Love: appreciating others’ unique traits

During this seven-week period of counting the Omer, also a preparation for receiving the Torah on the festival of Shavuot, we place extra focus on character development. In this spirit, there is a widespread custom to study Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) each Shabbat afternoon — a section of the Mishnah devoted to personal refinement, beyond the letter of the law.
In the Jewish mystical system, every person’s soul comprises seven middot (character attributes) — which form the template for emotive responses of the heart and instinctive character features that manifest in our demeanor. These seven weeks, we employ our faculty of da’at (knowledge in the form of identification) to create greater consciousness within our life to polish our distinct emotions and get them working together. This process is called tikkun hamidot (“character rectification”).
Each middah (lit. measurement) has a specific way of functioning and benefit. The first of these attributes is called chesed (kindness), whose inner essence is ahavah (love). Love is the prime emotion of the heart that also nurtures the other properties into maturity to promote a complete personality development. This inner force of expansion creates a feeling of attraction toward another, resulting in a sense of closeness and unity.
‘All You Need is Love’
Love is the thread that binds us to those people most dear. It nurtures important relationships — whether between friends, spouses, children and parents, or the love for our Creator — and helps these interactions to thrive. The powerful emotion has no limitations, transcending boundaries of time and place. In the Torah itself, there are explicit commandments stressing the importance of creating an active well-developed love inside: whether to “love your neighbor as yourself,” or to love God — “with all your heart, all your soul and with all your might.”
What drives the feeling of love? Sometimes love stems from the recognition of a striking or admirable quality. Here, the mind guides the heart; the more aware we are of these virtues, the stronger the pull. Other times, love is not provoked by any perception, but stems from a more innate bond. Ask a parent, for example, why they love their child. Even when the parent can list many exceptional qualities that the child possesses, it’s not any specific talent or virtue which serves as the ultimate cause for the love; the why transcends reason—it’s simply because “this is my child.”
Ideally, in those areas where we decide to channel our love, we want the emotion to be pure, free of any external factors. At the same time, there may be an advantage to using the mind to recognize special qualities and enhance the love.
The Mishnah
This Shabbat, the Chapter in Pirkei Avot contains a Mishnah (5:16) which discusses these two types of love: “Any love that is dependent on something — when the thing ceases, the love also ceases. But a love that is not dependent on anything never ceases. What is [an example of] a love that is dependent on something? The love of Amnon for Tamar. And one that is not dependent on anything? The love of David and Jonathan.”
At first glance, the Mishnah seems to contain no novel teachings, only stating an obvious rule: Love born from an attraction to a specific quality will disappear whenever that quality disappears whereas a love that is not tied to any perceived advantage will endure. Indeed, everyone is familiar with the concept of conditional and unconditional love — so why are illustrations even necessary? Furthermore, of all the characters (and relationships) in Jewish literature, why were these two cases chosen as examples?
A precise analysis of the Hebrew word for “dependent,” however, reveals a hidden lesson wherein the Mishnah is not referring to what originally prompted the emotion but to the present status. Whenever the feeling of love is currently tied to a specific appreciation in the other — even if it was once unconditional love — there is a risk: If that feature ceases, so will the love. From the other angle, even when love was originally tied to some superficial appreciation or gain, it can evolve into an essential love. In other words, if right now the love is independent of any condition, regardless of its starting point, then it can possess that enduring power.
To emphasize this novelty, the Mishnah brings these specific examples from Tanach: one containing an innate love which changed into a superficial love and another where friendship transformed into unconditional love.
Some people may think along the lines of the old English proverb, “blood is thicker than water,” that family bonds are stronger than those of outside relationships, such as friendship or acquired love. As a result, they may be lax in building that love among the family members, taking these relationships for granted. Alternatively, people may be so focused on themselves and their family unit, creating an imaginary dynasty, that they neglect the opportunity to strengthen relationships outside.
So, the Mishnah provides an example wherein the love of Amnon and Tamar, his sister, was an essential love but the emotion disappeared when circumstances changed. An innate bond between siblings reverted to that of strangers. Conversely, we find a story of a friendship where the bond was so deep that it became like family. “After David finished speaking to Shaul, Jonathan’s soul became joined to David’s soul, and Jonathan loved him as himself” (Samuel 1, 1:18).
The lesson from the Mishnah is that we must pinpoint our most cherished relationships (in multiple areas) and be conscious of what is presently fueling that bond. Love, regardless of the starting point, needs to be practiced and nurtured. The goal is to increase our tangible appreciation of the other’s unique traits, while ensuring that the essential force behind that love should not be tied to what we find attractive or beneficial — the gain — but independent of any virtue.

Leave a Reply