I long to offer maskless casual greetings to colleagues, to clerks in my regular shopping ambit, and to commuters who used to wait with me every morning at the same stop. These weak ties have sadly become weaker during the pandemic. Most of all, I yearn to be in the physical presence of close friends, to take in their faces unmediated by screens, to hug them and to smell the faint traces of their lingering perfume. I imagine the liberating day when all those simple pleasures return and wonder who will be the first friend I embrace.
The Talmud, in a chapter on blessings, notes that there is a blessing to sanctify friendships after a period of physical absence. True friendship is a work of art, a thing of holiness. Its absence creates a void. Its renewed presence is worthy of prayer. The Talmud describes blessings for reunions after a monthlong separation and after a yearlong separation. “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: One who sees his friend after thirty days have passed since last seeing him recites: Blessed . . . Who has given us life, sustained us and brought us to this time. One who sees his friend after twelve months recites: Blessed . . . Who revives the dead” (BT Brakhot 58b).
A blessing is the traditional Jewish response to momentous everyday events: the smell of balsam, the tang of an orange, the slight shudder of the skies during a thunderstorm. Such occasions can be reduced to domestic insignificance or can burst with wonder. A blessing expresses our enduring astonishment; there is nothing banal about the created universe. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in And From There You Shall Seek, observes that “The benediction always signifies a moment of grace, a great, sublime moment of the utterer of the benediction, in which he attains a deep vision and acute look though the miraculous portal, torn open by a hidden hand to reveal a world that is entirely good and pleasant, and entirely miraculous.” The reunion of friends is a sublime moment of grace. These days it’s a miracle.
The Talmud defines newness as a fresh, pleasurable occurrence experienced again after thirty days. The reunion blessing shares the same language as the blessing recited upon eating a piece of new fruit or upon reaching a significant milestone event. All of these experiences, from the prosaic to the significant, demand a spiritual pause; they ask to be acknowledged and celebrated. Strangely, I have rarely heard traditionally observant Jews recite this blessing over a person. Surely the delight at seeing a friend warrants more recognition than, say, eating a persimmon.
Medieval Talmudic commentators have added their thoughts to the legal requirement. One group of scholars, whose commentary appears on the outside margins of every Talmudic page, suggests that this blessing not be said on just any reunion, but only when one is reunited with “a friend who is beloved.” The implication: Don’t waste your words on those who are on the periphery of your orbit. Sorry, acquaintances. A thirteenth-century exegete, R. Yom Tov ben Avraham from Seville, adds that the friend should be one who provides pleasure, subtly suggesting that some friends may not. The friend in question must be beloved and a source of happiness, writes R. Asher ben Yehiel (d. 1327). One must take pleasure, he comments, in a friend’s very existence.
The language of the Talmud's blessing for a reunion after twelve months may startle us: “Blessed . . . Who revives the dead.” Two thousand years ago, if you did not see someone for a whole year, you may have reasonably worried that the person in question was dead. Seeing a treasured companion alive and well signifies the emotional resurrection of the dead, someone who became dead to you through absence. Rav, a third-century Babylonian scholar, cites a verse from Psalms: “I am forgotten as a dead man out of mind; I am like a lost vessel” (Psalms 31:13). A person is not an object, but, just as it’s unlikely that a lost object will be found after a year, a friend may also become lost to us.
Very soon, I will have not seen many of my friends for a whole year. It may be, given long vaccination waits, that it will be far longer than a year until I have that fortifying hug. What happens to friendships after COVID?
During the pandemic, some languished in loneliness. We may have done little to relieve them. Some let us suffer alone, not reaching out, even when they knew they should have. It’s unfair to judge those who had little bandwidth for distant socializing during these months; the pressures of childcare, the instinct to hunker down and withdraw, the fear and monotony, all contributed to friendship malaise. Still, after COVID, some previously meaningful relationships may limp along. There will be apologies and regrets.
Some friendships are more durable than ever. These relationships adapted early on to quarantine challenges. We had to put extra effort into setting walking dates or scheduling calls after terminally long work days. “How are you doing?” became more than a perfunctory check-in. It was a question of existential merit that demanded time and gentle prodding, and the answer changed as the outside temperature changed.
As we inch toward the end of this, over which relationships will we recite a reunion blessing? COVID has taught me that physical absence need not mean emotional neglect. “We really have no absent friends,” wrote Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen. To those friends who were present for me during this long and tedious separation, I hope to say one day soon: Come near that we may make a blessing on each other.
Erica Brown is an associate professor at The George Washington University and author of The Book of Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile.
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