רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר אוֹמֵר, אַל תְּרַצֶּה אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ בִשְׁעַת כַּעֲסוֹ, וְאַל תְּנַחֲמֶנּוּ בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁמֵּתוֹ מֻטָּל לְפָנָיו, וְאַל תִּשְׁאַל לוֹ בִשְׁעַת נִדְרוֹ, וְאַל תִּשְׁתַּדֵּל לִרְאוֹתוֹ בִשְׁעַת קַלְקָלָתוֹ:
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: Do not assuage the anger of your friend at the time of his anger; do not console him at the time when his deceased lies before him; do not question him at the time of his vow; and do not seek to see him at the time of his humiliation.
Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 4:18
Sometimes it is a challenge to know what to say or how to behave when we would like to help a friend who is going through a hard time. Our empathy and sympathy are engaged, and we may even hurt alongside them or on their behalf, yet still we know we can’t truly understand just what they are going through. Being present even though you are not sure what is needed in such times is such a crucial act of kindness, and even if you are concerned about “getting it wrong” in some way, the key move is just to be there.
The quote above offers some deep insights into human behavior and human nature, but it requires a bit of unpacking to squeeze the learning out. When I just read the words once, I was initially a bit confused. Why wouldn’t I want to console my friend when someone dies? Why wouldn’t I show up and see her if she feels humiliated? If she is angry, why shouldn’t I try to assuage her anger? Wouldn’t each of these be helpful?
The answer lies in timing. The advice being offered here is not that you don’t show up — its about what you do first. You don’t start by trying to fix everything, rather you start by offering your presence, your acceptance, your empathy, and your understanding. By doing this, you confirm for your friend that their feelings are normal, healthy, and appropriate. That they should feel OK about having such feelings, and they should feel them thoroughly, because in fact that is the only way they will ever truly move through them. Once you have stood in front of your friend to show them that no matter how they feel, you will still be there for them, then you are truly showing up in a meaningful way. Eventually, they will be ready for consolation, or calming words, but that’s not how you start.
Like many powerful concepts, this one could not be more simple – all you have to do is show up. You don’t need to worry about saying the right thing, or behaving differently — even if you just stand there, you’ve been a good friend.
This Shabbat, I encourage you to speak with your children about times when they weren’t sure what to say to help a friend or a member of the family. Share your own experiences with them. Ask them what it feels like when you want to help and don’t know how.