Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. — Ecclesiastes 4:12
I recently read a mother’s account of walking through her son’s schoolyard when she spotted a brightly painted bench. She asked her son half-jokingly, “Is this the only place to sit around here?” To her surprise, he answered, “No, that’s the buddy bench. When people feel lonely, they go and sit there. Then other kids come and ask them to play and they feel better.”
The mother was deeply impressed and she asked, “Have you ever used the buddy bench?” Her son explained, “Yes, when I was new here and didn’t know anyone. I sat there, and other kids came to play with me. I was happy. Now, when I see other kids sitting there, I know to go over and do the same.”
It’s great to have a buddy system in life. Sometimes, it’s a parent, a sibling, a spouse, or simply a friend. Either way, we are better off when we have others in our life. When we are sad, someone can raise our spirits. When we are confused, another person might help bring us clarity. If we have lost our way, a caring person might help point us back in the right direction. This is the simple meaning of what Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes: “Two are better than one.”
Yet a few verses later, Solomon wrote, “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken." Two may be better than one, but three is even better. Or perhaps Solomon was teaching that the more people together, the better. There is strength in numbers when it comes to anything in life.
Still, the literal meaning of Solomon’s wise words is that three is a number of strength. Just as a chair cannot stand with only two legs, but can with three, there is stability when it comes to the number three. Some commentaries have suggested that this is an allusion to the three Patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob— through whom our faith was established.
However, I think there is another lesson here referring back to the nature of our personal relationships. In any relationship of two, it is stronger when we bring in God, the third participant. This is best illustrated in the husband-and-wife relationship. When the letters that form God’s name in Hebrew — ya-h — are removed, the word that is left is esh, which signifies both man and woman. It also means “fire.”
The lesson is that without God in a relationship, people can hurt and consume each other. But when we bring God into our relationships, we enjoy them to the maximum – both in duration and in quality.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President