In every generation, the world produces exceptional men and women who make a positive impact on the world. In life and in death, these people are honored. In fact, the tzaddikim are honored for years at their yartzeits, which are yearly remembrances for us to recall the contributions they made, not only on our lives, but on the Jewish people, and even the whole world. We remember their contribution, and use it as a catalyst for positive change in our lives. For instance, an important date on my calendar is 05 Nisan, when in 1270 CE , R’Moshe b’Nachman, my favorite Posek of the Middle Ages was buried in Haifa, where I reevaluate my spiritual growth and often find myself lacking.
Aaron the son of Amram was one such tzaddik. He was our first High Priest, and Torah provides us with this beautiful epithet: “When all the house of Israel saw that Aaron was dead, they wept for Aaron thirty days” [Numbers 20:29]. According to our sages, Aaron died on 01 Av. The Talmud, in b.Taanis 9a, says three good leaders rose for Israel at the time of our liberation from Egypt: Moshe, Aaron, and Miriam. The Talmud is emphasizing that while Moshe was a great leader, Aaron and Miriam were great leaders themselves. To counter the idea that Miriam and Aaron were considered leaders simply because they were Moshe’s siblings, the Talmud attributes miraculous events to all three.
- Miriam – the well
- Aaron – the pillar of cloud
- Moshe – the manna
The only difference between them is that the well and the Cloud returned due to Moshe’s merit. Upon the death of Moshe and our entrance into the land, all three disappear. Our sages use a passage in Zechariah to emphasize the trauma where it says, “And I cut off the three shepherds in one month.” In one month. According to this idea, from parashah Chukkat when Miriam and Aaron die to parashah Vevot Haberacha when Moshe Rebbeinu is buried, one month passes. In contrast, from last week’s portion, Korach, to the death of Miriam, 38 years pass.
Death, like a stream flows through parashah Chukkas:
- The Parah Adumah (the red heifer) and the necessary cleansing from the contamination of death.
- Miriam dies and is buried in the wilderness of Tzin.
- Moshe and Aaron stand before Bnei Israel and belittle them; G-d responds and says the pair will die before the poeple will enter the land.
- Aaron is gathered to his people, which is actually a misnomer, considering he is buried at Hor Hahar, and his remains are not transported to Israel.
- The king of Arad wars against us in Hormah and they were destroyed.
- We were bit by fiery serpents near Edom and many of our ancestors perished.
- Sihon of the Amori decided to attack when we asked permission to pass through peacefully, and his city state was destroyed.
- Og, the regent of Edrei, fought against us and he was likewise obliterated.
When Miriam died, the people seemed to be more in shock that there was no water. This creates the illusion that they took little to no time to grieve her passing. By linking the phrase, “Miriam died there and was buried there” [Numbers 20:1] with “And there was no water for the congregation” [Numbers 20:2], the Rabbis tie the community’s apparent apathy to Miriam’s death, equating grief with thirst, comfort with water. This is why the Rabbis say the well disappeared when Miriam died. Instead of mourning her death, the people lashed out. It’s as if her death was so devastating, they reacted to it in a rash or hostile manner. In my estimation, Moshe and Aaron were hurt by their reaction, and in his anger, Moshe yelled at Klal Israel and struck the rock twice instead of speaking to it. This was the death knell on the hope that Aaron and Moshe would enter the Promised Land.
I tried to put myself into the story as I read the events immediately preceding the death of Aaron. What would I do if I knew I was to climb “that” mountain to be buried later that afternoon? Would I make a car payment, vacuum the carpet, get an oil change? Would I pitch a fit and cry and moan? Would I find a guy I wronged and try to make amends? Would I gather my family and tell them how much I love them? Would I spend my time in prayer? What would you do? I can tell you it wouldn’t be worrying about bills or crying. I wouldn’t spend it all in prayer either, because I would be with Him in a couple of hours anyway. God can wait; family and friends, in this instance, cannot. I would be apologizing for being a schmuck and I would be showering everyone one of my friends and family with love.
When Aaron died, it says kol beit Israel, or all the house of Israel morned his passing [Numbers 20:29]. In contrast, it says at bnei Israel, or the sons or children of Israel mourned the passing of Moshe [Deuteronomy 34:8]. Words and phrases are very important and we need to watch how Tanach and the Besorah use their words. I understand that the “Bnei Israel” who mourned Moshe can mean just the sons of Israel, or some sons and some daughters, or even all the daughters and one son of Israel, but there is only one way to understand that the “kol beit israel” who mourned Aaron included every person in Israel. Our sages understand this to mean that upon Moshe’s death, it was the men who weeped, but when Aaron died, everyone in Israel felt a crushing grief, a grief that took 30 days from which to recover.
Louis Ginzberg in The Legends of the Jews, quotes a midrash, where Moshe says, “Happy are you, O Israel: who is like you, a people saved by Hashem!” He bids them farewell, weeping aloud, saying, “Dwell in peace and I shall see you again at the Resurrection.” Aaron, on the other hand, climbs the mountain, where Eleazar his son takes his garments and his duties and Aaron quietly dies. Moshe admits to begging until he’s blue in the face to live longer so he can enter the Land, but there is no such dialog accredited to Aaron. Aaron’s life is one of a peacemaker. He did everything in his power to bring peace to everyone he met. As the Kehuna, he helped reconcile us to our G-d, he reestablished peace between husband and wife, between disgruntled neighbors. In like manner, he went in peace to his death. This is why all the house of Israel mourned his passing.
This is a sad Torah portion, because so many people lost their lived, and such great Tzaddikim died, yet it calls for us to confront our own mortality, our feelings towards our eventual death, and before it’s too late – we need to understand what is important and what is mere smoke and mirrors. It’s easy to relate to the sadness we see here and it’s easy to know what we must do to keep our lives meaningful and holy – before our short lives are at a close. We can make the eventual Sabbath of our days a sacred and holy moment that will not fill us with dread.
For 30 days, we all – Kol beit Israel – mourned the death of Aaron. In like manner, most of us have lost loved ones and close friends, and sometimes we look to some of our friends and our hearts melt in fear that they, too, will pass into the Olam Haba, always too soon for our liking. But Hashem never leaves us, even in death or in our grief. G-d was there when Aaron died, and he was there when Aaron was alive. The same is true for you – G-d will always stand with you, caring and carrying you through this life, and He will carry you forward into the world to come when we can be joined again with our families, our loved ones, the three shepherds of Israel, and our favorite Tzaddikim.