Genesis 37 – 40:21
Finding Friendship in the Company of Outcasts
Do you have a friend that always accepts you no matter what? Is that your idea of a good friend? What type of friends do you have in your life? Are they cronies or are they partners for greater things? Today we are going to explore some friendships born under pressure, and explore what makes them most intimate.
Though most of this parsha seem to concern itself with the uppity Yosef haTzadik, I actually found myself drawn in to the story of our anti-hero Yehuda. We don’t often give enough look at him, first because he is a villain of sorts up until now. Secondly, his story is sandwiched in the middle of our parsha, so it feels like just a minor stop-off. However, we have a lot to learn here in Genesis chapter 38.
Let us take a look at the top of our fourth aliya:
“And in time its happened that
Judah was demoted in the eyes
of his brothers,
so he turned to certain Adullamite
whose name was Hirah.”
| vayered Yehuda
| me’et echav
| bvayet ad-ish Adulami
| ushmo Chirah.
Previously we learned that Yehuda was chiefly responsible for his brother’s kidnapping and the consequential selling of him into slavery. For his role as antagonist in this case, rightfully his brothers demote him. The word use is vayered, they made him decrease or go down. His yeridah (descent) was not just metaphorical, it was also physical as he ran away from his blessed home and went to stay out in the wilderness with a friend he made from Adullam, in the Valley of Elah.
I use the word “friend” because this is the type of word that is used in the scriptures to describe the relationship that there was between Yehuda and Chirah. Not just once does it use this word, but twice in this chapter we hear of Chirah as Yehuda’s, “ray’ayhu / his friend.” (see Genesis 38:12, 20) The text also seems to suggest they might be business partners, as the first mention of friendship also states that they went up to sheer their sheep together as if this is their shared trade.
Now what type of friend is this that Yehuda has in him? I once heard the crass phrase: “Friends help you move. But real friends help you move bodies.” This here friendship of course was not that bad, but it was pretty close to being partners in crime. They were close friends that depended on each other and that held each other’s secrets. A friendship that in a time of need one can depend on the other for help in getting out of their mess. In each other they had a friend that wouldn’t turn away out of judgement or disgust.
Now this type of friendship is rare. In fact we don’t often hear of this type of interdependency in our tradition. Of this type of re’ah (רֵעַ), of this type of friend. One of the few places that we hear of this type of relationship is during the Sheva Brachot of the marriage ceremony. We pray that a couple should find in each other, “ahavah v’achavah, v’shalom v’rayut / love and fraternity, peace and friendship.”
Finding a good friend can often be just as hard as finding a good spouse. Finding someone in whom you can trust and even expose your most intimate things to is not at all easy.
What Yehuda needed in a friend was someone who would not just understand him as much as his wife did, but someone who was trustworthy enough to help him defuse a secret that one would normally keep from their wife!
In quick summary, Yehuda had a childless widow of a daughter-in-law who desperately wanted a child. According to the custom it was her right to have a male brother of the husband’s clan help her conceive, in order to enable her to keep her status and land holdings through an heir. Because one of Yehuda’s sons did wrong by her and subsequently died on account of it, he refuses to let another of his immature boys get involved and thus she is left in a state of hopelessness.
However, we read here in this chapter that one day Yehuda came across this woman, Tamer his daughter-in-law. Her girlfriends had told her that he was coming into town, so she sought him out to again make her case. One night she was waiting on the side of the road for him as he was coming back from partying. We can only assume in a drunken stupor. Dressed in a veil, Yehuda mistakes Tamar for a prostitute. In desperation she goes along with it, and she does in fact conceive by this act.
The crux of the story is that Tamar is given a signet ring, a tassel and his staff as a guarantee for her payment of a goat that he is promising her. Though she takes these items knowing they will be needed to prove the paternity of the child she hopes to conceive.
When Yehuda comes to, of course he needs to follow through on his promise. And better yet he needs to claim his cherished items that can identify him as a player. So he sends his most intimate friend, Chirah the Adulami with his ransom.
In the end we read that eventually Yehuda learns about Tamar’s pregnancy in a complicated and dramatic plot twist. And he does claim the twin sons as his own, clearing her of any wrong doing and even praising her. He was the one that had twice acting unbecoming; first by his refusing his adult son to her for her redemption as a lady, and secondly by using her as an outlet for his very typical, macho sexual appetite.
It is true that on the surface we don’t see Yehuda repent of his sexual act. We are almost forced to accepted that men are cheaters, and that polyamory is the norm in that age. What he did was shameful, but according to their societal norms it wasn’t that wrong for a man. Though it is also true that the act he performed as an evil-impulse ended up manifesting as a chesed (a kindness) anyhow. Still this story does not put Yehuda in the greatest light. It’s not something to be proud of, rather something one would normally prefer to keep private.
So private is his wrong, this silly act of giving a his most important belongings away, that only his best friend can be trusted to help him clean up the mess. He sends his friend Churah the Adulami, to help him keep his word. In this friend he found someone who was not just a casual friend, but someone who was intimate enough to know the privy happenings. All the sexual secrets, the financial indiscretions, and the personal failures.
We might want to mark this man Chirah as an enabler. Or even as a lousy friend, considering we all know that friends are to set each other straight. They are the people who should be most bold and stern with us about our ways. Instead it looks like he is helping him out and trying to get him out of trouble. But really Chirah is helping him do right by this woman. Our sages will call him a tzadik for this, they see him as a righteous man.
The other reason we need to value the mention of Chirah is because he deserves the credit of being friend to the broken Yehuda after he hit rock bottom. Here Yehuda is holding guilt on his conscience, and the weight of the blame for the brothers that conspired with him. He is running out in the boarder regions, with no one else in the world willing to have him. Then Chirah not just took him in, but also became a friend that accepted him with no judgments. If anything his interest was to mitigate the situations of Yehuda’s folly.
The place that Yehuda was in both mentally and physically was very rough. He was in no place to be left alone. He was there because he was an outcast. In fact, the scriptures seem to suggest that is exactly the reason he was there. Yehuda is not the only person in the scriptures to be run away to Adullam. We know of one other great but lusty man who was exiled and hid there, it was Kind David himself.
In the book of Samuel we read of David’s escape from the pursuing King Saul, he was on the ruin in fear of his life. The scriptures tell us precisely that he “vayimaleit / he escaped;” he fled to the cave of Adullam, he was running for his life. (see 1 Samuel 22:1)
Now what do we know of this place and why people go there, other than it is remote and so obscure of a place that some people dwell in its caves? The scriptures tell us this about the locals that were willing to gather there, and about the people who were willing to venture to this rough side of the tracks:
“And every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him [David]; and he became captain over them; and there were with him about four hundred men.”
וַיִּתְקַבְּצוּ אֵלָיו כָּל–אִישׁ מָצוֹק וְכָל–אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר–לוֹ נֹשֶׁא, וְכָל–אִישׁ מַר–נֶפֶשׁ, וַיְהִי עֲלֵיהֶם, לְשָׂר; וַיִּהְיוּ עִמּוֹ, כְּאַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת אִישׁ.
1 Samuel 22:2
Here we see that the place where Yehuda had previously gone to hide during his exile, David had to go there during his time of exile and trouble as well. This is skidrow, this is rock-bottom, that is what Adullam represents.
Though there are some differences between Yehuda’s situation and that of David. Yehuda was there merely to hide out, and it just so happened that while he was there he met a friend that helped him out and helped set him back on his feet. Yehuda had to be developed, and as strange as it seems this was where and how Hashem put someone in his path to accomplish that. A friend that kept him busy with companionship and enterprise, instead personal misery.
However, in David’s situation it was a little bit different. You see David was there with a purpose. He was there as part of a political and social revolution. He was feared by the king so he was on the run. Though while hiding out in the hood he made connections with all the people who were also in distress and helped make their cause his own. He partnered with the other people who were in distress and dire straights. The people who were crushed under the burden of debt, the people who were tired of the bitterness (mar-nefesh) in their society. He organized them into a band of brothers to fight for his noble cause, today we recognize that as a seminal part of our Jewish history.
Now through this we learn something interesting about friendships in general. The Rambam tells us that there is more to friendship than just having good friends or bad friends. He contends there are more levels to judge how deeply your friendship goes, and it’s more than just the distinction between personal friendship and professional camaraderie in his mind. The commentary of the Rambam for Avot tells us this:
“….as the men of mussar say, ‘Do not establish friendship according to your nature; establish friendship according to your friend’s nature.’
When each of the friends conducts himself according to this directive, then the desire of each one will be to fulfill the will of his colleague. Thus, they will both share a common goal. How appropriate is the statement of Aristotle, ‘A friend is another self’ (Ethics 9:4).
There are three types of friendship: friendship of function, friendship of pleasure, and friendship for the sake of a higher purpose. Examples of friendships of function include a business partnership, or the relationship between a general and his army.
There are two types of friendships of pleasure: friendship of enjoyment and friendship of security. An example of a friend of enjoyment is the relationship between men and women in marriage, and the like. A friendship of security is when a person has a friend on whom he can rely without withholding anything from him, neither deed nor word. He reveals to him all his matters – both good and bad – without worrying that he will shame him – either in private or in public. When a person is able to trust a friend to this extent, he will derive tremendous satisfaction from his conversation and his company.
A friendship for the sake of a higher purpose refers to a situation where both individuals desire and focus on a single objective: the Good. Each will desire to be assisted by his colleague to attain the good for them both. This is the type of friend [the mishnah] commanded us to acquire – for example, the relationship between a rav [rabbi, teacher] and his student, and between a student and his rav.”
Rambam (1135 – 1204 C.E.), Commentary on Avot 1:6
I think these words hold many truths for how we should select friendships, and how on many different levels we can develop that relationship. Our sages lead us to a very interesting perspective as to what we should define as a “quality friend.”
Discussion: One of the things that I feel is very much left out of the discussions these days is the topic of intimate male companionship and friendships. The deepness of relationships that men can have with each other.
In this day and age we thankfully have many lectures about women’s relationships. For instance, we are more than comfortably to talk about the friendship between Ruth and Naomi. Discussion groups in progressive shuls are more than willing to talk about “The Red Tent,” and jump into fantasy about women united through menses and bosoms. But you can’t seem to have a talk in the common culture anymore about friendships between men in the bible without it being branded as “gay.”
We are so uncomfortable about male intimacy and friendship, that people just rather assume the notable male relationships must be homosexual in nature. To me that not only sounds insecure and small-minded, but oddly homophobic to latently suggests something is queer about having close friends of the same-sex. We joke of these friendships as “bromances.”
Is it not possible for men to also have the same type of close emotional and biological ties we know exist for women? That males can also have good, quality, platonic, yet intimate friendships as well?
If anything, what we have learned today has taught us that are times we can indeed have platonic, same-sex friendships that are just as wild as those girls on “Sex and the City.” And yes, at times the love of a friend and the stimulation it sparks in us does seem to rate higher than even our marriage relationship might in certain areas. It’s just a different form of friendship, in a different context. But it is a very natural thing, and shouldn’t need to treated like a deviance.
How do you think the Jewish community should better engage the topic of the beauty of male friendships?