Yoni Mozeson
FInding God's hiding places

Midrash Tanchuma Chukat: Transforming the red Heifer from perplexing to prophetic

Midrash Tanchuma starts out tackling the age-old question of the חֹק “chok” – the statute that is beyond rational comprehension. The paradigm of this category is the פָרָ֨ה אֲדֻמָּ֜ה – the red heifer. How do the ashes of a red heifer bring ritual purity to someone who is impure. Yet those who are involved in its preparation become ritually impure even though they started out ritually pure? The Midrash says that even Shlomo Hamelech could not figure it out.

Answering a question with a question

The Midrash answers that this is not such an unusual pattern at all. If you look at Tanach there are many righteous people who descended  from those who are not righteous. Which can be seen, metaphorically,  as the very same conundrum as the Red Heifer – how do the pure emerge from the impure:

מִי יִתֵּן טָהוֹר מִטָּמֵא, לֹא אֶחָד (איוב יד, ד). כְּגוֹן אַבְרָהָם מִתֶּרַח, חִזְקִיָּה מֵאָחָז, יֹאשִׁיָּה מֵאָמוֹן, מָרְדְּכַי מִשִּׁמְעִי, יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם, הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא מִן הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה. מִי עָשָׂה כֵן. מִי גָּזַר כֵּן. מִי צִוָּה כֵן. לֹא אֶחָד. לֹא יְחִידוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם.

“Who has the power to make something pure emerge from something impure, if not the One and Only?  [Who], for example, [brought forth] Avraham out of Terach, Chizkiya out of Ahaz, Yoshiah out of Omon, Mordechai out of Shimi, Israel out of the nations of the world, the world to come out of this world? Who did so, who decreed it, if not [God] who is one and singular in the world.”

Case solved

You thought you had such a burning question? Nothing doing. Jewish destiny is replete with occurrences that are just as inexplicable.

Let’s start with Avraham. He came to the understanding on his own that there is only one God. He was on a life mission to spread the radical notion of Monotheism. Yet, according to the Midrash, his father, Terach. ran a cash and carry idol shop.

King Achaz (whose father was the righteous king Yotam) adopted one of the most perverse kinds of idol worship called Molech. It was worshiped by passing your child through a fire. That’s the optimistic opinion. Other commentators say he actually burnt his child to death. Achaz was so inspired by an altar used for idolatry that he saw in Damascus, he commissioned that a duplicate be built for idolatry in the Bet Hamikdash. Wouldn’t you know it, his son was the righteous King Chizkiyahu. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 94A) says that God was ready to appoint King Chizkiyahu as the Moshiach.  if only he would have sung praises to God after the miraculous defeat of  Sancherev whose troops were amassed near Jerusalem.

The wicked king Omon was the father of righteous king Yoshiyahu. In his day a Torah scroll was found. When it was read to him he was so inspired by what he heard that he transformed his kingdom back to the worship of God. (It’s hard to imagine how far they were from Judaism for the King to have never seen a Torah scroll).

Yoshiyahu’s remarkable process of Teshuva was described as follows:

וְכָמֹהוּ֩ לֹֽא־הָיָ֨ה לְפָנָ֜יו מֶ֗לֶךְ אֲשֶׁר־שָׁ֤ב אֶל־ה’ בְּכָל־לְבָב֤וֹ וּבְכָל־נַפְשׁוֹ֙ וּבְכָל־מְאֹד֔וֹ כְּכֹ֖ל תּוֹרַ֣ת מֹשֶׁ֑ה וְאַחֲרָ֖יו לֹֽא־קָ֥ם כָּמֹֽהוּ׃

There was no king like him before who turned back to God with all his heart and soul and might, in full accord with the Teaching of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him.(Kings II 23: 25)

His son was the evil king Yehoachaz.

Suddenly the red heifer doesn’t seem so confounding any more.

The Parah Adumah means the impossible is possible

At the end of the list of conundrums the Midrash lists “the world to come from this world.” When we look around us we wonder how could the world to come ever emerge from the callous, violent, self serving, exploitative, world that we live in now?  Suddenly,  the Red Heifer takes on an entirely new role. Instead of being a confounding principle that makes Judaism feel unapproachable and incomprehensible, the Red Heifer stands for the exact opposite. It is a driving force behind the most endearing, comforting and uplifting principle of our faith:

:אֲנִי מַאֲמִין בֶּאֱמוּנָה שְׁלֵמָה, בְּבִיאַת הַמָּשִׁיחַ, וְאַף עַל פִּי שֶׁיִּתְמַהְמֵהַּ, עִם כָּל זֶה אֲחַכֶּה לּו בְּכָל יום שֶׁיָּבוא

I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and, though he will tarry, I will anticipate, daily, his coming.” ( Maimonides’ Principles of Faith)

The same God decreed that the Red Heifer can purify the impure – and indeed it did. The same God brought forth Avraham from the idolatrous house of Terach, Chizkiya from Ahaz, Yoshiah from Omon, etc., etc.  That is the very same God who will bring forth “Olam Habah” from “Olam Hazeh.” A world full of peace and a thirst for knowledge of the one and only God, from a world of continuing conflict and no unified recognition of God.

It happened before, it will happen again,

About the Author
(Almost 100 Midrash Video summaries can be found on my youtube playlist: After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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