The Torah is filled with bits and stories that our rational sides have trouble coming to terms with. Logically we know a sea could not suddenly split to allow a nation to walk across the bottom sands. Plagues as divine punishment and riches as divine blessing are not easy to accept. A burning bush, talking animals, fiery serpents – all of them test the boundaries of believability.

Similarly, our Torah portion of the week, Chukat, opens with a description of a seemingly mythical creature. No, this creature isn’t like the ancient Greek monsters, hybrid beasts created by the gods to terrorize humanity. Nor is this creature of epic proportions, colossally large or microscopically small. Nope, this animal is simply a cow, with red hair and never burdened by labor.

But the Red Cow, the Parah Adumah, is just beyond rational because it has no blemishes, no imperfections, no defects that would make it an unacceptable sacrifice to God. Essentially, the Parah Adumah is the definition of unattainable perfection.

Why would the Torah dedicate a chapter to the description of the Parah Adumah and its role in Israelite ritual? Why would a text generally so concise in language use 10 verses to discuss an animal whose perfect qualities do not exist?

I think part of the answer to these questions is hidden in the very Book of Torah we find ourselves at the moment. Rather than discussing the Parah Adumah in Leviticus, the book most concerned with ritual, the Parah Adumah is in Numbers, the book that encompasses the majority of the Israelites’ journey through the unknown wilderness. It is the book that gives us the most sense of the seemingly unending odyssey on which our ancestors found themselves, and it is the book that gives some of the most down-to-earth examples of their adventures. It discusses encounters with foreign rules and people, some friendly and some decidedly not. It discusses leadership succession and death. It discusses irrepressible frustration and anger. And so, the Parah Adumah becomes the reminder of what the daily minutiae of the Israelites’ journey distracts us from – that the destination was (and is) never supposed to be attainable, it was supposed to be aspirational.

Perfection is a lofty goal and is often one that is eternally just outside of our grasp. We can see what it looks like, and practically taste its sweetness, but its pursuit is always ultimately in vain. Because we humans, and the world around us, are decidedly imperfect and are all the more beautiful for it.

We’ve all heard and probably repeated the phrase “practice makes perfect,” but we also know that there is no way to practice our way out of our human flaws. Perhaps “practice makes proficient” helps us from making mistakes, but it is the living unpredictability of a piece of music, a jagged brush stroke, an off-rhythm verse, or a meaningful pause, that changes a thing from mechanical to beautiful. We prepare as if perfection is the goal, and we perform as if perfection is unexciting.

So too with the Parah Adumah and the book of Numbers as a whole. Imagine the tediousness of checking a cow to ensure it is indeed perfect. Imagine the banal days of nomadic life, setting up and taking down tents, traveling to new places all while knowing that you, yourself, would never enter the Promised Land. Each hair on the cow’s hide, each day on the Israelites’ journey must have looked the same as the others around it.

And yet, it was then, and is now, the hair that stands out, the ununiform, the unique, that makes it interesting. More meaningful indeed because it breaks the pattern.

It is good to reach for perfection, to challenge ourselves, and to always reach towards a goal of betterment. But when unattainable perfection becomes the distraction from the essential imperfections of life it does more harm than good. The priests were never supposed to find a Parah Adumah, they were supposed to see the potential in every creature that came into their care and get to know that creature as if it was a miracle unto itself. We, too, are never supposed to be perfect, but to meet every person, every moment, every interaction as if it could be perfect and celebrate when we discover it’s not. How miraculous is a life in pursuit of Parah Adumah, indeed?