In our modern times, the notions of what constitutes true friendship have been heavily altered by the prominence of online media. Flesh and blood relationships have been substituted for digital companionship; “friends” are no harder to find than by a simple request and a click. As a society, what have we to gain by this commodification of friendship? Has the goal of gaining hundreds, thousands, and, in some cases, even millions of “friends” disrupted the ancient definitions of human relationships? Such a notion strikes at the heart of the contemporary human condition: abstracted pixels on a computer versus interpersonal development and growth. Our existential quest, then, is to transcend the distractions of meaningless digital ephemera that have become our companions and regain the virtues of true friendship.
The first existential dilemma we find in recorded spiritual history is a profound one. During the creation of humanity itself, God sees that man is lonesome and declares that “It is not good for man to be alone.” From the beginning of existence, humans were not only physically alone but emotionally isolated and spiritually alienated. Indeed, perhaps Joseph was the loneliest: “And a man found him, when he was wandering in the field, and the man asked him, ‘What are you seeking?’ And he said, ‘I am seeking my brothers,'” (Genesis 37:15-16). This problem continues today.
We are constantly seeking our “brothers.”
On a practical level, there are factors that make it more difficult today to seek out companionship. The transience of modern existence — living away from family, working longer hours, weaker social bonds exacerbated by social media’s replacement of physical presence, and a consumer society that approaches relationships as transactional — aggravate the isolation. Nonetheless, researchers at the University of North Carolina have found that the number and quality of a person’s social connections has a direct correlation on their long-term health. Older adults who feel socially isolated are more than twice as likely to develop high blood pressure. A healthy social life is equally as important as a good diet and consistent exercise.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook articulated the responsibility that Jewish values place upon seeking out our fellow for partnership and friendship. About the centrality of these relationships in human development, Rav Kook writes with clarity about finding companions within community, even amid disagreement of view:
Part of the characteristic of Torah is that it recognizes the need for a social life with friendships, which bring to the world a good life within society. This is particularly rewarding when one’s social group consists of good and scholarly people. Separation from other people and extreme asceticism, which is the approach of a significant portion of those people who, of their own, have sought closeness to Hashem, is a foreign idea to the Torah. For that reason, if one wants to acquire knowledge of Torah, he will succeed specifically by joining together with a group of learners, which shows the gains of avoiding isolation (Ein Ayah, Berachot 9:340-1).
The rabbis advise us to “acquire for yourself a friend,” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:6). This task can be even more important than learning from teachers: “I have learned much from my teachers, but from my friends more than my teachers,” (Ta’anit 7a). Indeed, Maimonides, who understood friendship in an Aristotelian manner (partners for our development of reason and the cultivation of virtue) explained that “man requires friends all his lifetime,” (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:49).
Friends are not only needed for good times and for positive growth: we need friendship for perseverance and survival. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik valued both a “haver li-de’agah — a person in whom one can confide both in times of crisis, when distress strikes, and in times of glory, when one feels happy and content—and a haver le’de’ah — a friend in whom he or she has absolute trust or faith, a person in whom he or she has absolute trust and faith,” (Family Redeemed 27-28). Rava, a renowned talmudic sage of the fourth century, is known to have a more pithy response: “Either friendship or death,” (Ta’anit 23a).
Rava may be correct. Studies have shown that people with the most friends (and not just relatives or children) live significantly longer than those with few friends. The friendship connected with being a couple, however, has benefits. Health-related lifestyle choices are the single major reason for sickness and death, and researchers have explored this issue. A 2015 study of more than 3,700 English couples age fifty and older published in JAMA Internal Medicine found the following advantages if both partners changed to a more healthy behavior (versus if only one tried to change behavior):
- Men and women were at least six times more likely to quit smoking if a partner also tried to quit smoking
- About two-thirds were more likely to remain physically active if joined by a partner, versus only about one-fourth who tried alone
- Men and women were more than twice as likely to lose weight if a partner joined them
With the constant bombardment of hashtags, pins, likes, and snaps, finding value in meaningful personal relationships is of the utmost consequence to the modern condition. A simple click is no replacement for building tangible physically-present bonds. Thus, for spiritual and physical health, we should resist the current trends toward social isolation and embrace friendship. It is indispensable for the continuing progression of humanity, for bonds of friendship sustain a malnourished soul. It is our imperative to ensure that these bonds hold in perpetuity.
Like everything, investing in friendship requires discipline. This investment is crucial not only for our own survival and growth but for societal advancement.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of nine books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.