My wife and I have been blessed with many new friends since coming on aliyah to Israel. But there is nothing like an old friend who has known you for many years. For example, my friend Harvey, who I have known since I was 12, gave me two important pieces of advice or insights that have proven to be invaluable to me. When I was struggling in my Torah learning in 1966, he suggested I come to Israel where I could develop my learning skills and be free of secular distractions. Later on when I was about to enter the rabbinate, he told me that the most important thing for me to do is to love people. If people sensed that I truly cared for them, I would be successful.
The nature of friendship is at the core of The Killing Fields, which takes place in Cambodia in the mid-70s. The country is in the midst of a civil war between the Cambodian national army and the communist Khymer Rouge as a result of the Vietnam War spilling over into its borders. The two central characters Sydney Schanberg, a New York Times reporter, and Dith Pran, a Cambodian interpreter, form a deep friendship as they document in stories and photos the tragic plight of the Cambodian people who are caught in the crossfire of a war on its periphery.
Because of the mounting instability in the country, Pran’s family is evacuated with other international diplomats, but Dith Pran stays with Schanberg in spite of the risk. Pran’s situation worsens when the Khymer Rouge demand that all Cambodian citizens in the French embassy be turned over. Forced to live under its totalitarian regime, he uses all of his resources to stay alive. Meanwhile, Sydney returns to New York and launches a campaign to find him. Years pass with no word from Dith Pram; but in 1979, he is located in a Red Cross facility in Thailand. Sydney flies there to see him and immediately asks for his forgiveness for not encouraging him to leave safely when he had the chance. Dith Pram tells him that there is nothing to forgive. They embrace as John Lennon’s “Imagine” plays in the background and the Cambodian victims of war look on, mystified by the show of friendship between these two different men from different lands. The lyrics resonate as we watch Cambodian and American embrace: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday, you’ll join us. The world will live as one.” Friendship means thinking of the other as part of you. It is the one of us.
I once enlisted the aid of a rabbi older and wiser than I to come to Atlanta to strengthen the Torah program of the Yeshiva of which I was principal. Surprisingly, the rabbi said he would come, but he told me something that sticks in my mind to this day. He was sensitive to the political undercurrents of my situation, and he said he would come only if I was sure it would be helpful to me. If at any moment I had second thoughts about my invitation, it was okay for me to change my mind. There was no self-interest on his part. This is what true friendship is all about.
The Ethics of the Fathers underscores this when it praises the love between the Biblical characters Jonathan and David. They loved one another and wanted to do what was in the other’s best interest. This is the kind of friendship we should all strive for, friendships where we ask ourselves what can I do for my friend, not what’s in it for me.