“Rosh Chodesh Av – Remembering the Passing of a Beloved Leader”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Masei, the second of this week’s combined parashiot Matot-Masei, features a lengthy list of 42 locations where the Israelites encamped during their forty years of wandering in the Wilderness.

When read in the synagogue, the text of the travel itinerary is usually chanted by the Torah reader using a special singsong melody, underscoring the long and arduous journeys the Israelites endured in the Wilderness.

In Numbers 33:1, Rashi points out that of the 42 encampments, the first fourteen occurred before the mission of the scouts and the last eight stops were in the fortieth year after Aaron’s death. Thus, we learn that during the 38 intervening years, there were “only” twenty journeys, including 19 years that were spent encamped in a single location, Kadesh Barnea.

The listing of the journeys is pretty much routine. The first journey recorded in Numbers 33:5, reads, וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס, וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּסֻכֹּת, and the Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses and encamped in Succot. We are then informed that the people journeyed from Succot and encamped in Ethan and turned back to Pi-Hahiroth. On rare occasion, does scripture pause after noting a location to add a brief comment.

So, in Numbers 33:9, we learn that in Eilim there were twelve springs of water and 70 date palms (B’shalach 5776-2016). Numbers 33:14, reports that in Rephidim there was no water for the people to drink.

In Numbers 33:37, we are told that the people journeyed from Kadesh and encamped in Mount Hor, at the edge of the land of Edom. The Torah, in Numbers 33:38-39, then devotes two verses to recount the death of Aaron, וַיַּעַל אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן אֶל הֹר הָהָר, עַל פִּי השׁם וַיָּמָת שָׁם: בִּשְׁנַת הָאַרְבָּעִים לְצֵאת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַחֲמִישִׁי, בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ. וְאַהֲרֹן בֶּן שָׁלֹשׁ וְעֶשְׂרִים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה בְּמֹתוֹ בְּהֹר הָהָר, Then Aaron, the Kohen went up to Mount Hor, at the word of the L-rd, and died there, in the fortieth year after the Children of Israel went forth from the land of Egypt, in the fifth month on the first of the month. Aaron was 123 years old at his death on Mount Hor.

The details of Aaron’s death had already been reported in parashat Chukat, Numbers 20:22-29. Yet, they are repeated again here in parashat Masei. Despite the fact that there were several other significant events that were also previously reported, none are repeated in the travel itinerary: the sin of the Golden Calf; the negative report of the scouts; the rebellion of Korach; the death of Miriam; מֵי מְרִיבָהthe waters of rebellion, where Moses hit the rock, and lost his right to enter the Land of Israel. What can possibly be so significant about the death of Aaron that required recalling his passing?

Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz in Da’at Sofrim  always seems to uncover important messages that are found in seemingly insignificant words of the Biblical narratives. He points to some intriguing and novel information that is provided in the two verses. By stating that Aaron, the High Priest, ascended the mountain at the word of the L-rd, we are faced with the sad reality that from this point, Moses, leads the people alone. Additional details are also uncovered regarding the death of Aaron. While facing one’s mortality is never pleasant, we learn that Aaron ascended the mountain without hesitation, fully accepting the fact that his time had come to pass on and that the Children of Israel were now capable of reaching the Promised Land without him.

Rabbi Rabinowitz further notes, that in Numbers 20, where Aaron’s death is described at length, no date is mentioned and we are left with no idea when it occurred. In parashat Masei, the exact date of Aaron’s passing is recorded: the first day of the fifth month, which is the month of Av. Furthermore, we are told that Aaron lived to the ripe old age of 123. After the period of the Patriarchs and their children, the ages of leaders are rarely mentioned in the Bible. Rabbi Rabinowitz says that noting Aaron’s exact age comes to teach that G-d granted the Jewish people the privilege of Aaron’s extended life, so that he would be present throughout the forty years, enabling the beloved High Priest to remain with his people in the wilderness, until they reached the “gates” of the Holy Land.

The Midrash notes that Moses was jealous of Aaron’s noble and gentle death. Based on the Midrash, Rashi states in Numbers 33:38, that Aaron died with a gentle kiss from the Al-mighty, a fact that is derived from the Hebrew expression that recalls that Aaron went up to Mount Hor, עַל פִּי השׁם, at the word, literally, “at the lips” of the L-rd, and died there.

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus emphasizes the singular importance of the fact that the date of Aaron’s passing, the first of Av, is recorded. No other great personage in scripture, at least no one in the Five Books of the Torah, has the date of his death recorded, or established as a would-be yahrtzeit to be observed on the anniversary of his death. In fact, the Tur notes that even though the first of Av is Rosh Chodesh, the righteous are permitted to fast in honor of Aaron.

Rabbi Pincus suggests that Aaron’s passing was unique, because Aaron, as we are told in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) 1:12, was the great teacher of peace and pursuer of peace. His passing left future generations pained and bereft, because there is no greater loss than the passing of one who embodies peace and is the primary pursuer of peace in the world.

Some of the commentators conclude that Aaron’s death on Rosh Chodesh Av is the reason for the Talmudic dictum (Taanit 26b), which states:מִשֶּנִּכְנַס אָב מְמַעֲטִין בְּשִׂמְחָה , with the arrival of the month of Av there is a reduction in joy. The beginning of the month of Av marks the beginning of the “Three Week” mourning period for the Temples and the exile. Rav Pincus even suggests that the passing of Aaron, the man of peace, was so profound that it resulted in the loss of the Temples. The Talmud (Yoma 9b) states that the second Temple was destroyed because of “wanton hatred,” שִׂנְאַת חִנָּם. In the absence of a bold leader like Aaron, the people were unable to control their wanton behavior, leading to the destruction.

Rabbi Pincus notes that the statement found in the Mishna in Avot encouraging all to become students of Aaron, to love peace and pursue peace, comes to underscore that everyone needs a mentor who will teach them to love peace. Rav Pincus points out, ironically, that despite giving abundant lip service to the primacy of peace and the value of peace, most people prefer discord far more than peace, because when all is peaceful, life is boring. But when a juicy dispute ignites, life suddenly becomes colorful and exciting.

Many people, says Rabbi Pincus, who seem on the surface to be quiet and passive, veritable wallflowers, are suddenly transformed, during times of dispute and enmity, into harsh and judgmental misanthropes.

Rabbi Pincus suggests that we be truthful with ourselves. Dispute is surely as sweet as honey and as tasty as nectar. Only a man of great stature, such as Aaron, could impact so profoundly on the world’s inhabitants, encouraging all to love peace, even before taking a single practical step to pursue peace.

Aaron, says Rabbi Pincus, taught the people to love the “boring” peace, and to abhor the “thrill” of dispute. That is why the day that Aaron left this world is a day of pain and mourning for all generations.

It is vital to constantly recall the Torah of Aaron, to fully understand, that even though dispute and hatred may seem tempting and intriguing, the outcome is always tragic, resulting in great loss and pain, travail and turmoil. True peace, however, yields genuine pleasure, bountiful success and untold blessings for those who pursue peace.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, will be observed on Thursday evening, August 4th and all day Friday, August 5th. It marks the beginning of the “Nine Days,” a period of intense mourning leading to the fast of Tisha b’Av. The Shabbat before Tisha b’Av is called “Shabbat Chazon“–-the Sabbath on which we read the prophetic vision of Isaiah (Chapter 1) and its foreboding message of impending destruction