This week's Torah portion opens with the laws of the red heifer, a special sacrifice brought in Temple times. Its ashes were used to purify those who had come into contact with a corpse. These laws give the Torah portion its name, Chukat, which literally means a decree, specifically one whose deeper significance we can't fully comprehend.
The Midrash says that one of the most mysterious parts of the law of the red heifer is the fact that those who engage in its preparation become contaminated, thereby causing quite a puzzling outcome: the one who was started out impure is now pure, but the one worked on his behalf to help purify him is now rendered impure.
The Torah portion then resumes telling us of the adventures of the Jewish people in the desert. It is now 38 years since last week's incident of the spies, as a new generation of Jews stands ready to enter the Promised Land. The Jewish people complain that they lack water, and God commands Moshe to "speak to the rock before their eyes that it shall give water" (Bamidbar 20:8). Moshe hits the rock instead and - here's the heartbreaking ending we all know - Moshe is denied entry into Israel as punishment for disobeying God.
The commentaries wonder about the connection between the laws of the red heifer and the story of Moshe hitting the rock and why those laws are specifically written here, especially since they were given to the Jewish people many years earlier?
I would like to suggest an answer based the Midrash we mention earlier. Perhaps God told Moshe to write these laws here because the paradox of the red heifer is in fact the paradox of Moshe's life. The ones who began impure - in our case the Jewish people, are now "pure" (i.e. worthy to enter the Land of Israel). But the one who worked so hard on their behalf, Moshe, is now rendered "impure" (i.e. unfit to enter the land because of them).
Moshe was the greatest Jewish leader to ever live. At several points in the Torah, Moshe has the opportunity to turn his back on the Jewish people and do what is best for himself and his personal relationship with God. But he never does. He continues to fight for the Jewish people at all costs. When the Jewish people fall into the dirt, Moshe is right there to get himself dirty trying to save them, as long as it means that at the end, they will merit to see the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham.
A true leader, a true visionary, doesn't always get to see his dreams realized, but that doesn't stop him from putting it all on the line. The great Sage the Baal Shem Tov would say, "I would go down into Gehinom (Hell) if it meant being able to pull out even one Jew from there," and true to his words, there are several stories where he risked all of his World to Come for the sake of bringing other Jews closer.
It is truly a mystery why the hero should ever have to die at the end of the story. It is the chok of the red heifer and the mystery of the story of Moshe that only God can answer. But it is the trait of a true Jewish leader, a true visionary and even a true friend to be ready to take the fall in order to help another up.