Being a Friend
Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )
We want to be nice to everyone. We try to help people when we can and not hurt their feelings. But for certain special people, we have to try especially hard.
In this week's Torah portion we are reminded to look out for the feelings and needs of widows, orphans, and newcomers who might feel out of place. People who are alone -- widows without husbands, orphans without parents, strangers without friends -- often feel very weak and vulnerable.
When we go out of our way to be extra sensitive to their needs and feelings we do a lot to make them feel better. God is teaching us to be watchful of the needs of those who need us the most.
In our story a girl and her mother share a moment and learn our Torah portion's lesson of being sensitive to those in need.
Janet put down the phone with an obvious look of distress. Her mom, walking by on her way to the garden, noticed. "Hey, is everything ok?" she asked with a tone of concern.
Her daughter looked up. "Well, yes ... and no," answered Janet in her typical roundabout way.
"What's the matter?" asked Mrs. Bloom as she placed down the large flowerpot she had been carrying.
"It's really nothing, Mom," Janet giggled nervously.
"That was just Marcie on the phone. A new girl in our class. She invited me to her birthday party on Sunday."
"What's wrong with that?" asked her mom, confused.
"Well, I don't really want to go. Marcie is okay, but ... you know, she's not really such a close friend of mine. She's only been in our class for a few weeks. She and her family only just moved here recently. She's from some foreign country. I can hardly understand her when she talks and she just ... doesn't really fit in. Anyway Sunday I was hoping to go shopping with Trudy. Everything's half price at Clothes-R-Us."
"So what did you tell her?" asked her mom.
"I was going to say no, but then she mentioned that she's called five other girls already and none of them could make it. So I told her I'd let her know tomorrow in school."
"That sounds like a tough decision," said Mrs. Bloom. "How about joining me in the garden? I have to transplant these geraniums and could use some help."
Janet smiled. Both she and her mom loved to be in their spacious garden. Just being out there among the swaying trees and colorful flower beds was always enough to make Janet feel calm and relaxed.
"I understand your dilemma," said her mom as she went around with her watering can, gently sprinkling each plant. "Sometimes friends who need us the most aren't the easiest friends to have. You know my friend Mrs. Sondheim, don't you?"
Janet held back a smile. Mrs. Sondheim was a widow who lived in the neighborhood. Often she would call up Janet's mom even very late at night and talk a long time telling strange stories and complaining about her problems. Mrs. Bloom kept a very tight schedule, but she always seemed to have plenty of time when the widow called.
"Well," her mom continued, looking up from the bright red and deep pink flowers she was carefully transplanting. "When I first met Mrs. Sondheim it wasn't so easy for me to be her friend either. But when I found out she was a widow I realized how much she really needed friends. She doesn't have a family like we do, and when she would call me up she would sound so lonely."
Janet listened intently as she stroked a flower.
"So," Mrs. Bloom went on, "I decided to make the effort to be a friend for her. Certain people you have to bend over backwards for even when it's not easy." Janet's mom patted down the earth around the newly transplanted flowers. "There. Just a little more water and these flowers will grow just fine. It'll just take them a while to get used to their new home." She smiled.
Janet sat for a moment, lost in thought, as she smelled the sweet blossoms. "Mom," she finally said, "You helped me to decide."
"Oh really?" Mrs. Bloom said.
"Marcie is just like these flowers," Janet explained. "She transplanted from one country into a new one. She also needs extra care to get settled in her new home. I'm going to call her and tell her to count me in for the birthday party. And I'm going to really try to be her friend."
Her mom, beaming, gave Janet a hug. "I'm proud of you," she said. "With a little extra care even the most needy flowers -- and people -- grow just fine."
Q. How did Janet feel when Marcie called her to invite her to her birthday party?
A. She didn't want to go. She didn't really want to be a friend to Marcie.
Q. How did she feel differently after talking to her mom?
A. She realized that since Marcie was new in school, and in the country, she needed to make friends, so Janet decided to help her by going to the party to be nice to her.
Q. Why do you think widows, orphans, newcomers need extra attention and sensitivity?
A. People with families and friends have a system of support. They are surrounded by people who know and love them, and who are naturally aware of and care about their needs. But people who don't have a support system like this can feel very lonely and out of place. That is why the Torah asks all of us to pay extra attention to ways to help them feel secure. In our story, somebody like Janet who has many relatives and friends in town could easily find people to come to her birthday party. So if some people couldn't make it, it wouldn't matter so much. But to a newcomer like Marcie, who is new and alone, each girl who agreed to come would make a big difference.
Q. At first Janet didn't want to go to Marcie's party. Why do you think people tend to shy away from people who seem different or have special needs?
A. It's easy and comfortable to relate to people who are similar to us. People who are not like us challenge us to stretch ourselves to understand their needs and to connect with them. We might feel awkward and afraid of hurting their feelings. Yet often these very people need us most of all. When we meet the challenge, as Janet did when she agreed to go to the party, not only do we help the other person, but we also help ourselves to grow into more loving people.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. There is a famous Jewish proverb that "there is nothing so whole as a broken heart." How do you understand this statement?
A. While we all hope for a life of "smooth sailing," it doesn't always work out that way. We all have issues in our lives which may cause us to feel heartbroken. Some have problems with friends, others with family, and still others with health. While these situations are certainly not comfortable, they do contain a hidden gift. It is exactly these times and situations which can motivate us to look more deeply into the real meaning of our lives and discover levels of awareness that we likely would have missed during smoother times. Certainly the new girl in our story is going to face many challenges and even heartbreak as she adjusts to her new life in a new country. But in the end, it is these very challenges that will build her into a deeper and ultimately more "whole" person than she would have become otherwise.
Q. In the animal kingdom, only the strong survive and it's normal for stronger animals to prey upon weaker ones. Do you think stronger people also have such a "natural right" to dominate and rule over those weaker than themselves? Why or why not?
A. While survival of the fittest, "the law of the jungle" is certainly the rule throughout nature, a human being is unique in that he has two conflicting drives. One is an animal impulse to dominate and take what he can from those around him. The other is a higher more spiritual impulse to show compassion to the weak and unfortunate, which requires giving. One of the most important lessons of the Torah is to teach us to develop this more compassionate and Godly aspect of ourselves. When we choose to be compassionate givers rather than takers, we elevate ourselves into more complete and spiritually developed people.
Q. Are there people you know who really need you to be there for them?