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Parashat Hukkat: Growth Through Otherness

by Aryeh Bernstein | Published on July 1, 2003

In an obscure verse in Parashat Hukkat, the Torah, describing Israel’s jour­neys in the desert, describes the geog­raphy of one of their pit-stops (Be-midbar 21:13):

מִשָּׁם נָסָעוּ וַיַּחֲנוּ מֵעֵבֶר אַרְנוֹן אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּדְבָּר הַיֹּצֵא מִגְּבֻל הָאֱמֹרִי כִּי אַרְנוֹן גְּבוּל מוֹאָב בֵּין מוֹאָב וּבֵין הָאֱמֹרִי They set out and encamped beyond Arnon, that is, in the wilder­ness that extends from the terri­tory of the Amorites. For the Arnon is the boundary of Mo’av, between Mo’av and the Amorites. 

The Torah then does some­thing pecu­liar. In order that this geograph­ical descrip­tion should resonate with the reader, the Torah quotes from another book, called “סֵפֶר מִלְחֲמֹת יְהֹוָה” (“The Book of the Wars of the Lord”), which was appar­ently familiar to the ancient reader, even though we have no more remnant of it. The Torah quotes the frag­men­tary and unclear passage as follows (ibid., 14–15):

עַל כֵּן יֵאָמַר בְּסֵפֶר מִלְחֲמֹת יְהֹוָה אֶת וָהֵב בְּסוּפָה וְאֶת הַנְּחָלִים אַרְנוֹן:  וְאֶשֶׁד הַנְּחָלִים אֲשֶׁר נָטָה לְשֶׁבֶת עָר וְנִשְׁעַן לִגְבוּל מוֹאָב Therefore it says in Sefer Milhemot YHWH, “…Vahev in Sufah and the wadis of Arnon, and the trib­u­tary wadis stretched along the settled country of ‘Ar, hugging the border of Mo’av”.

Much of Rabbinic imag­i­na­tion works asso­cia­tively and under­stands each passage in the Torah to be poten­tially preg­nant with meaning that may reflect on any other part of the Torah and even the whole Tanakh. Since we no longer have the actual Sefer Milhemot YHWH, what we are left with is the asso­ci­a­tion of books, wars, and God, an asso­ci­a­tion that then stands avail­able to comment on our own expe­ri­ences in the world. Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba cracks open such an asso­ci­a­tion in the gemara in Qiddushin (30b), trig­gered by a verse in Psalms (127:5):

אשרי הגבר אשר מלא את אשפתו מהם לא יבושו כי ידברו את אויבים בשער Happy is the man who has filled his quiver with them; they shall not be put to shame when they speak with their enemies in the gate.

Reflecting on the gemara’s ques­tion “What is [the meaning of] ‘with their enemies at the gate’?”, Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba teaches:

אמר רבי חייא בר אבא: אפילו האב ובנו, הרב ותלמידו, שעוסקין בתורה בשער אחד נעשים אויבים זה את זה, ואינם זזים משם עד שנעשים אוהבים זה את זה.  שנאמר: את והב בסופה, אל תקרי “בְּסוּפָה”, אלא “בּֽסוֹפָהּ Even a parent and child or a rabbi and disciple, engaging in Torah in one gate, are made enemies of each other, and they don’t move from there until they are made to love each other. As it says, “…Vahev in Sufah” — don’t read it as “Sufah”, but as “Sofah”.

Let us unpack Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba’s teaching. He explains this idea of speaking with one’s enemies at the gate with the picture of two people, even two inti­mates, such as a parent and child or teacher and student, studying Torah in one place: somehow, the expe­ri­ence of studying Torah brings them from a place of animosity to a place of love. The verse in the Torah which trig­gers this inter­pre­ta­tion for Rav Hiyya bar Abba is our verse, “…be–sefer Milchemot YHWH: et Vahev ba-Sufah”, and Rabbi Hiyya suggests a play on words: don’t pronounce it “Sufah” (which is the name of a place), rather “sofah” — “in the end”. He appar­ently also re-reads the other long-forgotten place name, Et Vahev — אֶת וָהֵב (pronounced, in ancient times, “Et Wahev”), as “et’ahev,” a reflexive form of the word “ahavah” — “love”. That is, the verse morphs in meaning as follows:

Plain meaning: “Therefore, it is said in Sefer Milhemot YHWH/The Book of Wars of the Lord, “…Vahev in Sufah…”

Associative meaning: “Therefore, it is said: In the Sefer/Book (or, maybe “via the Sefer”) are wars of the Lord; and mutual love at the end.” The study of Torah begins in hostility and ends in love.

What is Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba trying to tell us? Rashi explains that the people learning Torah together are “enemies” at the begin­ning because “each one raises diffi­cul­ties against the other, and neither one accepts what the other one has to say” (“מתוך שמקשים זה לזה ואין זה מקבל דברי זה”). Nevertheless, he continues, “a war that is waged via the Book will end up in love” (“מלחמה שעל ידי ספר אהבה יש בסופה”).

Rashi’s inter­pre­ta­tion is provoca­tive. Two people whose different person­al­i­ties, ideolo­gies, and atti­tudes make them hate each other — that is, whose ideas are so foreign to each other that they feel repul­sion toward them and reject the potent “other­ness” of the other person — these people can reach a place of love through the enter­prise of Talmud Torah. Rashi focuses on the word “sefer” — “book”: even though their ideas are different and foreign, they find that they have common ground, in that they share the same precious Book, which each one is convinced tells his or her story. It is that common ground, that shared reality, that “same­ness”, that helps them find a way to move past their differ­ences, and love each other in their new-found commonality.

Rashi’s inter­pre­ta­tion is an impor­tant and insightful charge to all of us who hope to engage in the enter­prises of team­work, group living, part­ner­ship, and peace­making: it is incum­bent upon us not to get stuck in the “other­ness” of people with whom we have conflicts, but to seek out shared reality and common ground on which we can build.  In many respects, this is the basic task of peacemaking.

However, there is, dare I say, a subtly sinister poten­tial lurking in the shadows of such an approach. Does this approach not lead me to neglect under­standing impor­tant parts of the other person, just because I can’t fit them into MY world? Might this approach not lead me to neglect some of my own, legit­i­mate needs, fore­going them in order to fit the other person’s pre-existing world? Couldn’t this kind of shared reality be just a thin veneer, cloaking the real resent­ments and hurt stewing beneath the surface, ready to explode at the mildest distur­bance? And doesn’t such an approach de-flavor the world by suppressing life’s variety?

It is perhaps with these hard ques­tions in mind that we find a subtly, but radi­cally, different inter­pre­ta­tion of the gemara in the words of Rav Yitzchak Hutner (1906–1980), the late rosh yeshiva of Brooklyn’s own Yeshivat Chaim Berlin. These two Torah learners do not come to love each other in spite of their orig­inal animosity for each other, as Rashi argued; rather, says Rav Hutner, they come to love each other through that orig­inal animosity (Pahad Yitzhaq, Hanukah: 3):

אין העניין בכאן שהאהבה לבסוף באה היא למרות המחלוחת הקודמת, אלא שכך היא דרך גידולה של אהבה זו שהיא נולדת ומתגדלת דוקא על קרקע המחלוקת הקודמת.  מפני שכל אהבה מגיעה למרום פסגתה בשעה ששני הצדדים יש להם שותפות של יצירה, ושני הצדדים המתנגחים בהלכה הרי הם שותפים ליצור של ערך תורה חדש… The point is not that love comes even­tu­ally in spite of their orig­inal dispute; rather, the way love grows is that it is born and grows specif­i­cally on the ground of their earlier dispute. For all love reaches its highest peak when two sides share a creative part­ner­ship, and when two sides battle in halakhah, they are part­ners in creating a new Torah value…

Two people enter the market­place of ideas, each one convinced that he or she is right, and ready to convince and change the other one. If they actu­ally engage each other — not just on the points where they can agree, but espe­cially on the points where they disagree — and they take each other seri­ously, they can poten­tially create a discourse that is much richer than that which either of them brought to the table. Ideas that never knew each other — that were foreign and totally “other” to each other — get brought together, gener­ating all sorts of new asso­ci­a­tions. Your greatest ideas may emerge through the impact your “enemy” has on them, not in spite of the different-ness, but because of it.

This idea has immense gener­a­tive poten­tial in our personal rela­tion­ships and along fault lines of commu­nity clashes wher­ever they threaten to erupt. Some bravery is required to engage it, as is painfully clear where I live, in Jerusalem, but if we and our “enemies”, whoever they be, summon the courage to open that book, please God, we may imagine new worlds into existence.

Aryeh Bernstein lives in Jerusalem and is the Recruitment and Alumni Programming Director of New York’s Yeshivat Hadar (www​.mechon​hadar​.org). He was also a founder of the Northwoods Kollel and Beit Midrash Program at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. A version of this devar torah was orig­i­nally written for Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and can be found on its web site. The seed of the idea was planted by his teacher, Rav David Bigman, Rosh Yeshivat Maale Gilboa.

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