“Can Death Be Sweet?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s Torah portion, parashat Chukat, we learn of the death of Aaron at Mt. Hor. G-d speaks to Moshe and Aaron at the border of Edom and says (Numbers 20:24), “Yay’ah’saif Aharon el ah’moh.” Aaron shall be gathered to his people. He will not enter the land of Israel because of the rebellion at May Meh’riva, the Waters of Strife. G-d then instructs Moshe to go together with Aaron and his son Elazar to the top of the mountain where Aaron will die.

The text itself is very moving, but perhaps because Aaron was such a beloved figure in Israel, the Midrash embellishes it even further. The Midrash records that Moshe was reluctant to tell Aaron that he would die, so he indirectly engaged him in conversation regarding a scriptural passage that Moshe said he found difficult and distressing. Together, Moshe and Aaron read the book of Genesis regarding the sin of Adam and the introduction of death into the world. Gently, Moshe informed Aaron that both he and Aaron must pass on. Immediately, Aaron felt the imminence of his own demise.

The Midrash relates that the people of Israel did not know why Aaron, Elazar and Moshe had gone up the mountain. Had they known the real reason, they would have strongly protested or at least prayed that the decree be rescinded. When Moshe, Aaron and Elazar reach the top of the mountain, a cave opened up for them, in which they found a burning lamp and a couch. The Midrsash dramatically describes that Aaron then proceeded to remove each of his priestly garments, one by one, and place them on Elazar. Moshe says to Aaron, “Just think Aaron, my brother, when Miriam died, you and I attended her. Now that you are about to die, I and Elazar are attending you. But, when I die, who will attend me?” The Al-mighty said to Moshe, “As you live, I will attend you.” As we shall soon see, Moshe’s concern was entirely warranted.

Then Moshe said to Aaron, “My brother, go up and lie on this couch,” and he went up. “Stretch out your arms,” and he stretched them out. “Shut your eyes,” and he shut them. “Close your mouth,” and he closed it. At once, the Divine presence came down, kissed Aaron, and his soul departed. Then, as Moshe and Elazar kissed Aaron on his cheeks, the cloud of glory rose up and covered Aaron. The Holy One commanded them, “Go hence.” They departed and the cave was sealed.

The Midrash relates that the People of Israel didn’t believe that Aaron had died, because, after all, in last week’s parasha it had been reported that Aaron had been able to stop the plague in which 14,700 people died and even stop the Angel of Death. When the people became rambunctious, G-d beckoned some of His angels to open the cave and bear forth Aaron’s bier, which then floated in the air while other angels sang praise before it. Thus, all of Israel saw Aaron, as it is written in Numbers 20:29: “Vah’yir’uh kol hah’ay’dah kee gah’vah Aharon.” And all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead.

In Numbers 20:26, Rashi informs us: “Mee’yad cha’mad Moshe l’oh’tah mee’tah.” When Moshe saw Aaron’s death by the kiss of G-d, he too coveted that death, and eventually when Moshe’s time comes, he also passes on with the kiss of the Al-mighty. But here, the parallel ends. While Moshe also died with the kiss of G-d, there was no one to attend Moshe. But for G-d’s presence, he dies alone. Moshe, the teacher of all of Israel, the inspiring pedagogue of Aaron’s surviving sons, had no one to attend him. Not one of his children are reputed to have attended him in death. In fact, in Judges 17, which tells of the infamous idol of Michah, we are told that Michah sought out a descendent of Levi to serve as a priest for his idolatry. The Levite that Michah found to fulfill the priestly functions was none other than Yonaton ben Gershom, ben Menashe. The Rabbis say that the name Menashe is really a disguise for the name “Moshe.” It is hard to believe, but rabbinic tradition has it that Moshe’s great-great-grandson became an idolatrous priest!

How powerful a contrast of the two leaders, Moshe and Aaron. Moshe dies alone and is buried in an anonymous grave. Aaron dies in his full glory. He truly has a “sweet death.” For what could be sweeter than for a person to leave the physical world knowing that his children are following in his own footsteps, committed to serve the Jewish People, and donning the same priestly garments that Aaron himself wore in his own lifetime. Because they love him so much, all of Israel mourns for Aaron for thirty days. Not so Moshe, who was left bereft and alone. Is this the price of leadership?

May you be blessed.