Ethics Now & Then 91 – Avot 5:19

Pirkei Avot 5:19  Any love that depends on a specific cause, when that cause is gone, the love is gone; but if it does not depend on a specific cause, it will never cease. What sort of love depended upon a specific cause?  – The love of Amnon for Tamar. And what did not depend upon a specific cause? – The love of David and Jonathan.


Any love that depends on a specific cause, when that cause is gone, the love is gone;  but if it does not depend on a specific cause, it will never cease.

“All you need is Love!” sang the Beatles. There is truth in that pronouncement but much depends on the definition of the much used and abused word, “love.” In modern times, love is big business. At the same time, marriages and families are diintegrating at an alarming rate. The concept of love has become distorted to the point of becoming almost meaningless. The evil of hatred and the abuse of others, in many ways, is flooding the world like a tsunami. Why is this? This mishnah, or verse, addresses the difference between love that is shallow and fleeting, or non-existent, and love that is strong and enduring.

The Sages  allude to how, biblically, the concept of love is based on love for God, which in turn is based on a form of ‘devotion’ that is selfless – the kind that is without a specific, or selfish, cause besides the reality of God Himself. In our growth as a person made in His image, a child of our Father in Heaven, we learn of love through our knowledge of, and relationship with, Him; the true source of Love.  In the Scriptures we see God’s love described as chessed – a faithful loving-kindness that is emet, truth. We read in Exodus 34:6, where God reveals His atributes to Moses: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in, chessed ve’emet, steadfast love and truth [sometimes translated ‘faithfulness’].

Chessed ve’emet – gracious loving-kindness and truth often are linked in the Bible. As the Psalmist sings: “For Thy lovingkindness is great above the heavens; And Thy truth reaches unto the skies,” (108:1).” I will worship toward Thy holy temple, And give thanks unto Thy Name for Thy lovingkindness and for Thy truth” (138:1).

If our love for God is based on a purely “selfish cause,” one primarily focussed on oneself, it will not stand and endure.When we are only interested in what we can get from God, whether it be salvation, protection, provision of finances and material goods, a good job, success in ministry, fame and recognition, etc., etc., etc., the result will be an empty relationship. The heart of the matter is found in the “pure heart” of: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place [the place of His Presence]? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.” (Psalm 24:3-5)  Only when we long for His Presence and, with His help, can purify our hearts from selfish concerns, are we able to gain true knowledge of God and grow in intimate relationship with Him.

We find many echoes and expressions of this intimate love of God in songs, psalms, hymns and prayers by those who can express our love for Him in words. An example is  this poem by medieval Jewish philosopher, physician and poet Yehudah HaLevi:

With all my heart, You, Truth, with all my soul
I love You, openly and secretly.
Your Name is with me – who would steal it from me?
My most beloved, He! – how could He not be with me?
My light is He! – how could my wick lack oil?
…You, fountain of my life! May my life and my song
be to Your praise as long as there is breath in me.

With this form of ‘selfless devotion’ to our God, which can inform our human relationships, well-known psychologist and counselor Rabbi Abraham Twerski describes how “…marriage relationships can withstand both internal and external stresses.”*  In marriages, which are designed to be a reflection of God’s relationship of echad, oneness, with His people, the inevitable inter-relational challenges can be worked through with empathy and consideration. The same factor applies in friendships as well as in congregational and business relationships. When one learns to love God through growing understanding of Who He is, one then is able, as Yeshua taught, in quoting Leviticus 19:18, to: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In this context, Yeshua also makes the connection with first loving God and then loving your fellow man: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment” (Matthew 22:38-39).

What sort of love depended upon a specific cause?  – The love of Amnon for Tamar.

King David’s son Amnon had a great desire, an intense lust, for his half-sister Tamar.** When this was gratified through deception, all that remained was intense hostility toward her. Rabbi Twerski comments that this hatred “…was magnified by the guilt over his failure to resist the impulse” and, one hopes, in order that he could repent, he also experienced guilt over his deception and rape.

Sexual desire often is a cause for a relationship. Other examples of selfish desires are security, social standing, financial gain, family honor, etc. While these factors, in and of themselves, happily may be accrued, they should not be a ‘specific cause’ for a loving relationship. All worldly gains are fragile and can be lost in a moment. When this type of cause is gone, so too will the love be gone.

And what did not depend upon a specific cause? – The love of David and Jonathan.

In contrast, the love between David and Jonathan was not one of self-gratification and so it endured. Their loyalty to one another transcended any personal advantage. Jonathan knew that David would succeed to the throne as the king of Israel in place of his own father, Saul. This knowledge could have caused deep resentment and spurred intense competition for that honor and position. Jonathan’s self interest could have resulted in a relationship of bitterness and hatred. He, however, remained a devoted friend to David until he and Saul were killed in battle. David’s loyalty and devotion to Jonathan also is proven in that, after his friend’s death, which he grieved deeply, David took special care of Jonathan’s descendants.***

WIlliam Berkson sums up this form of loving devotion well: “Our love is, as a rule, neither merely the momentary passion of Amnon, nor the purely disinterested [platonic] model of David and Jonathan, but rather partakers of both. Indeed… eternity [Olam HaBa – the Presence of God] detached from life as it is lived [in Olam HaZah – this world, in relationship with others] is cold and indifferent. We find meaning in the wedding of hope and memory; the kiss of the moment.” ****

Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love,
love one another earnestly from a pure heart
” (1 Peter 1:22).


Illustration: Australian artist Michael Leunig


* Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, Visions of the Fathers,
** 2 Samuel 13:15
*** 2 Samuel 1:26
**** William Berkson, Pirke Avot, 171

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