Friends for Life
A Jewish perspective on friendship.
Recent advances in communication have made it easier than ever to keep in contact with friends. Cell phones, e-mails, and text messages mean that friends are never further away than the touch of a button. At the same time, advances in transportation have led to greater distances between friends, with more people relocating than ever before. In the last five years of the twentieth century, close to half the American population – some 120 million people – packed up and moved to different homes.
This ease of mobility affects everyone's friendships in one way or another. Those who move find themselves having to gain a new circle of friends, while those who are left behind lose some of their oldest and closest companions. The number of adults enjoying the luxury of living nearby their childhood friends is far less than in the past, and people must establish new friendships increasingly often.
Technology has thus made it both easier and harder to maintain friendships, presenting our generation with a challenge. Let us look at what our Sages had to teach us about making friends, applying their lessons to our day and age.
The True Purpose of Friendship
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (1:2) tells us to acquire for ourselves a friend (keneh lecha chaver). Being that the need for friendship is a basic human need, existing in people of all races since time immemorial, our Sages do not seem to be revealing any new ideas or instructing us to do something we wouldn't have done anyway. But upon examining their words more carefully, we see that their every word is imbued with wisdom and, like all their insights, everything they say reveals a depth of understanding we might not have perceived on our own and from which we have much to learn.
The first novel idea about friendship that we learn from the Mishnah is what the purpose of a friend is. As the commentators explain, the purpose of making a friend is to have someone to learn from and grow from spiritually, someone who will encourage you to keep the mitzvos properly and point out areas that need improvement should you fail.
This way of looking at friendship is not the way friendship is usually perceived. Most people look to their friends to strengthen already existing parts of their personality. The areas about which the two of them agree are what bonds them and forms the basis of their friendship, whereas the areas about which they disagree are politely avoided.
The purpose of a friend is to expand our personalities and broaden our way of thinking.
The Sages, however, teach us that the purpose of a friend is to expand our personalities and broaden our way of thinking. It is precisely the areas in which we don't think the same or see eye to eye that offer us room to grow and provide us with the opportunity to develop areas of our personality that are as of yet undeveloped. It is our dissimilarities that generate growth.
The Torah alludes to this idea in its account of Adam and Chava – the first "friendship" that ever existed between people.
God looked at Adam and said, "It is not good for man to be alone." God ended man's loneliness by creating woman, a being with a vastly different temperament than man. We see that true companionship doesn't come from being with someone who is identical to you, but from being with someone who is different from you. By virtue of the different ways our friends view the world, they can open our eyes to new understandings.
Of course, the point is not to look for friends who are totally unlike ourselves and with whom we share nothing in common. It is just important to understand that instead of feeling uncomfortable when differences arise, we should appreciate that the prime purpose of a friend is our personal growth and that it is the differences that make this possible.
Buy a Friend
Having looked at what our Sages saw as the correct motivation for having a friend, let us look more closely at the way they phrased their instruction: "keneh lecha chaver."
The word keneh literally means "to buy." The Mishnah's choice of words is interesting since one usually speaks of buying an object, not a friend. In using the verb buy, the Sages teach us several things.
First, they teach us that one should look into whom he chooses to be his friend. Just as you would research an item before you buy it to make sure it is not poor quality, so, too, when picking a friend you should consider the type of person he is, ensuring that your friendship will be mutually beneficial.
The Sages even offer specific advice for picking a friend, telling us to look for someone who is a level above ourselves. Bearing in mind that the purpose of a friend is personal growth, it is logical that we should choose someone whom we feel will inspire us to grow and who has traits we would like to emulate.
Having chosen a person whom we feel is suitable, we need to make him interested in becoming friends with us. After all, just because we want to become friends with him doesn't mean he feels the same way about us.
Friendship requires making sacrifices.
This is the second lesson the Sages teach us by using the word buy. Buying always entails sacrificing one commodity in order to gain another. When buying a product, for example, one sacrifices time, effort, and money in order to gain ownership of the item. Similarly, in order to acquire a friend, one must also make sacrifices on behalf of the friendship. This includes giving up time for him, making the effort to speak kindly to him, and spending money on gifts for him. All these things will have the effect of drawing our chosen friend close to us and making him want to become our friend.
Choosing Your Friends
The Mishnah's approach to making friends, as outlined above, is particularly fascinating in how it differs from the customary approach to making friends. Most of our friendships occur by themselves, without our actively pursuing them or paying too much attention to whom we are befriending. We happen to be taking the same class with someone or happen to be living close to him, and before we know it, we're friends. The Sages are teaching us, however, that friends need to be consciously chosen – both in regard to the type of person we choose as well as in regard to the whole process of becoming friends.
The difference between how we tend to go about making friends (the haphazard approach) to how the Sages teaches us to make friends (the conscious and active approach) leads to a major difference in the commitment the friends will have for one another.
To be sure, all friends give something to one another. If they didn't, they wouldn't remain friends for very long. But there is a vast difference between the level of self-sacrifice that exists between people who "happened" to become friends and the level of self-sacrifice that exists between people who consciously chose to become friends.
This is because the latter group recognizes their friends as essential to their self-perfection. Their chosen friend isn't someone who simply came into their lives, but someone whom they deliberately decided to become close to, someone who possesses character traits they look up to, someone in whom they have invested money and emotional energy in befriending. They will therefore extend themselves for their chosen friend beyond the level of ordinary friends, exerting themselves to the utmost to fulfill his wishes and see to it that the friendship endures.
The Talmud says that when Job's friends heard of the tragedies that befell him, they traveled a distance of 700 miles. In those days, a trip of that length probably took about two weeks – each way. That means his friends took off over a month of their time to console him.
It is hard for us to fathom taking off such a huge block of our time to support a friend in his time of need. Sure, we would make a phone call or even pay him a visit, but who ever heard of taking off a month to comfort a friend? Once you appreciate the importance of a particular friend, however, and how crucial he is to your self-growth and perfection, you will be willing to bend over backward and do almost anything to build and maintain the friendship.
This leads us to the last word in the phrase "Buy yourself a friend." The use of the singular word friend, as opposed to the plural form, friends, seems strange. After all, most people have more than one friend and, if asked, would probably say they have "lots of friends." Why, then, does the Mishnah limit us by telling us to make one friend?
The answer is that the Mishnah is speaking about a close and intimate friendship, a friend with whom one shares his innermost secrets and for whom one would travel across the world. It is hard to have more than one such friend. When people say they have many friends, what they actually mean is that they have many acquaintances, people they share a casual relationship with, but not the "soul mate" our Sages had in mind.
A person can be in the haunting position of having "lots of friends" without really having even one.
This distinction between friends and acquaintances is especially relevant to our generation. On the one hand, people today cross paths with more people than ever before because of the changes in transportation and technology that we discussed earlier. At the same time, loneliness is more prevalent today than in previous generations, with The New York Times calling it a "national epidemic." The reason for this conundrum is that instead of building a solid friendship with any one person, people's relationships with one another are becoming superficial.
Thus, a person can be in the haunting position of having "lots of friends" without really having even one! He can be in a room full of people, surrounded by those who are ostensibly his friends, and still be very lonely. Perhaps he should take Chazal's advice and search for a friend who is able to help him grow, whom he then commits to befriending by investing time and money in order to build a sturdy relationship.
Chazal teach us that the more spiritual a friendship is, the longer it will last. When friends are bound only by circumstances, then when the circumstances change – they stop attending the same course or move away – the friendship is lost. However, when friends are joined by the desire to grow together, their souls are bound with one another and the friendship will last throughout their lives. This is possibly the most pleasurable and rewarding aspect of what the Mishnah teaches us about "buying" a friend – namely, keeping a friend for life.
This article is an excerpt from Rabbi Roth's new book, Relevance: Pirkei Avos for the Twenty-First Century. Taking selections from Ethics of the Fathers, the book shows how the classic text of Pirkei Avos pertains to the modern world, and is as vibrant and contemporary as if it was written today.