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Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse nineteen

We have finished with the fours (and the sevens and the tens before them), and are in to the last few verses of Chapter Five. Here’s the Judah Goldin translation:

If love depends on some selfish end, when the end fails, love fails; but if it does not depend on a selfish end, it will never fail. An example of love which depended on a selfish end? That was the love of Amnon for Tamar. An example of love which did not depend on a selfish end? That was the love of David and Jonathan.

For those that don’t know the story and would rather not click through, Amnon rapes his sister Tamar and then throws her out into the street. It’s brought up here, presumably, because of the description that beforehand, Amnon is completely obsessed with his desire, and afterwards, he hates his victim and is filled with disgust. Amnon is murdered by Absalom in revenge, and civil war erupts after that. It’s a rather extreme case, I would say. I’m not sure that it’s really helpful to say to somebody don’t be like Amnon; good advice, sure, but few people think they need it.

I do, however, think that the general advice is excellent. Joseph ben Judah ibn Aknin likens it to the love of a woman for her beauty; if the woman gets sick and loses her beauty (think smallpox scars), the love dies. Or, he says, to friendship with a rich man with an end to sharing in his wealth; if he loses his riches, the love is lost as well. Money, you’ve got lots of friends, they come prowling around your door. but when it’s gone and spending ends, they don’t come around here no more.

Of course, there again, the man who is aware that his friendship is entirely mercenary (or that his relationship is entirely prurient) is probably not going to slap his forehead upon hearing this advice and shout I see it now—when my selfish end fails, so too will my love! No, I expect that most people delude themselves into thinking their love does not depend on a selfish end, or else are sufficiently cynical to be glad that their love will end if there is no more to be got from it. I suppose it’s a useful warning to the person with beauty or wealth, that not all the love you experience is unselfish; again, such people probably know it from experience while quite young.

What’s more interesting, actually, is the insistence that (a) the love between Jonathan and David was entirely unselfish, and that (2) that love never failed. The relationship was, I have to say, fraught—David has ambitions within the royal house, and he has more or less been promised a royal daughter to wed, and Saul believes him to have ambitions toward the crown itself. And the result of David using his beauty and charm on the royal household is that he becomes King himself. Or he gets the crown because he combines successful military adventuring with wisdom in administration, gaining massive popular support, sure. I think the Sages here are insisting on the innocence and unselfishness of the relationship precisely because there are suspicious circumstances. Not to mention the question of Jonathan’s potential desire for David, one of the few people in the Scripture who is described as physically beautiful. There’s often a certain defensiveness when talking about David and Jonathan, as probably there should be.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,