This week’s parsha points out to us the inscrutable face, so to speak, of
God and the difficulties embedded in our relationship with the infinite. The
parsha opens with the famous commandment and ritual of the red heifer, which
according to Jewish tradition defies all human rational understanding. It is
the ultimate “I told you to do it, so do it and don’t ask any questions!”
instruction in the Torah.
The ritual defiles the pure and purifies the defiled. It is technical and
detailed in the utmost and requires an unblemished animal of red color
without black hairs appearing on its body. The Mishna in tractate Parah
labors to ferret out all of the details inherent in this ritual but the
basic mystery that underlies all discussion of the matter can never be
We are brought face to face with the fact that finite humans cannot fathom
the infinite Creator and truly understand His motives and reasons for the
commandments of the Torah. The Torah warned us of this fact when it said: “…
humans cannot see Me and live.”
Our great teacher Moshe was rebuffed in his attempt to understand more than
what mortals could achieve in understanding God’s conduct, so to speak, in
matters of this world. That is the great lesson of the red heifer – the
clear divide between human rational understanding and the Divine will. It
humbles us to think that there are things that we cannot understand, puzzles
that we cannot solve, knots that we cannot unravel. But those are the facts
of human existence.
In this week’s parsha we are witness to another event that is not easily
understood. Moshe is barred from entry into the Land of Israel. Though the
Torah gives us the reason that he smote the rock instead of speaking to it
at Mei Merivah, the commentators to the Torah searched for more substantial
reasons to justify the punishment of this great person for what apparently
is a relatively minor offense.
At the end of all of the explanations we are again faced with the reality
that we just cannot understand the ways of the infinite Creator as He deals
with humans. The men of the Enlightenment, both Jews and non-Jews, blinded
by their own arrogance, rejected the Torah and eventually God since they
could not rationally understand everything about it. Their motto was and is:
“If I don’t understand it then it does not exist or have relevance for me.”
But all of us, even the most knowledgeable and intelligent among us, know
that there are mysteries in life that are beyond our ability to find a
solution. Moshe’s fate is certainly one of those mysteries. And again, that
is the reason that the Torah tells us of this incident so that we, like
Moshe, realize that we cannot peer beyond the veil of Heaven.
The entire issue of the righteous suffering and the evildoers prospering
gnaws at our faith and equilibrium. Yet the realization that we will never
really understand these matters should serve as a solace and comfort for us.
We must accept our finite state as we deal with the infinite Torah.
Rabbi Berel Wein