The mishnah in Ethics of Our Fathers advises, "Buy for yourself a friend." Initially that seems like a strange idea. What kind of friendship is one you have to buy? It sounds more like a therapist than a friend. Don't we just connect with people and become friends?
In order to understand this mishnah, we need to define "buy" and define "friend."
Let's start with friend. We all have a lot of acquaintances -- people to say hello to and chat with. We may have a lot of casual friends -- people to go to a movie with, play tennis with, and go grab a bite to eat with.
But for most of us real, true friends are few and precious. They are people who we know want our good, people with whom we share life goals.
Sometimes we find that as our involvement in Jewish life and our desire for personal growth increases, some of our more superficial relationships fall by the wayside. Or that as we get older, we have less patience for one-sided or limited relationships. "Life is too short," we tell ourselves.
Real friends are people who will be there for us in times of trouble and in times of joy. Real friends have "a good eye" – they only take pleasure in our good. Some times friends get what you want -- into a certain college, a particular job or promotion or salary, a great guy, kids etc. etc. Someone with a good eye is able to throw themselves completely into your joy, to experience your joy as their own.
We buy friends with our time, with our caring, with our commitment.
And real friends are also sometimes called upon to stop us from making serious mistakes -- from marrying the wrong person, from engaging in destructive behaviors.
If we're lucky, we are a few of those friends. And we should be very grateful.
But how do we get them? We buy them. Not with money or gifts. Not with fancy restaurants or shopping sprees. There are no "trophy" friends. We buy friends with our time, with our caring, with our commitment.
The only way to have a real friend is to be a real friend. To be there when your friend needs you, to take their concerns to heart, to agonize over their problems and, as I mentioned earlier, to rejoice in their happiness. If you just talk and they just listen, it's not a real friendship. (I remember baring my soul to my college roommate only to discover that she had fallen asleep halfway through the recital!)
Friendship is a lot of work. We have to buy it. But we are so much happier and healthier and enriched when we do.