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    God in the wars – Chukkat

    “Thus it is said in the book of the wars of the Lord” (Num. 21:14) – but no book by this name is part of the Bible, none has been preserved, and most people have never even heard of one.

    Many commentators point out that a number of ancient works were lost. As far as this one is concerned, some say it was a record of the battles and victories which God waged for his adherents; others that it listed battles fought from Abraham’s time onwards by those who were faithful to God.

    Such battles would normally be thought of as having been waged with weapons – a physical struggle between two peoples or tribes.

    The Talmud, however, suggests (Kidd. 30b) that you can fight for HaShem in quite a different way: “Said Rabbi Chiya bar Abba, ‘Even father and son, master and disciple, who study Torah at the same gate (i.e. at the same academy or on the same theme) become enemies of each other, yet they do not stir from there until they come to love each other’.”

    Seeking the true interpretation of a verse or teaching can lead to raised voices and passionate disagreement – in other words, to intellectual “warfare” – but when the parties find an answer they can agree on, they rejoice in each other and are friends again.

    This explains why a yeshivah is a noisy place. The ancient academic disputes are being re-enacted, the arguments are reconstructed, Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai come to life once more, and everyone is reminded that a struggle for the truth has to involve every fibre of one’s being.

    Not that every human quarrel or argument is a war of the Lord, striving to reach the God-given truth. Pirkei Avot informs us (5:20) that only a machloket l’shem shamayim – “a controversy for the sake of heaven”, has any lasting value, but a controversy that is not for the sake of heaven achieves nothing.

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