The mirror of the text
The Torah's verses do not speak with their enemies at the gate; instead, those verses turn the persons who utter, or study, them into enemies.
The Israelites are encamped "on the other side of the Arnon, which is in the wilderness, that cometh out of the border of the Amorites. For Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites" (Numbers 21:13). As if to validate the description, the Torah provides a citation: "wherefore it is said in the book of the Wars of the Lord: Vaheb in Suphah, and the valleys of Arnon" (Num. 21:14). Many commentators have made a strenuous effort to discover the meaning of this enigmatic quotation. Some added words they thought may have been omitted; others added letters to, or subtracted letters from, the existing words; and there are those who tried to guess the literary context of its origin in order to grant meaning to the cryptic statement.
The principal drama in the verse, all the commentators agree, lies in the manner of its presentation. The primordial text of the Torah reveals that there is another text preceding it. That "book" has fired the imagination of many readers who have projected onto it their fantasies regarding the nature of God. Here is a book that may have recounted the story of God's life.
Although each reader imagines that book differently, many readers assume the existence of such a book, which predates the Torah, as one that is more poetic and more authoritative (after all, the Torah itself cites it); perhaps it was censored and deliberately forgotten about, or perhaps it is a book that holds the key to understanding the Torah in its context. The many attempts at interpretation show how helpless we are as interpreters.
Ultimately, all interpreters project onto the cited fragment their textual fantasies, and regard it as a validation of the way they would like to see this "book," the "wars" it refers to and - especially - the image of "the Lord."
This is the background for the interpretation our Sages give to the above verses. Here we see their interpretive approach of going beyond the literal meaning of a biblical verse and providing it with a new background that gives both the verse and its new background an entirely new meaning.
In the Book of Psalms, we read, "As arrows in the hand [or, hands] of a hero, so are youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them; they shall not be put to shame, when they speak with their enemies at the gate" (Psalms 127:4-5 ).
Youth are compared to arrows, and complete individuals are those who fill their quiver with these arrows and use them in their war. The second half of the verse abandons the simile of the arrows and shifts to praise for youth: "they shall not be put to shame, when they speak with their enemies at the gate." Who are these "enemies" with whom youth dare to speak? Chapter 127 of the Book of Psalms ends without giving an answer.
Our Sages provide a fascinating interpretation for these two verses: "Tnu rabanan [Our Sages have learned]: It is written in the Torah: 'veshinantam,' 'and thou shalt teach them diligently.' [The Sages are alluding here to Deuteronomy 6:7, 'veshinantam levanecha,' 'and thou shalt teach them (God's commandments ) diligently unto thy children,' which is part of the central prayer, the Kriyat Shema or Shema Yisrael, Hear O Israel.] The Torah's words should be sharpened in your mouth [that is, you should be well-versed in what the Torah says]. [The word veshinantam comes from the verb root shin-nun-heh, to study or to teach. This root contains the letters shin and nun, which, when combined, form the word shen, tooth; hence, the idea of sharpening the Torah's words in one's mouth.] Thus, if someone asks you something [about Jewish religious law], you will not stammer out your answer but will instead immediately reply, citing the appropriate verse in the Torah .... The Torah's words will be like arrows in the hands of a hero ... and the Book of Psalms says, 'Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them'" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, pp. 30a-30b ).
In this homily, the arrows that fill the hero's quiver become the Torah's verses. Filling the quiver with these arrows symbolizes the mental action of storing the Torah's words in one's memory so that they can be drawn immediately (without any stammering ) when the need arises. The verse-arrows are the Jew's weapons; however, the second part of the verse, "they shall not be put to shame, when they speak with their enemies at the gate," remains a puzzle. How can the verses speak with their enemies at the gate?
"Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba asks, 'What does the term 'with their enemies at the gate' mean?' And he himself answers, 'It could refer to a father and a son, or to a rabbi and a student. When they engage in the study of Torah at the same gate (study the same page or passage in the Talmud ), they become enemies and they do not move from that spot until they love each other, as it is written, "et Vahev be-Sufa, Vaheb besofa" [Num. 21:14]. The last word should be read not be-Sufa, in Suphah, but rather be-sofa, in the end or ultimately.'"
The Torah's verses do not speak with their enemies at the gate; instead, those verses turn the persons who utter, or study, them into enemies. The homily's mechanism is simple and Rashi explains it briefly: "This is how the verse is interpreted: The term the 'book of the Wars' should be read as the "war beside [or about] the book. In the end [that is, at the end of the learned debate], there is love [the two 'enemies' become good friends]."
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba sees the phrase "wherefore it is said in the book of the Wars of the Lord" not as a bibliographical reference to some other book but rather as a description of the Torah itself [literally, a description of the Scroll, or Book, of Torah itself]. The debate over the interpretation of the Torah's words becomes a war; it reconstructs the events of war. In Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba's view, the unique quality of the "Wars of the Lord" is that the war [that is, the heated scholarly debate] over the interpretation of the Torah's verse in the end will turn to love. Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba bases his interpretation of the word Vahev, which is written vav-heh-vet, on a reading of the word as a derivative of the verb root aleph-heh-vet, to love, and on a different vowelization for the word be-Sufa. The verses that have been placed in the quiver turn people who love each other - whether father and son, or rabbi and student - into "enemies at the gate." In the end, however, this war is replaced by love.
The enigmatic verses in this week's Torah portion, Parashat Hukat, are not a citation from some primordial book that has been planted in the Torah but rather express what happens when one tackles the enigmatic nature of these verses. In effect, the text (that is, the citation ) describes the result of the struggle over its interpretation. Instead of being seen as a window to some primeval "book" that might reveal to readers something about God's mythological war, the text should be regarded as a mirror that reflects the struggle of commentators to find a meaning for it.
The result is not a clarification of the original interpretation but rather a precise description of the emotions accompanying the war. The war ends in love. Love will not be the result of the discovery of the correct meaning, which will apparently always evade readers. The "correct" meaning of the text floats up not as the result of our ignoring the text's enigmatic character but rather as the result of a reading that describes the very attempt to interpret it.
When is the war over a particular passage replaced by love? Rabbi Hiyya is careful not to say when precisely that occurs. Instead, he states that "they do not move from that spot until they love each other." This is a process in which the two persons studying the same text are enemies at first but, in the end, become good friends.
If they do not agree on the meaning of a text, how does their war turn to love? The homily presented here describes the moment when the war turns to love. This is a moment of reflection when both commentators abandon the attempt to arrive at the text's initial meaning and to find the "book of the Wars of the Lord"; at that moment, the enigmatic text becomes a mirror reflecting the process of searching for, and finding, a meaning. The absence of a solution at the end of the interpretive war to find the original meaning of the "book of the Wars of the Lord" floats up within the verse itself. The "book of the Wars of the Lord" becomes a war over the book, and the phrase "et Vahev be-Sufa" - "Vaheb in Suphah" - becomes the love that emerges when the war is over.