“The Death of Aaron”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chukat, we learn of the death of Aaron, the High Priest of Israel.

Numbers 20:20-29 relates that the people of Israel arrived at a place called Hor ha’Hor, or Mount Hor, which was by the border of the land of Edom. G-d informs Moses and Aaron that Aaron will be gathered unto his people and that he will not enter the land of Israel because both he and Moses defied G-d’s word at May M’reeva, the Waters of Strife.

G-d then instructs Moses to take Aaron and Aaron’s son, Elazar, and bring them up to Mount Hor. Atop the mountain, Moses is to remove Aaron’s vestments and place them on Elazar, and then Aaron will die.

The Torah confirms that Moses did as G-d commanded.

Before the eyes of the entire assembly Moses, Aaron, and Elazar ascend Mount Hor. Moses removes the garments from Aaron, places them on Elazar, and there Aaron dies. Following the death of Aaron, Moses and Elazar descend from the mountain. When the people see that Aaron has passed on, the entire house of Israel weeps for Aaron for 30 days. (For more insights into Aaron’s unusual “funeral,” see our analysis of Chukat 5761-2001.)

The commentators are particularly struck by the difference between the people’s reaction to Aaron’s death and the passing of Moses. In Numbers 20:29, the Torah states: “Vah’yeer’oo kol ha’eydah kee gavah Aharon, vah’yiv’koo et Aharon sh’loshim yom, kol beit Yisrael,” The entire assembly saw that Aaron had perished, and they wept for Aaron 30 days, the entire house of Israel. However, when describing the passing of Moses in Deutoronomy 34:8, the Torah states: “Vah’yiv’koo b’nei Yisrael et Moshe b’Ar’vot Mo’av shloshim yom, vah’yit’moo y’may v’chee ay’vel Moshe,” The children of Israel bewailed Moses in the plains of Moav for 30 days; and the days of the tearful mourning for Moses ended. The rabbis point to a rather startling omission: the verse does not say that the “entire assembly” of Israel mourned for Moses as it had for Aaron! They conclude that only some of the men mourned for Moses, but not all!

The Midrash relates that Moses was virtually inconsolable when he saw the honor accorded to his brother, Aaron, at his passing–that Aaron’s coffin was suspended in the air, surrounded by the Al-mighty and the angels, who eulogized Aaron. Moses cried out, “Woe unto me that I have remained forlorn and alone. For when my sister Miriam passed on, the people did not come to eulogize her, but Aaron and I were able to accord her her last honors. When my brother Aaron passed on, I and Aaron’s son, Elazar, accorded him his final honors. But when I pass on, who is going to care for me? I have no father, no mother, no brother, no sister!”

Immediately, the Al-mighty comforted Moses saying, “Do not fear, for your honor will be greater than them all, for I Myself will be by your side and will personally care for your burial. And just as Aaron was buried in a cave that disappeared from view, so will the place where you are to buried be rendered unknown. And just as the angel of death did not prevail with Aaron, instead I kissed him Myself and he died with My kiss, so shall you die with a Divine kiss.” With this, Moses was comforted.

Nevertheless, the question remains. Why were the people of Israel so much more deeply affected by the passing of Aaron?

In Ethics of our Fathers 1:12, the Babylonian sage, Hillel, is cited as saying, “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures and bringing them nearer to the Torah.” Throughout rabbinic literature, Aaron is depicted as the consummate “Ohev Yisrael,” a lover of peace and the People of Israel. Aaron is portrayed by the Midrash as having devoted many hours counseling families whose marriages were strained. He is described as having the unique ability to end strife within families, and between brothers and friends, going to each person individually to tell him how pained his brother or friend was by the quarrel and how each wished to reconcile with the other.

The Midrash even depicts Aaron as having almost supernatural abilities to return people from sin. It was at Aaron’s death that the story circulated about Aaron’s relationship with a man named Naval ben Pirsha (the name itself implies consummate evil). Naval was a person of strife and dissidence who embittered the lives of his entire family. All who knew him despised him. When the people heard that Naval had become a penitent and that now there was none like him constantly seeking peace and pursuing charity, they were incredulous. What could possibly account for this great transformation?

Apparently, when Aaron heard of the evil ways of Naval he was greatly pained, and went out to greet Naval and bless him with peace. Aaron befriended Naval, becoming his close companion and was often seen accompanying Naval wherever he went. The honor that Aaron accorded Naval was particularly treasured by him. Naval said in his heart, “How can I continue my evil ways? Aaron, the great priest, the brother of Moses, will hear what I have done and forsake me.” When Aaron saw that Naval had mended his ways, Aaron thanked Naval and said, “I see that you now love justice and despise evil. Therefore G-d will bless you with peace and give you long life and years of tranquility.”

Presumably, had Aaron lived in contemporary times, he most probably would have been regarded as a “goody-two-shoes,” and suffered great ridicule because of his excessive goodness. The contemporary aphorism “No good deed goes unpunished,” while a clever phrase, is a reflection that doing good is either simply impractical or doing good can actually result in personal harm to those who seek to render good. The tragic cynicism reflecting the belief that no good can ever result from good takes a great toll on contemporary life.

Jewish tradition teaches that (Avot 4:2) “s’char mitzvah, mitzvah,” the reward for doing a good deed is goodness itself. We dare not become cynical of our own positive efforts and certainly not of the efforts of others who seek to enhance the world with goodness.

The Midrash describes the people of Israel and their boundless admiration for Aaron. It projects the possibility that a single person of exceptional goodness can be such a powerful influence that even the most callous and indifferent inhabitants on the face of the earth can be transformed, and even the cynical multitudes will ultimately recognize goodness for what it truly is!

Such possibilities may be difficult for us to imagine, but it should never be impossible for us to hope for the realization of those noble dreams.

May you be blessed.