Leaning into Conflict to Nurture Love
In the most obscure verse in this week’s parashah, 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 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 Milhemot YHWH” (“The Book of the Wars of YHWH”), 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: “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” (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 Milhemot YHWH, so the Rabbinic imagination is left with an association of books, wars, and God. In the gemara in Kiddushin 30b, Rabbi Hiyya 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.”
אפי’ האב ובנו, הרב ותלמידו, שעוסקין בתורה בשער אחד נעשים אויבים זה את זה ואינם זזים משם עד שנעשים אוהבים זה את זה
He explains this idea by quoting our verse: “…be-sefer Milhemot YHWH: et Vahev ba-Sufah”/שנאמר, “אֶת־וָהֵ֣ב בְּסוּפָ֔ה, and suggesting a play on words: don’t pronounce it “Sufah” (which is the name of a place), rather “sofah”, meaning, “in the end”: אל תקרי “בסופה” אלא בסופה. He apparently also rereads the other long-forgotten place name, “Et Vahev” (pronounced, in ancient times, “Et Wahev”), as “et’ahev”, a reflexive form of the word “ahava”, 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 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 talmud torah. Rashi focuses on the word “sefer”: 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 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 Yitzchak Hutner (Pahad Yitzhak, Hanukah 3) 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. 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.
Rav Hutner is emphasizing that dispute/mahloket is not an operational flaw in Torah culture, but a core, operational feature. In ideological spheres of life, if you and I argue 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 list serves have banned any talking about Israel. These settings could learn a lot from Torah culture. In healthy pockets of 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, that 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.
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?
Core ideas in this piece were stimulated many years ago by my teacher, Mori veRabbi, Rav David Bigman.