make a friend in his Avot d’Rabbi Nassan: “How does one acquire a friend? A person should acquire a friend for himself by eating and drinking with him, by studying Torah and debating with him, by lodging with him, by sharing private thoughts with him-thoughts regarding Torah and life. And when they debate matters of Torah and importance, his friend will respond to him, and thus the bonds of friendship and truth will be strengthened.” The Avot d’Rabbi Nassan, or the Chapter of Rabbi Nassan, can be read right along with Pirkei Avot. Rabbi Nassan gives commentary on things which stand alone in Pirkei Avos. I do not have the book I am linking to, but I wonder why not! It’s not available for Kindle, but I’ll race you to Barnes and Noble when I get back to the States because I want this! I love that the first thing Rabbi Nassan says is that you should eat and drink together. Isn’t that true?
Pirkei Avot 5:16… Any love that is dependent on something, when that thing perishes, so too does the love. A love that is not dependent on something, does not ever perish. What’s an example of a love that is dependent on something? That’s the love of Amnon and Tamar. And a love that is not dependent on something? That’s the love of David and Jonathan.
If you are not familiar with it, you can read Pirkei Avot here. Or, head over to Amazon where you can get it as a real book or for your e-reader. If you haven’t been studying this, it’s time to start. A lot of people study Pirkei Avot during the time of the omer counting. Today is 23 days, which is three weeks and two days of the omer. We are almost halfway to Shavout!
Here is Kirstin’s essay about her mom.
Here’s the website for Camp Namanu… It’s Nuh-MAH-Noo.