An Uplifting Teaching and Story:
The secret of true love reveals the sacred potential within each human being, and it also reveals the sacred potential within the People of Israel. A discussion of this secret is relevant to our tour of Old Jerusalem, as through understanding this secret, we will be able to understand the deep and true love that Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld and other spiritual leaders of Old Jerusalem felt for all Israel, including those who had abandoned our spiritual path. Our discussion will begin by reviewing the following teaching from “Pirkei Avos” (5:16 or 5:19, depending on the edition). The translation is based on the commentaries of the Rambam (Maimonides) and Rav Ovadiah M’Bartenura:
“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 lust, 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 lust,
he discovered that the “love” he
previously felt for Tamar was a
self-serving love which was
dependent on a temporary cause.
“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. 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.
The Rambam, 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)
The above teachings lead to the following realization:
True love for others is the love of the beautiful and sacred potential within them – the love of their souls. And this is a love which can last forever.
Unfortunately, much of modern western culture does not emphasize the awareness that true love is love for the other’s soul – the essence of a human being; thus, for many people in our modern society, the meaning of true love is hidden and concealed. The message of the modern media and its commercial advertising is that we gain the love of others through our external qualities, such as physical attractiveness and a youthful appearance.
Modern western culture has been influenced by the Hellenistic culture of ancient Greece – a culture which focused on the superficial love of the other’s physical and youthful appearance. We need to be aware, however, that this foolish focus can even be found among some individuals within a spiritual society that stresses the importance of the soul. The reason why this foolish focus can even be found among some individuals who live in a spiritual environment is because we human beings are a combination of body and soul; thus, the desires of our bodies can cause us to forget or ignore the inner essence of ourselves and others. The advantage of being part of a spiritual society, however, is that it can awaken our awareness of the true essence of human beings, and through this awareness, we discover the secret of true love.
The men and women of Old Jerusalem that we have begun to discuss were not “angels”; they were human beings with the same desires and temptations which face all human beings and which often cause human beings to forget the true meaning of love. Fortunately for them and for us, they preserved the profound spiritual culture of our people – a culture which reveals the secret of true love.
As the following story of Old Jerusalem reminds us, human beings can sometimes “stumble” on the spiritual path, but they can also rise to new spiritual heights which reveal the beauty and holiness of their souls:
There were two young men studying together in a yeshiva in Old Jerusalem. One of them, whom we shall call Yaakov, was known for his diligent study and his brilliant mind; moreover, his Torah study led him to further develop his good character traits. The shadchanim – matchmakers – were therefore eager to find him a bride. To their disappointment, Yaakov did not yet feel ready to get married.
Yaakov’s study partner was an orphan, and this study partner was introduced to a young woman with good character traits who was also an orphan. It seemed to be a good shiduch – match, but this student was troubled by the fact that the young woman had pimples all over her face. After some hesitation, he agreed to marry her.
The day of the wedding arrived, and the young couple had the following honor: Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the Rav of Old Jerusalem who was also known for his loving concern for orphans, would conduct the marriage ceremony. The many guests were eager to share in the joy of the bride and the groom, but one very serious problem arose. The Rav had arrived, the bride had arrived, but the groom had not yet arrived! After waiting awhile, some people went to search for the groom, but he could not be found. (As it was later discovered, the young man suddenly panicked, as he did not feel capable of marrying this young woman, due to the pimples on her face.) In the meanwhile, everyone became very concerned. After further waiting, Yaakov, the groom’s study partner, realized that the groom was not going to show up for the wedding. Yaakov was concerned about the shame and embarrassment that the young woman, who was also an orphan, would experience when she and others would realize that the young man who had promised to marry her has now rejected her. Yaakov also began to think about her spiritual beauty, and he therefore made the following decision:
He approached Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld and asked whether it was permissible for him to propose to this young woman and marry her on this very day. The Rav understood the situation, and he approved the idea. And with deep emotion, he blessed the young man. Yaakov then approached the young woman and asked with warmth and humility whether she would be willing to marry him. In her own modest manner, she accepted his proposal. And there was great rejoicing at this Jerusalem wedding!
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Postscript to the Story:
A few weeks after the wedding, the bride’s “pimples” disappeared and her full physical beauty emerged. The couple had many children and grandchildren, and their family is well-known among the descendants of the men and women of Old Jerusalem.
I read this story years ago in the following collection of stories about Old Jerusalem: “The Heavenly City” by Menachem Gerlitz. It was translated into English from the original Hebrew edition, and the translator is Sheindel Weinbach. It was published by C.I.S., and it has five volumes.