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Saying No

November 19, 2015 | by Emuna Braverman

A test for real friendship.

I read an interview with an actress named Hannah Simone the other day. I have no idea who she is (which somehow didn’t stop me from reading the interview!) but she said something that caught my attention and that I keep returning to. “My dad taught me to pay attention to the way people treat you when you tell them no. Everyone is your friend if you say yes, but say no and watch how they react.”

It’s an interesting thought. I’m not sure how I feel about it. Does it explain why I always say yes? Am I afraid of the possible ensuing rejection if I say no? (Is this blog my online therapy session?) But the point is not what it says about you but what it says about the other person. The Talmud teaches us that we should observe someone b’kiso, b’kaso and b’koso – the way they spend money, they way they behave when angry and the way they behave when drunk. The Talmud is suggesting that this enables us to see the “real” person. I think it’s possible that observing someone’s behavior when they are told no may be equally revealing.

In Ethics of Our Fathers we are taught that a relationship that is dependent on external factors, that is conditional, will not endure; only love which is unconditional lasts. Certainly a relationship that falters when one party doesn’t get his or her way is a very limited one, definitely not worth fighting for.

The requirement of a true friendship is not total agreement but total commitment.

And, on the other hand, a true friendship survives many ups and downs and no’s and yeses and life’s vicissitudes and is not dependent on one particular incident or situation. The requirement of a true friendship is not total agreement but total commitment.

There is a famous story in the Talmud that when Resh Lakish died, they tried to give his learning partner, the renowned Rabbi Yochanan, someone new to study with. This new scholar was so intimidated that all he could do was agree with R. Yochanan. This was extremely frustrating. “How I miss Resh Lakish!” Rabbi Yochanan lamented. He wanted someone with whom he could have a back and forth, a real give and take and not a “yes man”. He wanted a true friendship.

Friendships are difficult to make and maintain. It’s hard to know when you meet someone whether they have what it takes to last through the long run, whether they have the character and the staying power and the values and the commitment. It’s not an easy task and the qualifications for an actual friendship are pretty significant. But our friendship with someone is a thing of real value. It requires an investment of our time and energy and it’s not something we want to give away cheap. Like a marriage, we’d ideally like it to be forever. And like a marriage, we’d like to know something about the other person’s true nature before we commit.

We can probably go out for drinks with them and cover money, drunkenness and maybe even anger but observing them when someone says no may be more difficult but no less crucial.

Acquaintances do not need to pass this rigid test. I don’t need to know about my tennis partner’s behavior while drunk or whether my concert date is cheap or generous. If my ride to the party struggles with her temper, it’s probably irrelevant (unless it’s road rage!) and if my bridge partner doesn’t like being told no (I actually don’t play bridge) it probably doesn’t affect the game.

But if I’m talking about friendship, about the long haul, then I probably want them to pass the “no” test as well. I want to be able to see how they react and I want to know that I don’t have to be a “yes man” like Resh Lakish’s replacement. It’s possible that very few people will meet my qualifications.

But a few good friends are worth it.

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