Not too long ago, I received a surprising e-mail. It was from one of my high school teachers in St. Louis. I had not spoken to her in over 13 years. (Yes, I am young at 31 years old.) Her name is Mrs. Bernstein. But now I call her by her first name, Sarah. It turns out that Sarah had run into my mom at the grocery store. My mom told Sarah that I am a rabbi and passed on my e-mail to her.
So Sarah and I traded an e-mail or two. As we were writing back and forth, it turned out that we had a lot more in common than I realized. We both love writing. And we both are really into fly-fishing! We had even been to some of the same rivers in Missouri. And Sarah took a trip to Montana, which is a dream for me. Sarah told me how much she loves being in nature and the solitude of fishing alone on the river.
Picture: Sunset at the Connetquot River in NY
It was at that point that I realized, I just found a new friend. Here was a woman who on the surface seemed very different than me. Sarah is retired, I am just beginning my career. We grew up in totally different times and generations. And yet Sarah and I share a deep connection in our love of nature, solitude and trout.
It some ways, it is natural to look for friends among people who come from similar backgrounds and times. But my encounter with Sarah taught me not to limit myself in friendships. I learned that if I cultivate within myself an openness to friendship, I might meet new friends in places that I never expected.
It turns out that being open to friendship does not just apply to former teachers, it also applies to family. In the bible, Jethro was the father-in-law of Moses and also his friend. Like Sarah and I, Moses and Jethro did not have much in common on the surface. Jethro was a generation older than Moses. Jethro was a priest of Midian and not-Jewish.
Despite these differences, Moses and Jethro got along famously. Jethro even helped out his son-in-law. Jethro realized that Moses was over-worked and told him to delegate. Moses saw the wisdom of his father-in-law and took the advice. It is clear that Jethro truly cared for Moses. And Moses was humble enough to listen to his father-in-law. It was a beautiful friendship.
In many families, the relationship between a spouse and an in-law is strained. It is a cultural cliché that a woman and her mother-in-law cannot get along. Not too long ago there was a movie out with Jane Fonda that illustrated this very point. It was called: Monster-in-law.
Yet you would be surprised at the number of people I talk to who have a close relationship with their mother or father-in-law. It sometimes comes out when I am meeting with a family before a funeral. Not too long ago I met with a woman, Patricia, whose father Sam had died at the age of 91. For a long time, Patricia shared stories about how much she loved her dad Sam and how good he was to her. And then Patricia’s husband Jon began to speak.
Jon said that he never had a close relationship with his own father, but he was very close to Sam, his father-in-law. When Jon and Patricia were about to be married, Jon was young and was just getting started in his career. And he did not have a lot of good clothes.
One day Jon came over to show his father in-law his wedding suit. When Sam saw it he said: no way, this is not nice enough. My son-in-law cannot get married in this. So Sam took Jon shopping at Bloomingdales. And Sam bought his son-in-law a brand new expensive suit. After that beautiful beginning, Sam and Jon developed a very close relationship. Jon ended the story by saying: Sam was not my father-in-law, he was my father.
In these reflections on fly-fishing, father-in-laws and friendship, I realized an important lesson. We can reach out to family and friends. We can be like Sarah my English teacher and Jethro who helped Moses and Sam who bought a wedding suit for his son-in-law. For when we welcome others into our lives, it is we who are truly enriched and blessed.