Parshat Chukat: Law and Narrative

ONE OF THE MOST STRIKING FEATURES OF THE TORAH – and of the Judaic heritage generally – is insufficiently commented on, namely its combination of law and narrative. The Mosaic books contain both, and they gave rise to two different literatures in the rabbinic period, namely halakhah and aggadah. Halakhah represents law. Aggadah is the generic name for everything else – stories, theological reflections and interpretations of biblical narrative. The two literatures have a different feel about them. They reflect different sensibilities. Halakhah is detailed and demanding and uses sophisticated rules of jurisprudence. Aggadah is more intuitive and imaginative. One might almost call them the left and right hemispheres of the Jewish brain.

Why both? There is a famous comment of R. Yitzhak, cited by Rashi at the very opening of his commentary to the Torah:

Rabbi Yitzhak said: the Torah should have commenced with [the verse], “This month shall be to you the first of the months” [Ex. 12: 1] which is the first commandment given to Israel. Why then did it begin with the creation [of the universe]?

The answer is less significant than the question which is, on of the face of it, astonishing. Rabbi Yitzhak is asking, why was it necessary for the Torah to mention the fact that G-d created the universe? He goes further. Implicit in his suggestion that the Torah should have begun with the twelfth chapter of Exodus is that the entire book of Genesis – the lives of the patriarchs and the birth of Judaism – is unnecessary. So too are the first eleven chapters of Exodus itself, with their account of the sufferings of the Israelites in Egypt, the choice of Moses, the plagues and so on. How could he have said or thought such a thing? These narratives are fundamental to Jewish belief.

However, Rabbi Yitzhak’s question makes good sense. Essentially he is asking, what kind of book is the Torah? To what literary genre does it belong? The word Torah in its narrowest sense means “law.” If so, it should have begun with the first law, and it should contain nothing but legal material. We do not expect a textbook on torts or family law or contract to contain a history of England or the United States. If it did, we would conclude that the author was confused. Law is one thing, narrative another. Narrative answers the question “What happened?” Law answers the question, “How shall I act rightly, and what redress do I or society have if someone acts wrongly?” They do not belong in the same book. If, then, the Torah is a compendium of law, it should not contain metaphysics and history, the creation of the universe and the early story of mankind. Rabbi Yitzhak has logic on his side.

Why then does the Torah contain both? The answer goes to the heart of the Judaic enterprise. Law is not, for Judaism, a series of arbitrary rules even though it comes from G-d himself. Nor is Judaism a matter of blind obedience – obedience, yes, but blind, no. Law is rooted in history and cosmology. It reflects something other and older than the law itself. It speaks to us out of the heart of the human situation. It belongs to a total vision of the universe, the place of mankind within creation, human psychology (especially our propensity for violence and injustice), and the attempts (at first halting and unsatisfactory) to create relationships and societies based on respect for human dignity and the natural environment.

What is more, we are expected to know the story behind the law. The Torah does not seek to create a society around the naked fact of Divine command. G-d wants us to know, not only what to do, but why. He wants us not merely to obey but also to understand. In early stages of childhood, a parent insists on simple rules: Do this, don’t do that. But as the child grows, he or she needs to question, challenge, probe. Successful parenthood depends on taking these enquiries seriously. The mere assertion of parental authority is not enough. Eventually one of two things will happen: either the child will rebel, or he or she will fail to develop an adult moral sense. That is why a good parent will, as the child matures, begin to explain why it is important to act this way, not that.

The Torah is G-d’s book to mankind. G-d is a parent. We are his children. And G-d speaks to us as adults. He wants us to understand the logic of the law and the history of why it is necessary to have these rules not those, this particular structure of commands and constraints.

Some examples: the story of Adam and Eve in Eden is a prelude to the complex Jewish dietary laws. Even in paradise there are things one may not do. An act as rudimentary as eating must still be accompanied by some form of self-restraint. A world in which everyone did as they pleased, recognizing no limits to the gratification of desire, would not be heaven but hell.

The story of Cain and Abel explains the peculiar horror Judaism has for murder. Human beings, we are told in the first chapter of Bereishith, are created in the image of G-d. Therefore murder is an assault not just on humanity but on G-d himself. The name Hevel(the Hebrew word for Abel) means “mere breath.” It is the key word in the book of Ecclesiastes. The phrase hevel havalim, hakol havel is usually translated as “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” or “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.” It actually means neither of these things. It means, “Life is fragile; a mere breath separates a living human being from a corpse.” The juxtaposition of the story of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel conveys one of Judaism’s most consistent themes, that vice is contagious. It spreads and grows. Disrespect for property eventually becomes an assault on persons. Adam and Eve take a fruit, Cain takes a life. That is why one cannot effectively legislate against murder without legislating against many other wrongs as well.

The story of Abraham praying for the inhabitants of Sodom and Gemorrah introduces many other themes: the need for justice, the importance of mercy and the moral requirement that we be concerned for the fate of others – even though they belong to another nation, a different culture and despite the fact that they are wicked. We already begin to hear the imperatives, “Love the stranger,” “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour,” and “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”

One of the most striking examples is the long account of the life of Jacob who marries two sisters, loves one (Rachel) more than the other (Leah), and favours the child of the first (Joseph) more than the others. The resulting tension within the family explains the background to two later laws, one in Leviticus, the other in Deuteronomy:

Do not take your wife’s sister as a rival wife and have sexual relations with her while your wife is living.

If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love, when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love. He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father’s strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him.

The second, in particular, is almost a counter-commentary to the story of Jacob and uses language common to both (“the first sign of his father’s strength” echoes Jacob’s words to Reuben, his first-born son by Leah: “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength,” Gen. 49: 3) 4. As to why Jacob acted contrary to later biblical law, Nachmanides gives the simplest explanation. The patriarchs kept the Torah (before it was given) only in the land of Israel. The story of Jacob’s two wives takes place in exile, in Laban’s household.

In short, in the Torah law and narrative are intertwined for the most profound of reasons, namely that G-d’s law is not arbitrary. It speaks to the human condition. It arises out of human history. G-d, said the sages, “is not a tyrant.” He does not issue laws and decrees for His sake but for ours. Moreover, He wants us to understand the laws so that we can act not by rote but by educated moral instinct. The Lawgiver is also the Creator (this is what the sages meant when they said, “G-d looked into the Torah and created the world” 6). Therefore the law goes with the grain of creation. That is the ultimate answer to the question posed by Rabbi Yitzhak. Why does the Torah begin with creation? Because the Torah represents a way of life that respects the integrity of creation and the Creator, in whose image we are.

Nowhere is this set out more clearly than in the sedra of Chukkat. On the face of it, the various sections do not hang together at all. The sedra begins with the law of the Red Heifer. It derives its name from the phrase, “This is the decree of [chukkat] the Torah.” Judaism traditionally saw the ritual of the Red Heifer as the supreme example of a chok, that is, a decree that has no reason or logic other than the fact that it was commanded by G-d.

The sedra then proceeds to a series of narratives set towards the end of the Israelites’ forty years in the desert. First Miriam dies. Then the people rebel because there was no water (a well accompanied the Israelites on their journeys, said the sages, because of the merit of Miriam. When she died, the water ceased). Then Moses and Aaron lose their temper with the people – “Listen now you rebels.” For this sin they are condemned not to enter the promised land. Aaron dies, and the people mourn. Moses too knows that his days are numbered. He will not live to cross the Jordan. He will die in sight of the land but without setting foot on it. Law and narrative seem to have no connection at all.

But they do. More than any other passage in the wilderness years, Chukkat is about mortality. We know from the story of the spies that the people who left Egypt will not be destined to enter the land. A people born in slavery (says Maimonides) cannot create a free society: that task would fall to their children, born in liberty. But what about the three great leaders, Moses, Aaron and Miriam? They were not guilty of the sin of the spies. They did not join in the people’s revolt. Surely they would see the fulfillment of their mission.

It was not to be. That is the nature of mortality, an idea given its most famous expression by Rabbi Tarfon in the Mishnah: It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it. The great tasks of humanity are too large to be completed in a single generation. The kind of leadership needed to lead a people out of slavery is not the same as that needed to induct them into freedom. Nor is any of us privileged to see the full fruits of our lives and the impact we make on the next generation. There is a world that will come after us, that we will not live to see. That is the human condition – and Moses, Aaron and Miriam, for all their greatness, were human.

Nowhere else in the Torah is mortality so poignantly expressed. We feel little sympathy for Adam and Eve. They had only one command to keep and they broke it. Abraham and Isaac die in relative serenity. Jacob dies reunited with his beloved son. Joseph dies in honour, a prince of Egypt. What hurts is the death of the two brothers and their sister, Moses, Aaron and Miriam, their journey incomplete.

That is why the narrative is preceded by the law of the Red Heifer, whose entire purpose is to purify those who have come into contact with death. Indeed the whole passage exemplifies one of the axioms of Judaism that “G-d provides the cure before the disease.”

The symbolism the Red Heifer is simple. The Red Heifer itself represents life in its most primal form. Firstly it is an animal – and an animal simply lives without reflecting on life. Secondly it is red, symbolizing blood, which for the Torah represents life itself. Thirdly it is an animal “on which a yoke has not yet come.” Its life has not been constrained by being domesticated, used. This is life at its most vigorous and elemental.

The heifer is killed and burned and reduced to ash, in the most dramatic possible enactment of death. The ashes are mixed with those of burnt cedarwood, hyssop and crimson thread (part of the purification ritual of the metzora or “leper” also: see Lev. 14; evidently these three elements had a particular power, physical or symbolic, to absorb and thus remove impurity). They are then dissolved in “living water” to be sprinkled over the person who has been contaminated by contact with, or proximity to, a human corpse.

The phrase “living water” is an explicit metaphor. Water is the source of all life, plant, animal and human. In the desert, or more generally in the Middle East, you feel this with a peculiar vividness. Hence it became the symbol of G-d-who-is-life (“They have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water,” Jeremiah 17: 13) 9. We now understand the symbolic significance of the fact that when Miriam died, the flow of water to the Israelites ceased. As long as she was alive, there was water, i.e. life. Her death marked the beginning of the end of Moses’ generation, and the sign of this was the drying up of the well that had served the people until then.

We die, but life goes on – that is the symbolic statement of the Red Heifer rite. All that lives eventually turns to dust (and in the case of the Red Heifer to ash), but life continues to flow like a never-ending stream. Significantly, the Hebrew word for “inheritance,” nachalah, is related to the word for a stream or spring, nachal. Heraclitus said that “no one bathes in the same river twice.” The water that was once here is gone. It has flowed into the sea, evaporated into cloud, and fallen again as rain. But the stream continues to flow in the same course, between the same banks. There is death, yes, but there is also continuity. We are never privileged to complete the task, but others will take it on and move a little closer to fulfillment. So long as there is a covenant between the dead, the living, and those not yet born, mortality is redeemed from tragedy. The dead live on in us, as we will live on in our children or in those whose lives we touched. As dust dissolves in living water, so death dissolves in the stream of life itself.

Far from being unintelligible, the law of the Red Heifer is a powerful statement about life and death, grief and consolation, the ephemeral and the eternal. And far from being disconnected with the narrative that follows, it is intimately related to it, and the two are commentaries on one another. Together they form a fugue. Before we are exposed to the death of Miriam and Aaron and the decree of death against Moses, the Torah provides us with a profound metaphysical comfort. They died, but what they lived for did not die. The water ceased, but after an interval, it returned. We are destined to mourn the death of those close to us, but eventually we reconnect with [the water of] life.

Law informs the narrative, and the narrative explains the law. We need both, just as we need the analytical left-hemisphere and the integrating right-hemisphere of the brain. And now we understand the meaning of the word that gives the sedra its name, chok, usually translated as “statute” or “decree.” In actual fact, chok is a word that brings together two concepts of law. There are scientific laws, which explain the “isness” of the world, and there are moral laws which prescribe the “oughtness” of the world. The singular meaning of chok is that it brings both concepts together. There are laws we ought to keep because they honour the structure of reality.

The most significant feature of the structure of human reality is death. To be human is to be mortal. The law of the Red Heifer honours the fact of death. It does not try to deny it. Death is real; grief is inevitable; bereavement is the most painful of all human experiences. But G-d is life. G-d is to us as water is to the desert (“G-d, you are my G-d; I search for you, my soul thirsts for You, my body yearns for you, as a parched and thirsty land that has no water,” Psalm 63: 2). The Red Heifer comforts us for the loss of Miriam, Aaron and Moses, and for the existence of death itself. The touch of G-d, like the sprinkled drops of the waters of purification, heals our loss and brings us back to life.