The Point of No Discern
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
Contradiction: a condition in which things tend to be contrary to each other;
Paradox: a statement that seems contradictory, unbelievable, or absurd but that may actually be true in fact. (Webster's
We live in world full of both, contradictions and paradoxes, and sometimes, it can be hard to tell the difference between the
two. Take the age of the world, for example. Science and Carbon-Dating places the age of the universe at billions of years old.
Torah, on the other hand, states explicitly that the creation of the physical universe as we know it began five days prior to the
day Adam was first created, 5,757 (and a half) years ago.
Perhaps, for many, it is. However, for many of those many who have since checked into the contradiction, it has since been
upgraded to the level of paradox. In other words, yes, Carbon-Dating may be accurate in its measure of the age of the earth ...
But the Torah is also accurate in its description of creation, and its accounting of the years. If that is the case, then how can the
world, which is billions of years old also be 5,757 plus years old?
The Talmud supplies the missing fact (long before Carbon-Dating was discovered): creation did not evolve over a long period
of time, but after the first five days it already existed as if it had. Like in the case with many paradoxes, one simple (but often
previously unknown) piece of information can resolve the seemingly contradictory ideas. (In the book, Genesis and the
Big Bang, Professor Gerald Schroeder offers his own scientific theory to resolve this paradox).
Another example of a paradox: right now, it is both day and night. "How can that be?" you may be thinking to yourself. Allow
me to explain myself. Right now, as I write this, it is daytime in Eretz Yisroel, and nighttime in North America!
What makes a paradox a paradox is usually an incorrect assumption. For example, in the case of the age of the world, the
assumption was that creation could only take its form after an extremely long period of time. Tree rings since creation have
grown over generations. Continental drift has gradually been changing the shape of the world, very, very slowly. Rock
formations have resulted from glaciers that have long since receded. And fossil fuels result over millennia, from creatures
long since dead.
Has it not always been this way?
According to the Talmud, No! The first five days of creation were different, which is one of the reasons why the Jewish
calendar begins from the sixth day of creation, the day on which man was created. It is not possible or accurate to apply the
same rules of Day Six to the first five days of creation. (The truth is, even for Adam and Chava, at least before the sin of eating
from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the natural world had been far more miraculous than it is today.)
Of all the paradoxes in the history of creation, perhaps one of the greatest is the paradox of the Red Heifer discussed in this
week's parsha. Without going into all the details of the process (which are spoken about in the parsha itself), the waters of the
Red Heifer were used as part of a spiritual purification process for those who had been in close contact with the dead. The
paradox: the kohen who sprinkled the waters on the impure person himself became spiritually defiled in the process! It was like
two people washing from the same basin, one of whom became cleansed while the other one became dirty. How can that be?
Even Shlomo HaMelech, the wisest man in all of history had to admit,
"The wisdom is distant from me (Hebrew: hi rechoka)." (Koheles 7:23)
'The wisdom is distant from me (hi rechoka)' ... In gematria it is equal to para aduma (Red Heifer).' (Rabbeinu
This type of mitzvah is called a "chok," or, a "statute." And, as Rashi states at the beginning of the parsha, chukim are mitzvos
whose logic the non-Jews, and even our own yetzer haras question. We human beings like to know what we're doing, and
why were doing it, and what effect it is supposed to have. If we can't know that, then the mitzvos makes no sense to us, and
we lose our motivation to perform them. How much more so is this the case when it seems like mitzvos contradict what we
consider to be logical.
However, what the para aduma teaches us is that today's contradiction is tomorrow's paradox (could it be that the word
"paradox" is a latinized version of para-aduma?). And who knows, the day after that, we may discover the faulty assumption
that prevented us from seeing the Divine logic in the mitzvah, which, in time, is always revealed. The truth is, what is often
contradiction and paradox to many is quite understandable in the world of Kabballah, the esoteric aspect of Torah learning.
The name of the game is patience in researching the idea to its ultimate conclusion. This is what Shlomo HaMelech also wrote:
If you want it like money and pursue it like buried treasures, then you will understand fear of G-d-G-d's wisdom
you will find. (Mishlei 2:4)
You have to be willing to go the distance in search of truth, knowing and believing that:
"The people who walk in darkness see the Great Light." (Yishiyahu 9:1)
That doesn't mean it will all make sense today. It doesn't mean that the inner truth of every aspect of Torah can be
discerned now. However, one day it will, and when it does, the ecstasy of knowing such a high level of Divine logic will make
getting there more than worthwhile. In the meantime, we Jews have taken such "loose threads" as a matter of faith, which,
perhaps, is one of the very reasons why some of that Divine logic will remain elusive for some time to come.
In this week's parsha, the Jewish people again demand water. The special well that had followed them throughout their forty
years in the desert, miraculously supplying delicious water on demand, dried up. But why here? Why now?
Rashi answers this question by pointing out that just before the incident with the well, Miriam the prophetess died. Hence, the
well had dried up then to indicate that the water had been in her merit. Just as the munn fell from heaven in the merit of Moshe,
and the Clouds of Glory enveloped the Jewish people in the merit of Aharon, the life-giving water came in Miriam's merit. The
only questions is, what had been her merit?
It is amazing how at every major turning point in Jewish history, there has been a woman who helped us make that turn
successfully. Sarah forced the issue of turning Yishmael out, saving Yitzchak's life, and the future of the Jewish people. It was
Rivkah who guided Ya'akov to take the all-important blessings from his father Yitzchak, who had wanted to bless Eisav
instead. Rachel and Leah were the ones responsible for whom Ya'akov married first. There are countless others like these
What did Miriam do?
Had it not been for Miriam, it seems from the midrash, we would never have left Egypt. It was the young Miriam, the Talmud
explains, who convinced her father to have more children, in spite of Paroah's evil to decree to kill the firstborn. Because of her
advice, Amram and Yocheved gave birth to their third and last child: Moshe.
It was Miriam who watched from the bulrushes as the baby Moshe sailed in the Nile river to escape the decree of Paroah,
watching to see what would happen to her special brother. And it was Miriam who had suggested, after Moshe refused to
nurse from an Egyptian wet-nurse, that a Jewish women be brought (Moshe's mother) to nurse him.
So what? Wouldn't any sister do the same for her baby brother? Why would this be the merit to be the source of life-saving
water in the desert.
The answer is, Miriam had acted not as a sister only, but on behalf of the entire Jewish people. She knew that a redeemer
was imminent, and saw in Moshe the future hope of the Jewish people. She had not merely looked out after the welfare of her
brother; she had been looking out after the future redeemer of the Jewish people. And for being this concerned about the
entire nation, she earned the merit to supply that people with life-saving water.
If the Torah had not said anything, we would have barely raised an eyebrow. So Moshe hit the rock! Did water burst forth?
Yes! Had it not been a great miracle? Yes! Had the people not been duly impressed! For sure! So why did G-d see fit
to punish Moshe and Aharon his brother so severely, denying them the chance to enter the land of their love?
Rashi says that this is an example of how strict G-d can be with those whom He relies upon to act on His behalf. Knowing
what they do, being as important in the eyes of others as they usually are, tzadikim are held up to a different measuring stick.
However, there is another angle to the discussion. As the Torah points out, and the Talmud echoes, Eretz Yisroel is a unique
land, where even the air makes one wise (if they're look for wisdom!). Whereas, in every other land of the world the rain falls
for "natural" reasons, in Eretz Yisroel, it falls as a matter of Divine Providence. Eretz Yisroel is like G-d's special garden, which
He personally tends to daily with love and concern.
Anyone who lives here knows of the countless miracles that occur, some more obvious than others. Sometimes, even the
disbelieving have little choice but to say, "It was the hand of G-d!" Natural methods don't work here so well, but not
necessarily because Israelis don't know how to apply American acumen, but because, most the time, it is not relevant to do so!
It was true that hitting the rock and bringing forth water was a great miracle. However, it is a miracle that pales compared to
bringing forth water from merely speaking to the rock-the level of spiritual existence expected of the Jewish people once
they entered the land. However, the people could have asked themselves, "If Moshe had to physically bring about
miracles, how could we be expected to act differently after settle on the land?"
To nip that philosophy in the bud, Moshe and Aharon were denied access to the land. It was if to say: just as this miracle was
supposed to have been achieved through purely spiritual means (speaking), so too must you, when you settle on the
land, try to live a purely spiritual existences, minimizing your dependence on natural means to maintain physical survival. The
grave punishment of the two greatest leaders mankind has ever known certainly left a very lasting impression on the Jewish
national psyche-then and now as well.