Excerpted from Shelter Among the Shadows

FRIENDS*

We are never more solitary than when we move among people with whom we can feel no sense of kinship. We are never more despairing than when society fails us and we find ourselves, with people all around us, to be utterly alone. We need friends and it is not easy to find them. We crave the company of good people and they are hard to come by.

It is the terrifyingly predatory nature of man which brings Koheles to his lowest moment:

Observing once more, I saw all the victims under the sun. Here were the tears of the downtrodden who have no one at all to comfort them. Their oppressors have power, but for them there is no comfort. And so I considered those who had already died as luckier than those who were still living. More fortunate than both is he who has not yet been born, who has not at all witnessed all the evil perpetrated under the sun [4:1-3].

The facts, sadly enough, are clear and undeniable. But Koheles insists on delving beneath the surface. What makes people so unpleasant? Why is society, taken as a whole, such an abysmal failure? He has the answer:

I realized that so much labor, so much ingenuity was driven by no more than jealousy between men ... [4:4]

Nothing at all has changed from the earliest dawn of human experience. The centuries might as well not have passed, the toils and sorrows which bled poor suffering history white might as well have been spared. Humanity has not progressed one whit beyond that first dreadful moment when Cain, crazed by that selfsame lust for self-assertion which Shlomo is now bemoaning, sullied the pristine earth with Hevel's blood.

It is easy to understand why, among the human failings which Koheles pillories with such vehemence, it is man's propensity to self-aggrandizement which most disturbs him. Of all our shortcomings, it is this one which stands most blatantly in opposition to the posture of submission which is the hallmark of the service of HaShem out of awe--yir'ah-- to which he has devoted this treatise.

What to do? The fool folds his hands, thereby consuming his own flesh [4:5]. The sensitive soul withdraws, turtle-like, into itself. Pessimism is fertile ground for the isolationism of the spirit.

Note well, however. The person who acts that way is a fool. His perceptions are all wrong. We cannot cut ourselves off from our community any more than we can deny our own selves. Whether we like it or not, we are a part of society and it is a part of us. As the starving body ultimately gnaws away at its own flesh, pathetically attempting to find within itself the resources which so patently must come from others, so must we, when in isolation, destroy ourselves.

It is foolish to be a fool.

Well and good. It seems that we are fated to travel through life together. Clearly, then, there must be ways of coping. It is inconceivable that God would wish us to be swept up and carried away by the passions which evidently animate the corrupt society which Koheles had earlier described and decried.

Koheles has a suggestion: The secret lies in winning emancipation from, of all people, ourselves. The “I” will always crave more; the “we” has a chance of assuaging its thirst.

Once more I became frustrated by what I observed under the sun. There may be a person utterly alone, who has neither son nor brother, whose exertions are without end, whose ambitions are never quieted by fulfillment. For whom then do I labor, denying myself pleasure? This too is futility, a terrible thing! [4:6-8]

This is an eye-opener. Man does, after all, have something over the animal world. He does not relish the prospect of working for himself alone. Pleasure in his accomplishments is incomplete if he cannot share the fruits of his labor with another.

This idea is so radical that Koheles teases it gingerly, approaches it with reserve, savors it first as an objective truth, in the third person--There is a lone person--and only then permits himself to internalize it and have it true for his own life--For whom do I labor…?.

Carefully Koheles moves on to a contemplation of the truth which he has now uncovered. In a world purposefully created, such instincts cannot be without purpose. What advantages accrue to us from our instinctive flight from solitude? His analysis will uncover insights of which, at the start of his intellectual travels, he could have known nothing.

    .... Two are better than one ... for if they were to fall.... [4:9-10]

Initially he sees our instinct for companionship as purely utilitarian. We need someone to help us up after a fall, a supporting arm in the time of our vulnerability. It is clear that we cannot make it on our own. But this paradigm is still a very primitive one. It perceives one's fellow as object, as someone to be used rather than someone with whom to share life.

Furthermore, two who lie together feel warm. But how can one person by himself find comfort? [4:11]

Once embarked upon this path of discovery, Koheles finds that there is no way back. Insight begets insight, experience cradles wisdom in its embrace. The next stage follows inevitably upon the first. If it is true that my friend can help me up after a fall, it is equally true that I can render him the same service. He and I are two of the same, two limbs of one body, two ideas animating one another. We can lie in each other's arms, warming and sustaining each other. Taking becomes giving, giving becomes a feast of love, a feast of sharing. Koheles has found a friend.

Now if the one were attacked, the two could stand up against him [4:12].

Friendship, Koheles learns, ennobles. Friends sacrifice for friends. When one is attacked, both are the victims. They are willing to take up cudgels for one another because they have learned that they are ultimately one.

What of the last cryptic phrase in this passage? What is this three-stranded thread which cannot be quickly broken? Is there, then, a perception of society which carries us beyond the enlightened vision which has even now inspired us?

Apparently there is, and it delights in its simplicity. Fellowship is its own reward. It requires no justification. The third man, whose hand is not required to lift the fallen, whose warmth need quicken no freezing body, whose weapons repulse no enemy because there are sufficient forces without him, is the one in whom Koheles recognizes the ultimate value of the Other. As long as we are in the “two-mode,” as long as human value is measured in utilitarian terms, the thread that joins us can readily be broken. Postulate self-sufficiency and the desert island will serve as well as the village square. It is a sorry world indeed in which, because I have no need of your help, I have no need of you! 

It is only with the appearance of a third, apparently superfluous presence, that Koheles learns what really animates our relationships. We are, he discovers, very different from the animals. We value people not for what they do but for what they are. We form bonds because we want to be bonded. We need not be shackled by myopic self-absorption. We can vacate the center of our little personal fiefdoms and move to the side. We can look beyond ourselves and, wonder of wonders, behold a man! One who owes me no explanations, no excuses. Who is because he is, even as I am because I am, and whom I treasure because he Is!


*Note: Original Hebrew and Aramaic text which appears in the book has been translated into English and footnotes have been removed for brevity.