Everyone knows what friends are for---to share life's joys and sorrows; for mutual aid and advice; for the kind of constructive criticism that only real friends dare (and care) to offer. But there is another benefit to friendship that I discovered one day as I was standing in the central bus station of a small town in Israel, waiting for the bus to take me home.
As I waited, a car stopped and honked its horn just outside the station some distance away. I wasn't sure that he was honking for me, since I wasn't expecting a ride, but inside the car the driver seemed to be waving at me to come over. Since it was still some time before my bus was scheduled to arrive, I went to investigate, and sure enough, he was offering me a ride.
I recognized the driver as a rabbi who lived nearby, a casual acquaintance. As I got in, I asked him how he had noticed me from the road outside the bus station.
"When I'm driving," he replied, "I'm always on the lookout for friends and neighbors, to give them a ride." Before I could compliment him on his generosity, he added that it wasn't just a matter of helping others; it was a matter of self-preservation.
"Self-preservation?" I asked.
"Yes. You see the roads are very dangerous. There are more casualties in Israel each year from traffic accidents than from terrorism. So a person needs all the merit he can get to survive each trip. One says the prayer tefilat ha-derech for a safe journey, but who knows if that's enough? Especially, if I didn't say it with the proper level of concentration and faith in G-d's protection. Taking on passengers is a way of increasing the odds in my favor."
He went on to explain how my presence could save his life. It works like this: G-d is the Judge of the world. G-d is also perfect. Therefore, His justice must also be perfect. If so, it is not sufficient that one who breaks the law be punished in exactly the right measure for his transgression; if G-d's justice is to be perfect it must also take into account anyone who suffers even indirectly for that individual's punishment. In G-d's system of justice, there is no such thing as collateral damage. Therefore, even if I am not deserving of Divine protection, if my friend in the next seat is, I may be spared from harm so that he will not be harmed.
The principle is a verse in the Torah: "The Rock [G-d], His work is perfect, because all His ways are just, a G-d of truth without iniquity, just and right is He." (Deuteronomy 32:4) If it is already established that G-d is perfection, "just and right...a G-d of truth," why is it necessary to say that He is "without iniquity"? Rather, it is as we have said, that from G-d's point of view, even the most perfect judgment would be iniquitous if, even indirectly, innocents were caused to suffer.
Nor does it depend on proximity alone. Rather, it's a matter of interpersonal connections. The story of the rape of Jacob's daughter Dinah (Genesis, Chapter 34) is a classic case in point. Numerous Torah commentators ask what Jacob did to deserve such a tragedy? The best-known is the one posited by Rashi. Earlier in the same chapter, he informs us that Jacob was to be punished for hiding his daughter from the wicked Esau, so that the latter would not try to marry her. Tradition maintains that had Dinah married Esau, her righteousness would have led Esau back onto the true path. Jacob allowed his personal feelings to interfere, indirectly preventing Esau's rehabilitation, and for this he was indirectly punished.
There are other answers to the question, but the clear assumption of all the commentaries is that, although Dinah was, of course, the primary victim in the episode, her father also suffered because of it, and so there must be a reason for his suffering, too. Furthermore, that had he not been deserving of such suffering, then Dinah herself would have been spared.
There are no guarantees, of course. It often occurs that somebody is killed in an accident or attack, while others in the same place, equally exposed to danger, escape with only minor injuries. As Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk said, "Every bullet has its address. If your address is on it, there's no escaping it no matter where you are. And if it doesn't have your address, then it will not hit you, no matter where you are."
Much will also depend on the depth and intimacy of our connections with others. The more that the events of your life resonate in the lives of others, the more their merits will mitigate your judgment. And, perhaps needless to say, it pays to choose your friends wisely.
In the final analysis, however, we don't know how to make the final analysis. Only the Almighty knows how to calculate all the merits and debits of our accounts in this world. Only He can decide who shall live and who shall die. But it is worth knowing that by increasing one's circle of friends---good and moral people who do not deserve punishment---one is automatically increasing one's own life expectancy.
At the end of our ride, I thanked the rabbi for the ride home, and he thanked me for saving him. But who knows, maybe I should have thanked him for saving me?
This essay is based on an actual incident. Special thanks to Rabbi Yechiel Yakovson for his friendly assistance in the preparation of this essay.