There are some stories you never forget. A long time ago, when I was in high school, I read a big thick book, with more than 1000 pages called “The Source” by James Michener. It was a magnus opus on Jewish history and culture. The book told a tale of an archeologist who goes to Israel to excavate a ‘tell’ which, Wikipedia defines as “a small hill or mound formed from the accumulated remains of mudbricks, artefacts and other refuse of generations of people living on the same site for hundreds or thousands of years.” On top of the tell he finds an empty shell of a bullet fired by a soldier during the formation of the modern state of Israel. Thereafter, as the archeologist digs deeper, he finds an object on every successive layer that he uncovers, till he reaches the very bottom of the tell where he finds a flint – a primitive tool to start a fire.
The author then begins his narrative from that flint and weaves an imaginative story around how that it came to be in the position where he found it. Thereafter every chapter is devoted to an artefact that the archeologist discovers at every successive level. And as he moves up the levels in his excavation so does his stories – from prehistoric Stone Age to King David’s times, to Hellenistic and Roman times etc. ending with the first exhibit – how that bullet was fired that left the empty shell he found on Level 1.
From prehistoric to modern times, the Source has lots of stories within stories and one such story has stayed with me all these long years. So let me recount from what I remember. And I take a writer’s license to word it my way.
The story is set in the Roman times. A Roman Counsellor who was posted in Jerusalem used to pass a synagogue every morning and evening as he made his way to the Consulate and back to his mansion. As he passed it by, he would see an old rabbi sitting under an acacia tree reading a book. The rabbi would be sitting there reading the book in the morning and he would see him in much the same position when he returned in the evening. Day in and day out. Every single day. One day the Counsellor’s curiosity got the better of him and he signaled his entourage – a posse of legionaries on horseback – to stop.
The Counselor dismounted and walked up to the rabbi and asked him:
What is that you are reading?
Oh Counsellor, it is Torah and the Talmud.
What is the Torah and the Talmud?
Well it the Law of the God for the Jewish people.
Why do you have to read it every day?
Well Counsellor, I have been reading it all my life!
Oh really! So, what is so special about the Jewish Law that you have to read it all your life!
The Rabbi said let me explain.
There were two men on a roof and they climbed down the chimney.
One’s face became sooty. The other’s not. Which one washed his face?”
Of course, the man with sooty face, the Roman said.
The Rabbi replied: No. It was the man without the soot who washed his face.
The man with the soot did not wash his face.
How’s that possible asked the Roman?
Simple said the Rabbi.
The man without the soot looked at his friend
and saw that the man’s face was dirty
assumed that his was too, went and washed it.
While the other saw the clean face of his friend
and assumed his face was clean too and didn’t wash it.
The Roman said: Hmmm, so that the study of law. Sound reasoning
But Rabbi said: No, you foolish man you don’t understand.
Let me explain again.
Two men were on the roof. Both come down the chimney.
One’s face is sooty, the other’s not. Which one washes?”
The Roman said, just as you explained, the man without the soot.
The Rabbi cried: No you foolish one!
There was a mirror on the wall
and the man with the dirty face saw how sooty it was and washed it.
The Roman said: Ah ha! So that’s the study of law! Conforming to the logical!
But Rabbi said: No you foolish one.
Two men come down a chimney.
One’s face become sooty? The other’s not? That’s impossible.
You are wasting my time with such a proposition.
And the Roman said: So that’s the law! Common sense!
And the Rabbi said: No you foolish man! Of course, it was possible.
When the first man climbed down the chimney
he brushed the soot away so the man who followed found none to mar him.
The Roman cried: Oh that is brilliant Rabbi. Law is getting at the basic facts!
And for the last time, the Rabbi said,
No you foolish man. Who could brush all the soot away from a chimney?
Who can understand all the facts?
Exasperated to know the answer, the Roman asked: So then what is the Law?
And the Rabbi said quietly,
It is doing the best we can to ascertain God’s intention,
for there were indeed two men on the roof and they did climb down the chimney.
The first one emerged completely clean
while it was the second one who was covered with soot
and neither one washed his face because you forgot to ask me
whether there was any water.
There was none.