Midrash Tanchuma Chukat – embracing the unknowable

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These are the laws of the Torah that defy rational explanations. That is a  nonliteral translation of the opening words of this week’s parsha.

The Midrash Tanchuma goes so far as to say that our “yetser harah” (evil inclination) uses the statute of the Red Heifer to fuel cynicism in those who want to denigrate the Torah. After all, the Red Heifer’s ashes have the power to transform someone who is “Tamei” – spiritually impure – to be “Tahor – spiritually pure. Yet those involved in preparing the ashes automatically become “Tamei.”

Is this really the most unknowable portion of the parsha?

Midrash Tanchuma  provides many other conundrums that seem even more puzzling.

Take, for example the death of Aaron. According to Midrash Tanchuma the Jews wanted to stone Moshe and Aaron’s son, Elazar, to death when Moshe announced that Aaron had died? According to Midrash Tanchuma a miracle happened. Moshe prayed that they could see Aaron lying dead on top of a mountain, so they accepted his death. (Interestingly enough, one of the reasons for the sin of the Golden Calf is that, according to Midrash Tanchuma (Ki Tisa, 19),  Satan showed the people an image of Moshe lying dead on a mountain top so they thought it was time to manufacture a new deity).

Another unusual episode in the parsha involved Moshe attaching a copper snake to a pole to save the Jewish People after they slandered both Moshe and the (miracle food) Manna, that had been sustaining them thus far. (Chapter 21 verse 5)

“And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.”

Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover.

(The copper snake became the logo of the American Medical Association).

Midrash Tanchuma answers the biting question “why where the Jews attacked by snakes.” Firstly, slander is what the world learned from the primal snake who slandered G-d in order to convince Eve to eat from the forbidden fruit. Secondly the Jews were complaining that the Manna had no taste. This is another throw back to the primordial snake.  Among  the snake’s punishments were that it had to crawl on its stomach, and everything tasted like dirt. By the way, which was the harshest of the snake’s punishments? Since the snake was  never lacking food it never had to pray to G-d. Losing its relationship with  G-d, say the commentators, was the snake’s worse punishment of all.

In another unusual portion at the end of the parsha, Midrash Tanchuma fills in details of a miracle which had  the Jews singing G-d’s praises. It seems there was an ambush planned as the Jews passed between two mountain ranges. G-d moved the mountains together to crush the enemy before the Jews even got there. (This foreshadows next weeks parsha in which the  great miracle of turning Balaam’s curses into blessing happens without the Jews even being aware of a threat).

Of course, this parsha also has the famous episode of  Moses losing his life long dream of entering the Promised Land because he hit the rock when G-d told him to speak to the rock.

Midrash Tanchuma says it was actually three transgressions. Getting angry at the people, hitting the rock instead of talking to it, and not spontaneously singing a song upon witnessing the miracle of water coming from a rock.

So it’s not the Red Heifer that is the conundrum, its’ the whole parsha. In fact it’s the whole Torah which is filled with many mysteries beyond our comprehension. Which is exactly why the Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev notes that the parsha does not introduce the laws of red heifer with the words: “This is the “chukat” (statute without a rational explanation)  of the red heifer,” but rather, “This is the “chukat” of the Torah (Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Bamidbar)

I believe Midrash Tanchuma provides an epic answer to this epic question of the rationality of the Torah.

“This is the statute of the Torah.” This text is related (to Job 14:4), “Who can produce something clean out of something unclean; is it (not the) One (and only)?” (Who), for example, [produced] Abraham out of Terah, Hezekiah out of Ahaz, Josiah out of Amon, Mordecai out of Shimei, Israel out of the nations of the world, the world to come out of this world? who did so? Who commanded so? And who decreed so? Is it not One? Is it not the Singular Being of the World? 

The Midrash is taking poetic license. Or perhaps its making a perfectly rational analogy. G-d determined that the ashes from the red heifer can completely transforms someone’s spiritual status.  That’s how G-d set up the rules. If it’s not logical, just look around. In running the world, G-d has directed many spiritual transformations that defy logic.

How did someone growing up in the house of an idolator, with no spiritual guidance, discover that there was one G-d and become the father to all major religions? How is Jewish history unfolding in a way in which a spiritually enlightened People is emerging emerge from a spiritually challenged world. Despite exiles, massacres, crusades, pograms and the holocaust.

We believe in a world to come. What sustains that belief is that something  “Tahor” can  emerge from something “Tamei.”

About the Author
My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. Otherwise, I work US hours as Director of Marketing for a US Biotech. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem. I grew up in Brookline, Mass. Our last stop was Teaneck, NJ
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