Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Walk Article-Chukat



Rabbi David Walk


Mr. Singer, please, forgive me.  I stole that title from the late Isaac Bashevis Singer.  It was the title of a Yiddish story that he ran serially in the Yiddish newspaper, the Forward in 1966.  It came out in English in 1972 and was an acclaimed movie in 1989.  His story was very complex and revolved around the very difficult issues of the Holocaust and Jewish families.  I'm actually showing the film next month (July 14) as part of my Summer Flicks program at Agudath Sholom here in Stamford.  This article has nothing in common with that product of Mr. Singer's fertile imagination.  Instead, I'm writing about one of the more mysterious verses in this week's Torah reading, which is filled with mysteries, but I hope that you'll agree it's the right title for this piece.

The verse I refer to is poetic.  I love poetry, because the reader has so much latitude in how to interpret the material.  Once a poem is published it belongs to the reader as much as the poet.  It speaks to the observer on a visceral level.  Great poetry transcends the literal meanings of the words employed. The verse I'm discussing has an amazing array of interpretations, but I'll present just two.  Here's the verse:  Therefore it is said in the Book of the Wars of the Lord, 'Waheb in Suphah, And the wadis of the Arnon (Numbers 21:14).'  On the literal level it seems that there once was a book called the Wars of the Lord in which the Jews listed all their victories and attributed them all to the assistance of God.  Others, including Yonatan ben Uziel, believed that it refers to the book of Exodus, which contains Israel's first wars and views them as paradigms for all future conflicts. Rabbeinu Bechaye wrote that it wasn't a book at all, but meant those who retell the tales of our great military exploits similar to an oral history.  The rest of the verse describes the conquest of a city called Waheb which was washed away in flash floods originating in the wadis (seasonal rivers) of the Arnon Brook.  We know where the Arnon is.  It still flows into the Dead Sea from Jordan. 

Let us bid farewell to the world of literal explanations.  In the Talmud (Tractate Kiddushin 30a), there is a fascinating interpretation based upon the similarity between the words vahav and sufah to other words.  Vahav could be associated with the Aramaic word hav (give) and the Hebrew word oheiv (love).  The word sufah sounds just like the Hebrew sof, which means 'end'.  In this homiletic approach the Wars of the Lord are the battles we wage in the study halls attempting to understand our holy texts.  Therefore, the Talmud explains the verse as follows:  Even a father and son, or a Rebbi and talmid, when they engage in Torah, they become enemies; 'Et v'Hav b'Sufah' in the Sof (end), they will love each other.  In other words, Torah debate should be a fierce battle of sharp minds for the purpose of arriving at the truth, but the session can not end until the two sides have again displayed their fervent love for each other.

This idea is very powerful.  It has even been incorporated into the great halachic compendium, the Oruch Hashulchan (written by Rav Yechiel Michal Halevy Epstein, which was published in separate volumes 1884-1893).  Rav Epstein taught that legally even though a student can't teach a legal decision in the presence of his mentor, he may debate with him, and muster sources against his teacher's position.  Even though in this argument they are ferocious enemies, they must part with great love for each other.  The more turbulent the debate is, the greater the respect and affection for each other afterwards.  Rav Epstein concludes by telling us, 'This is the way of Torah.'

The book of Numbers is filled with acrimonious disputes, and our sages use them to discuss the issue of how debates should take place.  The quarrel initiated in last week's parsha by Korach becomes the template for machloket shelo l'shem shamayim, a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven.   We describe the debates of Hillel and Shamai as the prime example of disputes for the sake of Heaven.  What's the difference between these different kinds of disagreements?  Generally we say that if [that if] the debate is to uncover the truth, it's for the sake of heaven.  If, on the other hand, it's a fight to see who wins, then it's not for the sake of Heaven.  It's for the sake of personal vanity and pride.

How can an observer tell which type of debate is transpiring?  Most of the time we can't.  We have many instances in science where researchers have falsified data to support their position in an academic dispute. This also may be true in Torah debates, but it's hard to tell.

I would like to present to you, my dear reader, my test of whether a Torah debate is l'shem shamayim or not.  Ta dum!  Listen to what the disputants say about each other outside the debate forum.  If they express respect and even affection for the other then the debate is l'shem shamayim.   If, sadly, you hear denigration and rejection of the other party, you're witnessing an argument which is not l'shem shamayim.  There were many Torah giants in the twentieth century who disagreed but demonstrated tremendous respect for the other.  Amongst them were Rav Kook and Reb Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, also Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rav Aharon Kotler.  Tragically many of their students failed to carry on this great tradition.

Today we hear an amazing amount of venom being spread in politics, but also in the Torah world.  Please, remember whenever you hear insults and put downs for people trying to follow Torah paths, what you're really hearing is the echo of Korach across the millennia.