Parshat Chukat: The Torah of Conflict Resolution

Dedicated to Professor Gerald Steinberg & Rabbi Marc Gopin

Amid the epic themes of Chukkat – the mysterious ritual of the Red Heifer, the death of Miriam and Aaron, Moses striking the rock – it is easy to miss the significance of a short passage toward the end. It is brief, cryptic, almost unintelligible and certainly does not seem to represent a major idea. Yet the sages gave it an interpretation that we would do well to reflect on.

The context is this. After reporting the episode of water from the rock, the Torah resumes the larger narrative of the journey toward the promised land. The Israelites are coming close. They have left the desert and are now moving toward the area that today forms the State of Jordan. They begin to encounter the nations of the region, whose territory they must either pass through or circumnavigate. They approach Edom and ask for permission to travel through the land. The request is refused and the Israelites accept the decision (the Edomites were descendants of Esau, whose territorial rights the Israelites were told to respect). They wage a battle against the Canaanite kingdom of Arad, and come to the vicinity of Moab. At this point the text says:

Therefore the Book of the Wars of the Lord speaks of “Waheb in Suphah, and the wadis: the Arnon with its tributary wadis, stretched along the settled country of Ar, hugging the territory of Moab . . .” (Numbers 21: 14-15)
That is the Jewish Publication Society’s translation, but the text is so fragmentary and obscure that its meaning is largely a matter of conjecture.

To give just one example: What is meant by “the Book of the Wars of the Lord”? According to Targum Yonatan, it was not a separate book at all; it merely refers to this section of the Torah. For Rashi it was a list of the miracles performed by G-d for the sake of Israel. Chizkuni holds that it was an actual book that existed in ancient times and was lost. Ibn Ezra says it was a record of the Israelites’ history begun in the time of Abraham. Abrabanel argues that it was a non-Israelite text. Some modern scholars suggest that it was a collection of epic poems telling of Israel’s battles. How we answer this question will affect how we understand the rest of the passage.

The sages however gave one midrashic interpretation that lays no claim to being the plain sense of the verse, but is nevertheless fascinating in its own right:

Even a teacher and disciple, even a father and son, when they sit to study Torah together become enemies to one another. But they do not move from there until they have become beloved to one another. Therefore it says “Waheb in Suphah”, meaning: there is love at the end. (Kiddushin 30b)
The sages read Waheb as a derivative of the root ‘-h-b, meaning “to love”, and Suphah as related to the word sof, “an end”. What makes this text so intriguing is the way the sages interpret the phrase “the Wars of the Lord” as a reference to the debates within the House of Study, the dialogue and disputation about Jewish law and the meaning of sacred texts.

This, in and of itself, is testimony to the massive transformation of Jewish life after the destruction of the Second Temple and the collapse of the Bar Kochba rebellion. By the time this interpretation was offered, Jews no longer fought wars on the battlefield. The wars they were familiar with were altogether different. They were intellectual, spiritual; they took place in the mind; their weapons were reason and tradition; their arena was the study hall; and their aim – to establish the meaning of G-d’s word. Seldom has a people been so transformed.

Yet there is more to the statement than this. There is an awareness of human conflict. We disagree. The sages do not speak of the house of study in eirenic terms – as an environment of peace and harmony. Even the word of G-d does not unite us, for though we know what the Torah says, we do not know, simply and uncontroversially, what it means. Hillel and Shammai, R. Ishmael and R. Yehudah, Rav and Shmuel, Abaye and Rava, argue.

Indeed the Mishnaic, Talmudic and Midrashic literature are, for the most part, anthologies of argument: “Rabbi X says this, Rabbi Y says that.” There is no attempt to gloss over the differences. To the contrary: the texts preserve not the conclusion of the debate but the debate itself. And here, the exception proves the rule. In the twelfth century Moses Maimonides wrote the greatest of all codes of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah. In so doing, he made a conscious editorial decision. He eliminated the debates and recorded only the final law. The Mishneh Torah is, as it were, the Talmud with the arguments edited out. History ruled otherwise. The Mishneh Torah attracted more dispute and debate, commentaries and counter-commentaries, than almost any other work of Jewish law.

In Judaism, argument is not an accident but of the essence. The sages gave the phenomenon a name – argument for the sake of heaven – and thus a spiritual dignity of its own. They went so far as to portray G-d as saying, about the protagonists and their divergent views, “These and those are the words of the living G-d.” G-d lives in the cut and thrust of the House of Study. He does not say: “X is right, and Y is wrong.” He does not deliver the verdict: He empowers His sages to do that. The word of the Lord gives rise to the wars of the Lord – but wars without violence, bloodshed or conquest.

In the passage we are discussing, the sages took a further step. They said: “there is love in the end”. What does this mean? Elsewhere, in the Mishnah tractate Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, the sages distinguished between an argument “for the sake of heaven” and one “not for the sake of heaven”. Their example of the first was the arguments between Hillel and Shammai; of the second, those of Chukat and his followers. What, in general terms, is the difference?

Several commentators, including the thirteenth century Provencal scholar R. Menachem Meiri, suggest that an argument for the sake of heaven is one in pursuit of truth. An argument not for the sake of heaven is one in pursuit of victory. The difference (as I put it in my book Arguments for the Sake of Heaven) is that when what is at stake is truth, then, if I win, I win. But if I lose, I also win, because to be defeated by the truth is the one defeat that is also a victory. I discover, I learn, I grow. But when what is at stake is victory, then if I lose, I lose; but if I win, I also lose, because, in diminishing my opponents I have diminished myself. That is why Judaism throughout the ages has disliked and fought against authoritarian leadership, the imposition of will by force. Moses won his confrontation with Chukat in the most dramatic way possible: the ground opened up and swallowed the rebels. Yet this did not end the argument. The next day the people gathered around Moses and Aaron saying, “You have killed the people of the Lord” (Num. 17: 6). When it comes to matters of the spirit, if you need force to win, you have already lost.

We now understand what the sages meant when they said, “There is love in the end”. When two sides fight, not with weapons but with ideas, they recognise that their very disagreement presupposes an agreement: about the value of argument itself. Two chess players may be bitter adversaries, but they agree on the rules of chess and their love of the game. So, lehavdil (implying no comparison) it is in the House of Study. Two sages who dispute the interpretation of a text disagree on a detail but agree on fundamentals: that the text is holy and binding, and we, who interpret it, revere both G-d and His word.

The sages, in short, were articulating a principled form of what we would now call conflict resolution. Its rules? 1. Respect different perspectives. 2. Listen actively to your opponent and try to understand the logic of his/her position. 3. Never use force, physical or psychological. The only legitimate weapons are logic, argument, tradition and persuasion. 4. Be open to the outcome. You may be right, but you must be prepared to be proved wrong. 5. See disagreement not just as conflict but as collaborative activity in pursuit of honesty and truth. 6. Accept it as a legitimate, even holy, part of life. And 7. Keep talking. For even though the participants may feel as if they are enemies to one another, “Waheb in Suphah” – there is love at the end.