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Parashat Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

“And Moses did as the Lord had commanded; and they went up
to Mount Hor before the eyes of all the congregation.” (Numbers 20:27)

Parashat Chukat contains the fateful episode when Moses strikes the rock to bring forth water (Num. 20:11). Because God had commanded him only to speak to the rock, God decrees Moses will bring the Israelites to Canaan but will not enter the land with them. Commentators have spilled gallons of ink making sense of this harsh response. They pay much less attention to this short statement later in the parasha, or portion: “Therefore it is said b’sefer milchamot adonai, in the Book of Wars of the Lord, et vaheiv b’sufa, of Vahev in Sufa…” (Num 21:14; referring to the just-concluded battle between the Israelites and the Canaanites at Arad.)

The rabbis use this verse to comment on the role and power of argument. They interpret the verse, “They shall not be put to shame when they speak with their enemies at the gate (Psalms 127:5) as a description of how study partners become “enemies” by “fighting” with one another over the subject matter (the gates). But, they do not leave the study session (the battlefield) until the arguments are reconciled and they love each other again. The verse from Chukat is the prooftext: b’sefer milchamot adonai means God’s wars are about the meaning of our sacred books. Et vaheiv sufa can then be read as ahava basof: there is love at the end (Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 30a).

The Jewish interpretive tradition is founded on the belief language is Divine. Because humans can never fathom God’s intentions, no single interpretation of a Biblical verse is ever definitive. Radically different readings can co-exist, side by side, through the generations. Machloket, disagreement, doesn’t preclude solidarity.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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