Photo Credit: Rabbi Sacks
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

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 – halacha and aggadah. Halacha 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. Halacha 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 Rabbi Yitzhak, cited by Rashi in Parshat Bereishit:


Rabbi Yitzhak said: “The Torah should have commenced with [the verse], ‘This month shall be to you the first of the months’ (Exodus 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 its face, astonishing. Rabbi Yitzhak is asking, why was it necessary for the Torah to mention the fact that G-d created the universe? Further, implicit in his suggestion that the Torah should have begun with the 12th 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 11 chapters of Exodus itself, with their account of the sufferings of the Israelites in Egypt, the choice of Moses, the plagues, etc. Aren’t these narratives fundamental to Jewish belief?

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, 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.

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. 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 from 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 to create relationships and societies based on respect for human dignity and the natural environment.

Additionally, 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, and probe. Successful parenthood depends on taking these inquiries 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, not that, way.

The Torah is G-d’s book to mankind. G-d is a parent; we are his children. 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, this particular structure of commands and constraints.

Law and narrative are intertwined for the very profound reason 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.”) Therefore the law goes with the grain of creation. That is the ultimate answer to Rabbi Yitzhak’s question. 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 sedrah of Chukat. On its face, the various sections do not hang together at all. The sedrah begins with the law of the Red Heifer. Judaism traditionally saw the ritual of the Red Heifer as the supreme example of a chok, a decree with no reason or logic other than it was commanded by G-d.

The sedrah then proceeds to a series of narratives set toward the end of the Israelites’ 40 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, Chukat 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 fulfilment of their mission.

It was not to be. That is the nature of mortality. 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 are 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 honorably, 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 Red Heifer’s symbolism is simple. It 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 or used. This is life at its most vigorous and elemental.

The heifer is killed, 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 – leper. *See Leviticus 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). We now understand the symbolic significance 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’s 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” 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. Surely there is death, 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 fulfilment. 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, as the two are commentaries on one another. Before we are exposed to the deaths 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.

And now we understand the meaning of the word that gives the sedrah 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 honor 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 honors 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,” Psalms 63:2). The touch of G-d, like the sprinkled drops of the waters of purification, heals our loss and brings us back to life.


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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth and the author and editor of 40 books on Jewish thought. He died earlier this month.