Parshas Chukas contains two of the most baffling questions in the Torah. One spiritual and the other logical.
The most famous of these is the spiritual question and it concerns the Para Adumah, the Red Cow.
The purification process of the Red Cow lifts tumaa, impurity, off a man who had come in contact with a corpse, but the Kohen who purifies him becomes impure. How can a thing which purifies also cause impurity?
This is a question considered utterly baffling and deemed a decree which cannot be understood.
The other question is the logical one. Why is Moshe punished in this Parsha and prevented from entering the Land of Israel? What was the nature of his offense?
Both questions are really the same question.
Moshe, like the Kohen, had labored on behalf of the Jews. They entered the land, he did not. Like the Kohen, he instead became "impure". Indeed G-d's indictment charges that Moshe had failed to make G-d holy in the eyes of the Jews. Lehakdisheni Leyenei Yisrael.
It's the same paradox. And it's the paradox at the heart of Judaism. At the heart of any serious religious inquiry.
We see yet a third clearer example of the paradox in the parsha.
G-d punishes the Jews with poisonous serpents. Their cure is to look at an image of a serpent. How does the same thing that cures also heal? Because it isn't the snake that cures or kills, it's G-d.
The central paradox of religion is to understand that the good things come from G-d, as do the bad things. This is what we grapple with in the face of death. Jews praise the justice of G-d and His ways upon hearing that a death has taken place. G-d gives. G-d takes away.
The process of the Red Cow, like the snake, can both purify and cause impurity. But there is no paradox. It isn't the ashes and water of the cow that causes purity or impurity. Only G-d can take a pure thing out of an impure thing. (Iyov 14:4) The Kohen, like Moshe, is there to fulfill that function. But the power to do so can only belong to G-d.
We dwell often on the exact moment of Moshe's error. Was he wrong to hit the rock instead of speaking to it? Was his error that he became angry at the Jews?
But we don't contemplate what led up to it.
Why did the Jews lack water? While Miriam's death was the specific cause, throughout their journey through the desert, G-d at times chose to subject the Jews to lack of water. Why?
When we look back at the various rebellions of the Jews in their journey through the desert, a common pattern emerges. These rebellions were rarely directly aimed at G-d. Instead the Jews accepted what G-d gave them, but blamed Moshe when there were difficulties.
The good things came from G-d. But the bad things were Moshe's fault.
That's a natural human fallacy. People often credit G-d for the good things but blame people for the bad ones. Or we credit ourselves for the good things, but blame G-d for the bad ones.
The great challenge of faith is to understand that both come from G-d.
"I kill, and I make alive; I have wounded, and I heal" (Devarim 32:39)
The Jews had seen more than enough miracles to believe in G-d. What they had to grasp was that everything comes from G-d. And it was Moshe's job to teach them this in a variety of ways climaxing with the recitation of blessings and curses.
It was important for them to understand that water could be brought both by striking a rock and speaking to it.
That G-d acts in a variety of ways, doing things that to our limited understanding may appear good or bad, but that there is a larger completeness behind all this that is wholly and entirely good.
This was what Moshe had failed to convey to them. The more suffering they experienced, the more they turned on Moshe, blaming him, as Korach's rebellion did, for their own misdeeds.
It was Moshe's fault that they did not have water or the food that they liked. It was his fault that they had to wander in the desert.
G-d blames Moshe for failing to "sanctify" to literally make Him holy in the eyes of the Jews.
How can G-d, the source of all holiness, be made holy? Through our greater recognition of G-d.
Impurity is distance from G-d. Holiness is closeness to G-d.
The entire process of the Red Cow is summoned into being by contact with death. Impurity is linked to birth and death. We see the two as being contradictory. Life and death. But birth contains the seeds of death. And death is the gateway to a great new birth. Both come from G-d.
Death causes despair. It reminds us of mortality. By recognizing that the same G-d who kills also creates life, that the two are a cycle which ends with eternal life, we are lifted above it.
We become holier through our larger sense of the unity of Creation. And by recognizing the greatness of G-d, we "sanctify" Him through that greater awareness.
The Kohen takes the impure man through the process of that recognition. Impurity is a symptom of flawed faith. Purification forces the impure man or woman to confront death and life in various forms, to come face to face with the great paradox of religion, and recognize the oneness of G-d.
There is only one G-d. The same G-d that gives life, takes life, grants water, denies it, causes the various natural phenomena that lead to impurity and offers the pathway to purity.
The impure may not approach G-d. They are forbidden from entering the Mishkan and the Beit HaMikdash because it is impossible to become close to G-d if you don't truly believe that He is the Author of everything. There is an aspect of heresy and blasphemy in even doing so.
The paradox of the Red Cow is the central paradox of religion. Its resolution is emotionally difficult. It requires that we accept that our difficulties come from the same source as our blessings.
Moshe was not able to guide the Jews to this realization. The failure to understand this would come to lead them to sin and to exile. They would become distant from G-d. The path to return to G-d begins with the realization that everything comes from G-d. That G-d is the totality of existence.
When we come to terms with this paradox, we are healed.