It’s not often that I get the chance to muse upon Haftarat Makhar Hodesh, the haftarah read when Shabbat immediately precedes a new moon/new month/Rosh Hodesh. So I’m going to avail myself of the opportunity.
This haftarah comes from stories from the Tanakh which have seen increased interest in the past few decades – the relationship between David and Jonathan. The question has been asked, for countless ages, if the relationship being described is platonic, homosocial, or homosexual.
While this topic, in and of itself, makes for fascinating discussion, it is not my focus today. That being said, I believe there is ample reason to believe that Oscar Wilde was correct when he spoke at his trial when questioned as to the meaning of the “The love that dare not speak its name” (the closing line to Lord Douglas’ 1894 poem, “Two Loves.”) Wilde said, at trial:
" ‘The love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan…”
This haftarah and the relationship between Jonathan and David spoke out to me this week mostly because I have been re-reading Buber’s “I and Thou” in preparation for participation in an online study group. In a most unusual circumstance for me, I find myself in almost total agreement with the rabbis, who in the Mishnah (Avot) cite the relationship between Jonathan and David in this way:
What love is that which is inspired by ulterior motives? E.g. the love of Amnon and Tamar. And what love is without such motives? E.g., the love of David and Jonathan.
Or a smoother translation/interpretation:
Any loving relationship which depends upon something, [when] that thing is gone, the love is gone. But any which does not depend upon something will never come to an end.... What is a loving relationship which does not depend upon something? That is the love of David and Jonathan. [Avot 5:18]
The story of the relationship of Amnon and Tamar is told in II Samuel, chapter 13. It is a sad tale. Amnon, one of David’s sons, is besotted with one of his half-brother Absalom’s daughters, Tamar. Through deceit he manages to get Tamar alone, and, despite her protestations, have his way with her (she was a virgin.) Yet once the deed was done, he lost all passion and interest for her, and, again despite her pleas to the contrary, sent her away. Absalom tells Tamar to keep quiet for the moment, planning to serve his revenge cold, which he does some two years later, having Amnon killed.
The relationship between Jonathan and David is the classic example of an “I-You” relationship. What makes this all the more amazing is the potential for the benefits of an “I-It” relationship between Jonathan and David. Remember who they were. Jonathan was Saul’s son, potential heir to the throne. David was the young upstart that, upon G”d’s insistence (well, at least according to the prophet Samuel) would be replacing Saul as King. To begin with, there was every reason for jealousy and rivalry between these two – even before David’s role as replacement for Saul became known. However, from the beginning, their relationship is one of admiration, respect, loyalty, and, most importantly, love.
Such was the love between Jonathan and David, that when Saul decided to stand against David, Jonathan backed not his father, but his friend (lover?) with the knowing risk of forfeiting his own opportunity to sit on the throne. Jonathan seemed to believe that David would make a better King than Saul, and perhaps better than Jonathan himself.Consider the many other ways this story could have unfolded. Jonathan and David could have easily engaged in “I-It” relating, each seeking some ulterior purpose.
And what of Amnon and Tamar? Was that even a relationship? There’s no indication at all that Tamar was interested in Amnon. This was a one-way lusting. Love? Was there any love in this relationship? As profound and deeply as Amnon may have felt, there was no love present, at least not ahava love.
So, while I agree with the rabbis that the relationship between Jonathan and David was an example of pure, unselfish love, I (and you knew this was coming) have to take exception to their using the story of Amnon and Tamar as a comparator. Surely they could have found a better example of a love and relationship based on selfish motives? Cain and Abel. Jacob and Esau. Rebecca and Esau. Rebecca and Jacob, for that matter. David and Bathsheva? David and Uriah?
Jonathan winds up dead, and David is certainly no high moral achiever during the remainder of his life. Yet, in a lifetime of questionable moral choices, David’s relationship with Jonathan is a Noah-like “not bad considering everything else” moral moment. It is worthy of being held up by the rabbis as a paragon of relationships.
I-It relationships can be easy, but eventually empty and meaningless. I-You relationships are difficult to establish and maintain. I imagine that all of us have experienced both types of relationships. In reality, I think many relationships hover between I-You and I-It, sometimes comfortably, sometimes uncomfortably.
(I’m not delving much deeper into Buber and “I and Thou” in this essay. I refer to it in a sort of stereotypical over-simplification. “Ich and Du” is too complex and profound a work to do much more than that here and now.)
In the haftarah, Jonathan arranges to meet with and/or warn away David. He defends David’s noticeable absence at court to Saul, who remains enraged and both David and Jonathan for siding with David. Seeing that there is no hope, Jonathan uses the pre-arranged signal to entice David from hiding, whereupon they meet, profess their abiding love, and go their separate ways. Knowing, of course, that this might likely be the last time they ever meet. It’s a heart-wrenching scene. Yet the relationship of David and Jonathan, being somewhat like that of Romeo an Juliette, was doomed, perhaps, from the start. David & Jonathan m,ay have sensed this from the beginning, but they could not help themselves, so strong was the attraction, the bond, the love between them, even from the start. (How rare it seems, the affection or crush that turns out to be true, reciprocated, unselfish love.)
The story of David and Jonathan gives me hope. I’m not sure why, because it doesn’t turn out well, at least not for Jonathan. David, at least, was able to console himself with his many futures wives and concubines. But those relationships were likely different, and not as purely I-You as the one he had with Jonathan. Perhaps it gives me hope because it reinforces the notion of better having loved and lost than to never have loved at all. It gives nme something to strive for, to be a better person, even with all my imperfections. Better, that for one, brief, shining moment, there was a Camelot.
How do we work to make our relationships truly loving, to be truly as I-You as possible? How do we handle it when we are less than successful – when the relationship is asymmetrical. Can a true I-You relationship ever fail? If it fails, was it ever truly an I-You relationship? Hard questions to both ask and answer. If nothing else, reading about the relationship between Jonathan and David inspires me to keep trying, to the best of my ability, to have and maintain truly loving, unselfish, I-You relationships. Such relationships can exist in many forms – in a marriage or partnership, in a friendship, even I dare suggest, in a professional relationship. I-You relationships seem to go against the norm for business relationships in a capitalistic society, yet I believe they are possible, and can even be the gateway to a whole new way of doing “business” that is more predicated on an I-You way of thinking as opposed to “I-It.” I don’t want to spoil anything for any of my readers who might later engage in the upcoming book discussions about “I and Thou” but I am also seriously considering how these relationships can and might work in educational situations. (Does, for example, standardized testing utilize an “I-It” perspective, and if so, how can we measure student learning in a more I-You way?)
What re-reading “I and Thou” along with thinking about the relationship of David and Jonathan does for me is cause me to reconsider how I interact with all people – students, friends, lovers, spouses, merchants, strangers. It makes me want to have better relationships with all of them. It makes me want to show myself and others what is possible. It compels me to carry forward the message of what is possible in human relationships (and relationship with the Divine) by retelling the stories of those brief, shining moments.
As Arthur observes to Pellinore at the end of the musical Camelot, when Pellinore asks Arthur who was the young man he was talking to:
One of what we all are, Pelly. Less than a drop in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea. But it seems that some of the drops sparkle, Pelly. Some of them do sparkle!.
Let us all strive to be the drops that sparkle, and carry the message of hope to others now and in the future.
“Run, boy! Run, boy! Runnnnn! Oh, run, my boy.”
©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Tol'dot 5773 - More Teleology
Tol'dot 5771 - Keeping the Bathwater
Toldot 5769 - There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This
Toldot 5768 - Alternate Histories, Alternate Shmistories
Toldot 5767-They Also Serve...
Toldot 5765-Purposeless Fire
Toledot 5764-What a Bother!
Toledot 5763-Not Sticking in The Knife