Ulterior Motives


A 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.  Which is 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.

Ethics of the Fathers 5:16

On the surface, the difference between these two types of love seems obvious. The first is an attraction and connection between two people that is based on some ulterior motive: the lover wishes to benefit in some way from his relationship with the beloved. 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. But a truly altruistic love, a love in which two souls bond and fuse with no external motives or reasons, is eternal and invincible.

But a closer examination of the two examples cited by the Ethics yields some interesting results. The story of Amnon and Tamar is related in Samuel II chapter 13: Amnon was stricken by an incestuous desire for his sister Tamar and forced himself on her. His lust sated, “Amnon hated her… with a hatred that was greater than the love with which he had loved her” (ibid, 13:16).

As brother and sister, Amnon and Tamar were connected by an intrinsic bond that is not based on any external causes. The bond between siblings, as the bond between parent and child, stems from the fact that they are “one flesh”; it is a quintessential bond, one that is not caused by the beloved’s goodness, intelligence, physical beauty or any other such factors. Nevertheless, though this bond always exists, it is not always expressed in a person’s consciousness and behavior. It may lie dormant in the depths of one’s heart for years. Or, it may manifest itself only in the form of a lesser, externally motivated love, one that is limited to an appreciation of the beloved’s qualities. In the case of Amnon, his love for his sister was expressed only in the corrupt form of incestuous desire.

In other words, the example of Amnon’s love for and subsequent hate of Tamar illustrates that even a relationship which is in essence altruistic can be expressed in a way that makes it dependent on secondary factors. When this happens, these secondary elements become vital to the relationship – without them, the love cannot survive, at least not on any conscious level.

On the other hand, the love between David and Jonathan began as an ordinary friendship between two people with no intrinsic connection to each other – a friendship that is based on one’s appreciation and enjoyment of the other’s positive qualities. Yet their friendship developed into a truly altruistic love:

“Jonathan’s soul became bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” (Samuel I 18:1)

Jonathan risked his life for David even though David’s very existence was to his detriment: Jonathan, the eldest son of King Saul, was initially destined to succeed his father as king of Israel. When Saul learned that David had been anointed by the prophet Samuel to be the next king, he wished to kill him; it was Jonathan who repeatedly saved David from Saul’s plans, telling David “You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be second to you” (ibid, 23:17).

It is therefore significant that the Ethics speaks of “a love that is dependent on something” and “a love that is not dependent on anything,” using the term “dependent on” (t’luyah) as opposed to “based on” or “caused by.” As the examples of Amnon and Jonathan demonstrate, the original cause and basis for a relationship does not, in itself, determine the nature of its expression. A quintessential love may be experienced only as something which is dependent on external factors, in which case the nature of the relationship is that of “a love that is dependent on something.” And a relationship that is initially based on “ulterior” motives can develop into “a love that is not dependent on anything.”

From Within

In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides dwells on the significance of the concept of “love of G-d.”  In chapter 10 of The Laws of Repentance he writes:

“One who serves G-d out of love occupies himself with the Torah and the mitzvot and follows the pathways of wisdom not for any reason in the world – not out of fear of evil or out of a desire to inherit the good; rather, he does the truth because it is true…  This is the level which G-d enjoins us to attain, as it is written ‘You shall love the L-rd your G-d.’ When a person loves G-d with a proper love, he observes the mitzvot out of love…
“One who occupies himself with the Torah in order to receive reward or to escape punishment is doing it not for its own sake (shelo lishmah). And one who occupies himself with it… out of a love for the Master of the Universe who has commanded it to us is doing it for its own sake (lishmah). Said our sages: ‘A person should always occupy himself with the Torah, even if he is doing it not for its own sake; since from doing it not for its own sake he will come to do it for its own sake.’ ”

Chassidic teaching takes this a step further. Not only is doing the right thing for the wrong reasons desirable because it will ultimately lead to a more perfect state in which one “does the truth because it is true,” but even now, before attaining this higher state, one is doing it for the right reasons. While his conscious self may focus on the physical and spiritual benefits of leading a righteous life, deep down, in his heart of hearts, there is a part of him that is intrinsically connected to the truth and desires it in a purely altruistic manner. This idea is also expressed in the saying which Maimonides quotes. The Hebrew word mitoch means “from within”; so a literal translation of the saying would read:

“A person should always occupy himself with the Torah, even if he is doing it not for its own sake, since from within his doing it not for its own sake he will come to do it for its own sake.”

In other words, within a person’s ulterior motives lies a deeper truth – the desire, rooted in the very essence of his soul, to do what is right for its own sake.

However, this quintessential self is not, at the present phase of his spiritual development, expressed in his conscious feelings and day-to-day behavior. So although his desire to fulfill the Divine will “contains” a purely selfless love for G-d, his relationship with the Almighty is dependent upon other, external factors: his appreciation of how he would benefit, materially and spiritually, by leading a Torah-true life.

Superficial But Crucial

Therein lies a two-fold lesson of the Ethics’ discussion of “dependent” and “independent” love.

If you find that the good that you do is “tainted” with ulterior motives, do not discount the value of what you are doing. Ultimately, as the love of David and Jonathan demonstrates, a feeling originally born out of external causes can grow into “a love that is not dependent on anything” and ever-enduring. For at the core of your deeds and feelings lies a pure, altruistic commitment to your Creator and to the purpose of your creation. By being true to this commitment in your daily life, you will ultimately cause it to be realized also as an expressed and tangible feeling in your heart.

But one may take this to the other extreme, and say to himself: “If I indeed subconsciously possess a selfless love for the Almighty, why not rid myself of my imperfect feelings? Had I not best banish every self-oriented motive from my heart, so that my true nature may come to light?

So the Ethics cites the case of Amnon as its example for “a love that is dependent on something.” Although a quintessential bond underlay his relationship to Tamar, it did not “come to light” when his selfish love was undone. For though this bond did exist, it did not find expression in his feelings toward his sister. So when his “dependent love” lost its basis, it was replaced not by an altruistic love but by hatred and revulsion.

In Amnon’s case, his selfish “love” for his sister was corrupt and ruinous. But the lesson to be derived from it concerns the positive application of “dependent love.” It teaches us that our sense of how G-d’s Torah is beneficial to our lives must be fostered and cultivated. One must remember that “a love that is dependent on something – when the thing ceases, the love also ceases”; that as long as a person has not yet translated his quintessential love for G-d into a manifest feeling in his heart these external factors are vital to his relationship with the Almighty, as expressed in his conscious thoughts and feelings and in his day-to-day behavior.

From an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Bechukosai 5733 (May 26, 1973)

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


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