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A Tale of Two Loves

Monday, 2 June, 2014 - 9:50 am

A Jewish woman goes to see her Rabbi and asks, "Jack and Aib are both in love with me, who will be the lucky one?" The wise old Rabbi answers, "Jack will marry you. Aib will be the lucky one."

Jewish proverb: "A Jewish wife will forgive, but she'll never forget what she forgave."

This Tuesday evening June 3rd we begin to celebrate the Holiday of Shavuot for two days, King David—whose yartzeit is on Shavuot—remains one of the most fascinating, and majestic figures in Jewish history. The combination of wisdom, humility, honesty and spirituality coupled with courage, power, passion, and leadership, conferred upon him the status of the ultimate Jewish king and leader.

Two of the most powerful stories of love in the Tanach are also associated with him and one of his children. They are summarized by our sages in the Ethics of the Fathers The Mishnah teaches: "Any love that depends on something, when that thing ceases, the love will cease. But if it does not depend on anything, it will endure forever.

“What is an example of a love that depended on something? The love Amnon had for Tamar. What is a love that did not depend on anything? The love between David and Jonathan."

Let us recall these two narratives of love: II Samuel chapter 13 tells the story of Amnon and Tamar, both children of King David, but from different wives. They were half-siblings, sharing the same father, but not the same mother. Tamar was a most beautiful young woman, her appeal was extraordinarily powerful. Her half-brother Amnon developed a great longing and infatuation with her. He became obsessed with her. At the advice of Amnon’s sly friend, Yonadav, he feigned being terribly ill, and King David sent Tamar to be with him and nurture him. Tamar, fried latkes and dumplings for him. When Tamar entered his room and they were left alone, he attempted to seduce her. Tamar refused his advances. She pleaded with him not to engage in such a heinous act. But Amnon, driven by his physical attraction was relentless. He did not control himself and he overpowered his sister, raped her and then expelled her from his home.

No sooner had he done this than, the Torah relates, and “Amnon hated her... with a hatred that was greater than the love with which he had loved her”. Tamar’s full brother Absalom, who learnt of the story, had Amnon killed two years later. This ultimately led to the ill-fated rebellion of Absalom against his father David, which ultimately caused his own demise.

This is the meaning of the Mishna’s words: Amnon's "love" depended upon physical attraction. It was not Tamar he loved, it was himself that he loved—for her beauty could satisfy his cravings. The moment she satisfied him, the love was gone and it was replaced by hate.

The second story of love: David and Jonathan were two strangers. They were the most unlikely candidates for a genuine friendship. Jonathan was the son of King Saul, the first king of Israel. David, a young shepherd, had become Saul's rival for the affections and loyalty of the Israelites because he proved himself a brave warrior in his conflict with the Philistine giant Goliath, whom he slew, and because he was enormously successful in battle against the Philistines, the archenemies of the Jewish people. His charisma, majesty and dignity were singular and the masses were drawn to him. Saul became deeply fearful that David will overthrow him.

However, between Jonathan and David, there grew a friendship marked by genuine love, loyalty, commitment, and devotion. This was unusual because as the natural hair for the throne it was Jonathan who should have mostly resented David. Yet their respect and love for each other transcended self-serving motivations. When Saul sought to kill his young rival, David, Jonathan who was caught between “a rock and a hard ball”—between his love and loyalty to his father, King Saul, and his love and loyalty to his best friend, David, responded in a way that only genuine love can beget. He saved his friend's life without compromising his father's dignity. When Saul and Jonathan were killed in battled with the Philistines, David eulogized him with these words:

I grieve for you, my brother Jonathan,

You were most dear to me,

Your love was wondrous to me,

More than the love of women.

There are two types of love. The first is an attraction and connection between two people that is based on some ulterior motive: I love your money, your looks, your cleverness, your But beauty may fade, physical passion wane, “common interests” grow less interesting; people whose ideas and whose company we once found stimulating can become repetitious and unexciting. Bereft of its cause and basis, such love dissipates.

Once Rabbi Israel observed a man eating a piece of chicken with great fervor. "What's the excitement all about"? asked the rabbi. "I love this chicken," replied the man.

"I highly doubt you love the chicken," the rabbi told him. "This chicken was slaughtered, plucked, sliced and then cooked for your sake. Is that how you treat all those you love?

"You don't love the chicken; you love yourself. You cherish the chicken for being able to serve your esophagus so proficiently."

Similarly, you may love your spouse because of what you receive in return. Your spouse grants you companionship and bestows spice, quality and flavor on your daily existence. You must acknowledge, however, that though this love is profoundly beneficial, it is also conditional and can be temporary. What happens when some of your spouse's beloved qualities wane, or when they no longer appeal to you, or when you find somebody who seems to profess superior qualities? Often this marks the end of a romance. Why should I be here for you if you can't be here for me any longer?" This is a good question, one that has caused and continues to cause the death of many a marriage.

But there is a second type of love. This is unconditional love. This is a truly altruistic love, a love in which two souls bond and fuse with no external motives or reasons. Such a love never dies.

The clearest illustration for this second type of love recorded in the Mishnah is the love of parents to children. Your child may “ruin” your life in every way possible, he may cause you consternation of every sort, yet you love him or her all the same.

It was a busy morning, approx. 8:30 A.M. when an elderly gentleman, in his 80's, arrived to the Dr’s office. He stated that he was in a hurry as he had an appointment at 9:00 A.M. I took his vital signs and had him take a seat, knowing it would be over an hour before someone would be able to see him. While taking care of him, we began to engage in conversation. I asked him if he had a doctor's appointment this morning, as he was in such a hurry. The gentleman told me no, that he needed to go to the nursing home to eat breakfast with his wife. I then inquired as to her health. He told me that she had been there for a while and that she was a victim of Alzheimer Disease.

As we talked, I asked if she would be worried if he was a bit late. He replied that she no longer knew who he was, that she had not recognized him in five years now. I was surprised and asked him, "And you are still going every morning, even though she doesn't know who you are?"

He smiled as he patted my hand and said, "She doesn't know me, but I still know who she is."

I had to hold back tears as he left, I had goose bumps on my arms, and thought, "That is the kind of love I want in my life."

"To be loved for what one truly is, is the great exception," Goethe said. The majority of people love in others that which they receive from them. I love the part of you that gives me fulfillment and benefits. I love my version of you, not you. Yet the Mishnah is teaching us that even a love that originates in mutual interest, if it is worked on, if the people are ready for that level of loyalty and devotion, can morph into a love similar to David and Jonathan.

Why? Because as humans created in the Divine image, we each possess in our psyche the potential for the ability to be selfless, to transcend our self-interest and to truly be here for someone else, on their terms, not on our own terms.

A happy Shavuot and may the receving of the Torah be with joy,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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