Midrash Tanchuma starts out tackling the age-old question of the חֹק – 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 (Talmud Nodal, 9A).
The red heifer follows an historical pattern
In its usual creative approach, the Midrash answers that this is not such an unusual occurrence at all. If you look in Tanach there are many righteous people who descended from those who were evil. 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 (Iyov, 14:4)? [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” (Midrash Tanchuma Chukas, 3:1).
Let’s explore the case that the Midrash considers to be just as inexplicable.
Avraham 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) embraced and promulgated one of the most perverse kinds of idol worship called Molech. He worshiped the Molech by passing his child through a fire. That’s the lenient opinion. Other commentators say he actually burnt his child to death. Furthermore, 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 says that God was ready to appoint King Chizkiyahu as the Moshiach if only he would have sung praises to God after witnessing an amazing miracle. The Assyrian king Sancherev had amassed troops in preparation for an assault of a rather defenseless Jerusalem. Overnight the troops perished and the king fled back to Assyria in disgrace. (Sanhedrin 94A).
The wicked king Omon was the father of the 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 the widespread ignorance of Judaism whereby a King not only had no idea about the teachings of the Torah, he had 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 Moshe; nor did anyone like him arise after him” (Melachim II 23: 25).
His son was the evil king Yehoachaz. Suddenly the red heifer doesn’t seem so confounding any more.
The Parah Adumah also means that the impossible is possible
The last one on the list of conundrums in the Midrash is “the world to come from this world.” When we look around us we wonder how could the world to come ever emerge from the shallow, violent, 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).
According to the Midrash, this is the message of the Red Heifer. The same God who decreed that the Red Heifer can purify the impure will bring forth a glorious world to come from our immensely flawed world.