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Facebook Friends

August 2, 2010 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Are we forgetting what it means to have a real friend?

I see the number of friends people have on Facebook and I'm embarrassed. I'm not comparing myself to celebrities who seem to have millions in their intimate circle. I'm talking about average folk just like me who've piled up friends in the five figures and seem to be continually expanding their close-knit relationships.

What's wrong with me? The number of people I consider true friends doesn't go much over double digits. This in spite of the fact that I am a pretty public figure with a large number of acquaintances.

It bothered me a lot until I finally figured it out.

It isn't that I have fewer friends than other people. It's just that I refuse to allow the word "friend" to be cheapened by verbal inflation. I won't let a description that ought to be reserved for the closest and most meaningful kind of relationship be squandered on fleeting associations with individuals who haven't the slightest idea or concern about my joys and my sorrows.

To me, verbal inflation is just as bad as the financial kind. It degrades the value of our words just as the monetary one diminishes the worth of our currency. I can remember the time when a dollar used to be worth something. And before Facebook came on the scene, I seem to recall that a friend meant something more than someone I knew more closely than by way of his e-mail address.

Joseph Zabara, the 13th Century Hebrew poet and physician put it memorably: "Friendship is one heart in two bodies."

True friendship is a gift from God who told us in the Torah that “it is not good for man to live alone.” We need food to live, but we need friends to make life worth living. And friends, according to Maimonides, have to demonstrate their commitment in order to earn that noble title.

Commenting on the famous words in the book Ethics of the Fathers, “Acquire for yourselves a friend” (1:6), Maimonides explains that friendship to be worthy of its name is a threefold experience. A friend first and foremost must be “a friend for help.” He must be someone you can count on, preferably without even asking for assistance.

Next, he must be “a friend for conversation.” Friends must feel free to communicate their deepest thoughts, no matter how inappropriate they may seem to others.

Finally, a friend must be “a friend in outlook.” There should be a common vision, a sharing of goals and values.

Difficult to find? Of course. That's why real friends are scarce. And that's why I find it offensive when the word is thrown about so carelessly.

If I call them friends, what word should I use for those dearer to me than relatives?

I open my Google mailbox and invariably I find invitations from strangers inviting me to join their circle of friends. I hardly know them. If their list would simply suggest acquaintanceship I would have no problem agreeing. But if I call them friends, what word should I use for those dearer to me than relatives?

I am no longer a youngster. I've lived through much in my life. There were moments when I've enjoyed great achievement. It was then that I learned the truth of Oscar Wilde's observation that “It requires a very fine nature to sympathize with a friend's success” – and it was only true friends who really shared in my joy.

Today I'm going through a rather difficult time. Age brings with it concern for health and survival. Acquaintances say all the right things. They wish me well and I know they mean it. But then I have friends who not only care about my concerns but share them as well. And that makes all the difference.

What I know now is that every real friend is a miracle. Miracles have to be treasured. And miracles aren't to be expected naturally, as if we were automatically entitled to them. Facebook friends may number in the thousands but they're not the ones who really count. My list is much shorter, but it is far more meaningful.

And one more thing. I thank God for every real friend because I realize that having even one has made my life filled with blessing.

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