Leaning into Conflict to Nurture Love — D’var Torah, Parashat Chukat, 5781

Published Jun 18, 2021
Aryeh Bernstein speaking with his hand raised outward
In the most obscure verse in this week’s parasha, Chukat, perhaps the most obscure in the whole Torah, Scripture catalogs Israel’s journeys in the desert and describes the geography of one of their pit-stops:  “…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” (Bemidbar/Numbers 21:13). The Torah then does something peculiar. In order that this geographical description should resonate with the reader, the Torah quotes from another book, called “Sefer Milchemot YHWH” (“The Book of the Wars of YHWH”), which was apparently familiar to the ancient reader, although we have no more remnant of it. The Torah quotes the fragmentary and unclear passage from that book as follows:
“Therefore it says in Sefer Milchemot YHWH, ‘…Wahev in Sufah and the wadis of Arnon, and the tributary wadis stretched along the settled country of ‘Ar, hugging the border of Mo’av” (ibid., 14). 
עַל כֵּן֙ יֵֽאָמַ֔ר בְּסֵ֖פֶר מִלְחֲמֹ֣ת יְהוָ֑ה: אֶת וָהֵ֣ב בְּסוּפָ֔ה וְאֶת הַנְּחָלִ֖ים אַרְנֽוֹן. וְאֶ֙שֶׁד֙
הַנְּחָלִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָטָ֖ה לְשֶׁ֣בֶת עָ֑ר וְנִשְׁעַ֖ן לִגְב֥וּל מוֹאָֽב׃.
We no longer have the actual Sefer Milchemot YHWH, so the Rabbinic imagination is left with an association of books, wars, and God. In the gemara (Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 30b), Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba, commenting on a verse in Psalms, says:
“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.”
He explains this idea by quoting our verse: “…be-sefer Milchemot YHWH: et Wahev ba-Sufah” (“in the book Wars of YHWH, et Wahev ba-Sufah”), and suggesting a play on words: don’t pronounce it “Sufah” (which is the name of a place), rather “sofah”, meaning, “in the end”. He apparently also rereads the other long-forgotten place name, “Et Wahev” as “et’ahev”, a reflexive form of the word “ahava”, meaning love. That is, the verse becomes understood as follows: “In the Book (or, via the Book) are wars of YHWH; and mutual love at the end.”  Torah study begins in hostility and ends in love.
What is Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba trying to tell us? Rashi (1040-1105, Troyes, France) 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.”  Nevertheless, “a war that is waged via the Book, will end up in love.”
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 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 their personal 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 coalition and movement work, 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.
However, there is a subtly sinister potential lurking in the shadows of this approach. Doesn’t it 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 so-called shared reality mask an unspoken colonization of the weaker party by the stronger one? Couldn’t it be just a thin veneer, cloaking the real resentments and hurt that are 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 Rav Yitzchok Hutner (1906-1980, Warsaw; Brooklyn) lays out a subtly, but radically, different interpretation of the gemara. Rav Hutner says that these two Torah learners do not come to love each other IN SPITE OF their original animosity for each other; rather, they come to love each other THROUGH their original animosity. Their love is born, nurtured, grows, and develops specifically on the fertile ground of their earlier disagreement. “Love reaches its highest peaks when two sides share a creative partnership,” says Rav Hutner, and the so-called “war of Torah” is “a positive creation of new Torah values”, that would not have existed had the two parties never argued (Pachad Yitzchak, Chanukah 3). Two people enter the marketplace of ideas, each one convinced that they are 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 on them by a person with whom you are in conflict, not IN SPITE of the conflict, but BECAUSE of it.
Rav Hutner is emphasizing that dispute (“machloket” in Hebrew) is not a bug of learning culture, but a core, operational feature. In ideological spheres of life, if you and I argue and assert our different opinions, we may only deepen hostility. That is why people block Facebook friends with opposite political views, and why some Jewish organizational listservs have banned talking about Israel. In learning culture, though, in what we aspire to in healthy Torah culture, when you and I discuss a text and read it differently, we feel closer via the conversation, even if we do not reach consensus. The “Sefer”, the book, which turns our hostility into love, is not necessarily finding shared meaning, but shared space, shared language, a shared playing field that is strong enough to support the diversity of our voices, even as we continue to try to convince each other, as we discover that our differences can exist in productive tension, can cohere in dialogical relationship, as honest reflections of The Book.
I’d like to suggest that Rashi’s interpretation and Rav Hutner’s are also not mutually exclusive, but that we would do well to hold onto both of them. The kind of creative tension, love through conflict, which Rav Hutner suggests, may not always be possible. Movement spaces are often marked by vituperative conflict, but they’re still movement spaces; they still do share some key common ground reality, some shared “Book”. Rav Hutner goads us to remember when we’re in movement spaces, not to destroy ourselves through the narcissism of small differences, but to grow our movement, our Torah, through our creative conflict, even across power differences (“rabbi and student, parent and child”. Rashi reminds us, though, that conflict can lead to love only when there is some shared Book. If I deny your personhood, if I argue in bad faith, if I gaslight you with falsehoods, we have no shared Book and I can’t expect us to reach love.
When we feel conflict with another person, do we suppress it, seeking out shreds of lowest-common-denominator sameness and fleeing if we can’t find those shreds, or do we lean into the conflict, buoyed by the faith that shared language can enable us to deepen our empathy for each other through the dispute? What would it take to make our Jewish communal spaces Torah spaces in this way?
Shabbat shalom.
Core ideas in this piece were stimulated many years ago by my teacher, Rav David Bigman; an earlier version was published in 2015 in Jewschool.

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