This letter is dedicated to the memory of my mother and teacher, Udal bas Yosef. Her yahrtzeit – the anniversary of her passing – is on the 24th of Adar, which this year begins on Thursday evening, March 19th.
In memory of my mother, I will discuss with you a teaching from the Mishnah about lasting love which is of particular relevance for our age; moreover, this teaching is also relevant to our relationship with Zion. What does the term “Mishnah” refer to? The Mishnah contains the basic code of our sacred law as explained by the Oral Torah, and the Mishnah is the basis of the Talmud. There is an ancient custom to study Mishnah in memory of a departed soul. The Hebrew letters in the word “Mishnah” are also found in the word “neshamah” (soul), and according to our mystical tradition, this similarity alludes to a deep connection between the study of the Mishnah and the “neshamah.”
The following teaching is from the section of the Mishnah known as “Pirkei Avos” (5:16 or 5:19, depending on the edition). The translation is based on the commentaries of Maimonides, Rav Ovadiah M’Bartenura, and Meleches Shlomo:
“Any love that depends on a
temporary cause will cease when
the cause is no longer there;
but if it does not depend on a
temporary cause, it will never
cease. Which was a love that
depended on a temporary cause?
Such was the love of Amnon for
Tamar. And which love did not
depend on a temporary cause?
Such was the love of David and
“Which was a love that depended on a temporary cause? Such was the love of Amnon for Tamar.” – Amnon, a son of King David, began to feel a passionate “love” for his half-sister, Tamar, and eventually he raped her. Once he gratified his need, he no longer felt love for her; in fact, he despised her, as the Book of Samuel II states: “Afterwards Amnon despised her with a great hatred; his hatred was even greater than his love that he had felt for her” (13:15).
Once Amnon gratified his desire,
he discovered that the “love” he
previously felt for Tamar was
based on his lusts. His love for
her was dependent on a temporary
cause, thus, it serves as an
example of a love that does not
“And which love did not depend on a temporary cause? Such was the love of David and Jonathan.” – After young David killed the giant Goliath and became a hero among the people, King Saul became afraid that David would become the next king, instead of Saul’s own son, Jonathan. The Book of Samuel I records, however, in the following passage that when Jonathan met David after his victory over Goliath, Jonathan felt a great love for him:
“Jonathan’s soul became attached to David’s soul, and Jonathan loved him as himself...Jonathan and David sealed a covenant, since each loved the other like himself” (18:1,3).
“Jonathan’s soul became attached to David’s soul, and Jonathan loved him as himself.” – The commentator, Malbim, explains that through a spirit of strength and holiness, there was a soul-connection, for the good within Jonathan’s soul was drawn to the good within David’s soul.
“Jonathan and David sealed a covenant, since each loved the other like himself.” – This indicates that the soul-love was mutual. Later, when Saul tried to kill David, whom he viewed as a threat to the throne, it was Jonathan who helped David to escape, and when they parted, “each man kissed the other and they wept with one another” (Ibid 20:41). The love between Jonathan and David did not depend on physical or material causes, which by their very nature do not last. Each loved the soul of the other, and the soul, by its very nature, is connected to eternity. In order to better understand this concept, I will cite the following comment of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on our daily morning prayer, “The Soul that You gave me is Pure”:
“God, the One, pure and holy Being is the soul’s Creator, and He has breathed that soul into us as part of His own Divine essence.” (The Hirsch Siddur – Prayerbook)
The Holy One is eternal, and the soul, which is part of the Divine essence, is also eternal. Jonathan and David loved the goodness and beauty of each other’s soul – a love which is connected to eternity.
Maimonides, in his commentary on the above Mishnah, states that if the cause of a love has a Divine reason, it is impossible that such a love should not last, because its cause has eternal existence. In a related interpretation of this Mishnah, Rabbi Hirsch writes:
“Wherever love is rooted in the spiritual and moral worth of the beloved person, there the love will be as abiding as the values on which it is founded. But a love based on physical attraction will not outlast those fleeting charms.” (Commentary on Pirkei Avos, which also appears in the Hirsch Siddur)
These teachings remind me of a conflict that arose in a community of Jewish spiritual seekers that I was connected with during the 1970’s and early 80’s. The women in this community had a meeting where they complained about a number of the men from the community that they dated – men who gave the impression of being sensitive and idealistic. They mentioned that these men would speak loving words at the beginning of the dating process, but after they had sexual relations, the men never called them again! The story about Amnon in our Mishnah can help us to understand this behavior. These “idealistic” men were under the illusion that their physical attraction was genuine love; however, once they satisfied their sexual lust, they realized that they had no interest in dating these women again.
I have been told by a number of single Jewish men who have started to become Torah-observant that their relationships with women have improved since they stated to observe the halachos – the detailed steps of the Torah path – with regard to relating to the opposite sex. They told me that these halachos, which have restrictions on physical contact with the opposite sex before marriage, help them to focus on developing a soul-relationship with whomever they are dating.
In previous letters of this series, I mentioned some positive factors about the spiritual searching of the hippies of my generation during the late 1960’s and early 70’s. In this letter, I need to also offer a constructive criticism of this group. Although they were rebelling against the materialistic emphasis of contemporary western culture, many of them had a narcissistic focus on their youthful bodies and sexuality; moreover, they often equated sexual lust with love – an illusion which is still prevalent today. It is no secret that much of contemporary western culture emphasizes a “love” based on physical beauty – “a love that depends on a temporary cause.” The “missionaries” of this unholy love are found in the media, the internet, and the advertising industry, and sad to say, these missionaries have had a negative influence in the holy land of Zion. The Mishnah we are discussing stresses that this “love” does not last, and the commentator, Tiferes Yisrael, adds the following insight:
A person who “loves” another because that person satisfies his physical or material needs does not truly love that person, but rather the favors he receives; thus, in essence, he loves only himself.
As the following Divine mandate indicates, a person should not only love himself:
“Love your neighbor as yourself: I am Hashem” (Leviticus 19:18).
Why, after calling upon us to love others, is there a Divine proclamation, “I am Hashem”? I would like to suggest that this Divine proclamation is alluding to the idea that our love for others should be a soul-love, for the soul is part of the essence of Hashem.
There was a period of spiritual enlightenment in Zion during the Temple period when we experienced a soul-love for each other, and there is another Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (5:5 or 5:7) which gives an example of this love. This Mishnah states that we experienced ten miracles in the Holy Temple, and the tenth miracle was that during the pilgrimage festivals, when our people flocked to the unifying Temple, no one said to his friend, “The space is insufficient for me to stay overnight in Jerusalem.” In what way was the lack of this complaint a “miracle”? Did the city miraculously expand to accommodate all the pilgrims?
The Chasam Sofer, in his commentary on this Mishnah, explains that this was the miracle of “love”! The great love that people had for each other during the sacred pilgrimage enabled each person to find a place to stay, and even if many people were sharing a house, no one felt crowded.
We can regain the unifying Temple and that miracle of love through developing a model society in Zion which will be based on the Divine mandate, “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am Hashem.” As the great sage, Rabbi Akiva taught, this Divine mandate expresses the essential principle of the Torah (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:4). This model Torah society will inspire all the peoples, and the following prophecy will finally be fulfilled:
“The Mountain of the Temple of Hashem will be firmly established as the head of the mountains, and it will be exalted above the hills, and all the nations will stream to it. Many peoples will go and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the Mountain of Hashem, to the Temple of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways and we will walk in His paths.’ For from Zion will go forth Torah, and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2: 2,3)
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
I would like to recommend the book “Love Your Neighbor” by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, which provides us with concrete examples of how “Love your neighbor” is the basic principle of the Torah. Each chapter of this book discusses various stories, teachings, and mitzvos of the weekly Torah portion which express this essential principle. The book also has stories about the ethical behavior of our forefathers and foremothers, as well as stories about righteous men and women throughout the generations. The material in this work has been culled from over 270 sources, encompassing the full range of Torah literature, and both the scholar and the beginner can benefit from this material. Through studying the ethical insights of each weekly Torah portion which are found in this book, we can develop a greater sensitivity to the needs and feelings of others. And through becoming more sensitive to the needs and feelings of others, we will elevate and strengthen all our relationships.
This book is also a great bar-mitzvah or bat-mitzvah gift.