By Rabbi Dan Lewin
In the peak of summertime, when excitement and thirst for pleasurable vacations run wild, there is an old Jewish custom to counteract any negative effects by placing extra focus on character development through studying Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) each Shabbat afternoon, from Pesach until Yom Kippur. This volume of the Mishnah, with six dense chapters, contains pearls of insight devoted strictly to personal refinement, advice that goes beyond the law.
In the Jewish mystical system, every soul comprises seven middot (character attributes) — which form the template for emotive responses and personality. Each middah (lit. measurement) has a specific way of functioning. The first of these is called “chesed” (kindness), whose driving force is ahavah (love). Love is the prime emotion of the heart, which also warms and guides the other traits into maturity.
Blind love, smart love
Love is the thread that binds us to others. It nurtures important relationships — whether between friends, spouses, children and parents, or the love for our Creator — and helps these interactions thrive. The power of this emotion knows no limits, transcending boundaries of time and place. In the Torah itself, there are explicit commandments stressing the importance of creating an active well-developed inner flame: whether to “love your neighbor as yourself,” or to love G-d — “with all your heart, all your soul and all your might.” In fact, the previous Torah portions in the book of Devarim, which include the paragraphs of the daily Shema, repeatedly emphasize the importance of awakening this love.
Sometimes love stems from the recognition of a noticeable beauty or admirable quality. Other times, it stems from a more innate bond. Ask a parent, for example, why they love their child, and no rational answer will suffice. Even when the parent can pinpoint a collection of exceptional qualities they recognize, it’s not any specific virtue which serves as the origin for the love — it’s simply because “this is my child.” In this sense, the ethical and esoteric commentaries elaborate on of two different categories within the same emotion: an intrinsic connection and one that is developed through specific appreciation.
How deep is your love?
This Shabbat, the current chapter in the cycle of Pirkei Avot contains a Mishnah (5:16) which discusses these two types of love: “Any love that is dependent on something — when that thing ceases, so will the love. But a love that is not dependent on anything never ceases. What is [an example of] a dependent love? The love of Amnon for Tamar. And [an example of] a love that is not dependent on anything? The love of David and Jonathan.”
At first glance, the Mishnah seems to contain no novel teachings and simply states an obvious principle: Love born from an attraction to a specific quality will disappear when that quality disappears, whereas a love that is not tied to any perceived virtue or benefit will endure. Indeed, everyone is already familiar with the concept of conditional and unconditional love. If so, why are the Mishnah’s examples necessary? Furthermore, out of all the characters (and relationships) in Jewish literature, why were these two examples chosen?
However, a precise analysis of the Hebrew terms for “dependent on” (lit. tied to) — as opposed to “stems from” — reveals a profound message about the specific nature of love, as well as our responsibility to stay in tune with our feelings that drive important relationships.
The goal of this Mishnah, then, is not merely to describe the merit of unconditional love. Nor is it referring to what originally prompted the emotion to awaken. Rather, the subtle instruction and novelty lies in tracking the status of the emotion: Whenever the feeling of love is currently tied to a specific appreciation or trait — even if it was once unconditional love — there is a risk of it degenerating. When that feature ceases, so will the love. From the other angle, even a love that was once linked to a superficial appreciation or gain, can evolve into a more potent, unlimited love. So long as the love is now free of any condition, it can possess enduring power — regardless of its starting point. Both may be counterintuitive.
Some people may think along the lines of the old English proverb, “Blood is thicker than water,” that family bonds are stronger than outside relationships. As a result, they may be lax in nurturing that love among the family members, often taking these relationships for granted. Other people may have the opposite imbalance, being so focused on nurturing their family unit, “building my legacy,” that they neglect opportunities to strengthen outside relationships.
To stress the importance from both angles, the Mishnah provides specific examples from Tanach. One is the case of Amnon and Tamar, an innate bond between siblings that reverted to conditional love when circumstances changed. Conversely, we find a remarkable story of a friendship so deep that it progressed to the unconditional level of a brother. “After David finished speaking to Shaul, Jonatan’s soul became joined to David’s soul, and Jonathan loved him as himself.” (Samuel 1, 1:18)\
To be sure, most relationships never reach that deep bond. There are some friends, for example, whom you are meant to connect with for a life moment. You may be on trajectories in opposite directions, but happen to meet at an intersecting point, and enjoy it. And G-d arranges it all. Looking back, even though you no longer are close or in touch, there is no need to mourn the lost relationship — perhaps the friendship was meant only for that discrete time.
There are other auspicious meetings of strangers that lead to a lifelong connection. Some of the best friends, on paper, are the most unlikely matches. Yet because your paths crossed at a crucial juncture, and so many experiences were shared, you never grow apart — no matter how different your lives or personalities have become from each other.
This too takes focus!
The lesson from the Mishnah is that we must pinpoint our most cherished relationships and nurture them, bringing the connection to a higher level. With the many distractions and travel opportunities today, family and friends moving and scattered, living around the world, keeping that inner flame alive may entail establishing set times each day for reaching out and keeping in contact. If necessary, make a list to stay focused.
Love, regardless of the starting point, needs to be cultivated. The ultimate goal is to continually increase our tangible appreciation of the other’s unique traits, while also ensuring that the essential force behind that emotion should not be tied (i.e. restricted) to what we find attractive or beneficial.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.