When Morrie Schwartz was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease), a fatal and ruthless illness of the neurological system, he refused to become depressed. As Mitch Albom describes in his book, Tuesdays with Morrie:
"He became a lightening rod of ideas. He jotted down his thoughts on yellow pads, envelopes, folders, scrap paper. He wrote bit-sized philosophies about living with death's shadow: 'Accept what you are able to do and what you are not able to do'; 'Learn to forgive yourself and to forgive others'; 'Don't assume that it's too late to get involved.' After a while, he had more than fifty of these 'aphorisms' which he shared with friends. One friend, a fellow Brandeis professor named Maurie Stein, was so taken with the words that he sent them to a Boston Globe reporter, who came out and wrote a long feature story on Morrie. The headline read: A Professor's Final Course: His Own Death."
Eventually, the producer for Ted Koppel's Nightline program got wind of Morrie's story and scheduled an interview at Morrie's house. The first interview went very well and was widely viewed. Hundreds of letters poured in. Thus, Nightline decided to run a follow-up show where Ted Koppel discussed the following with Morrie:
"He asked Morrie about silence. He mentioned Maurie Stein, who had first sent Morrie's aphorisms to the Boston Globe. (Maurie and Morrie were dear friends.) They had been together at Brandeis since the early sixties. Now Stein was going deaf. (What would happen when Morrie would lose his ability to speak, an eventual consequence of ALS?) Koppel imagined the two men together, one day, one unable to speak, the other unable to hear. What would that be like?
'We will hold hands,' Morrie said. 'And there will be a lot of love passing between us. Ted, we've had thirty-five years of friendship. You don't need speech or hearing to feel that."
Morrie's response is reminiscent of an old Chassidic story. There were two Chassidic leaders, the Ropschitzer and Rimonover Rebbes, who were old friends since their youth but who were so busy with their own respective congregations, they found few opportunities to stay in contact and see each other, despite living in nearby cities. Their only contact was a weekly letter that the Ropschitzer Rebbe sent to the Rimonover and its response.
Between these cities was a forest, and every Friday, the regular attendant (shammas) of the Ropschitzer would be sent to transport a letter in a sealed envelope to the Rimonover. In return, the Rimonover would send a response letter, also in a sealed envelope.
This system went on for years. For all that time, the attendant transported the letters, imagining all the mystical secrets that the letters contained. Being the carrier of such important letters made him feel prominent, and enabled him to continue in this burdensome task.
Finally, the attendant's curiosity got the better of him. He could no longer control himself and had to know what was in the letters. One Friday, while traveling in the depth of the forest, he carefully opened the Ropschitzer's letter and was shocked at the contents, or lack thereof. What did the letter say?
'To my dear friend, the holy Rimonover Rebbe,' followed by a full sheet of blank paper, signed 'Your dear friend, the Ropschitzer Rebbe.'
The attendant couldn't believe it. For all these years he was carrying an empty letter! He comforted himself with the thought that for sure, the Rimonover's response letter must have some important contents. So, he carefully sealed the original letter and delivered it. The Rimonover gave the attendant the response letter and again the attendant checked the contents while deep into the forest and found that the Rimonover's letter was identical to the Ropschitzer's.
The attendant was fuming. He had to let off his steam to his Rebbe, the Ropschitzer, despite the embarrassment of his having opened the letters.
"Rebbe," the attendant said, "I refuse to carry your weekly letter to your friend the Rimonover anymore! I opened the letters this week, hoping to discover mystical secrets, but found them basically blank! What kind of a game is it to send me walking for miles to offer an empty letter! I will not be taken for a fool anymore!"
The Rebbe responded, "I understand your frustration and I am not upset at you. But please understand, the letters you have been carrying all these years were indeed letters which contained profound messages. You see, when two people have a friendship as deep and as close as the Rimonover's and me, you don't need to write out the words. We understand each other so perfectly well that all we need to do is read between the lines!"
Ethics of the Fathers tells us that we must "acquire a friend" (Avot 1:6). Everyone needs companionship. We need a person who understands us, with whom we can 'let our hair down' and communicate openly without any pretenses. We need someone we can turn to and talk about anything. We all need to think through the many challenges we face and a good friend helps us bring out the best within ourselves. As the Talmud states, "Either friendship or death" (Taanit 23a).
But, despite conventional wisdom, all we really need is but one true friend.
In high school, most teenagers feel the need to be popular, to be well-liked by numerous 'friends'. When we're young, we usually measure our popularity by how many 'friends' come with us to go bowling or to the pizza shop. We think that receiving numerous phone calls or IM messages means we have many friends. As we grow older, hopefully, we begin to realize that often the most popular kids are the least happy. The most popular people often fail to find that one true friend with whom they can talk heart-to-heart.
This is why the mishna does not say that we need to acquire "many friends" in the plural, but "chaver," one friend. The goal within friendship is not to be popular and feel like we have numerous friends. The objective is to find that one good friend, the person I can deeply connect with. Sure, we must attempt to be friendly with everyone we come into contact with and greet everyone with a joyful face, but we must never feel that we can or should be everyone's best friend. It just isn't feasible.
As Henry Adams said, "One friend in a lifetime is much; two are many; three are hardly possible."
Acquiring a true friend takes hard work. True friends never just fall into our laps; we need to invest much time and effort into acquiring and maintaining them. But gaining a true friend is an investment that is guaranteed to bring us supremely high returns to our portfolio of life.