A Man of Peace

With Aaron's death, the Israelites lost their most effective peacemaker

The first of this week's two Torah portions, Hukkat, isfilled with heartbreak and frustration. Miriam,Moses' sister and a significant leader in her ownright, dies and is buried in the wilderness at Kadesh.The people complain of abiding thirst, turn againsttheir leaders, and hunger to return to Egypt. Mosesand Aaron handle the situation inappropriately, and asa result of their "lack of faith" God informs themthat they will not reach the Promised Land. One canimagine the profound disappointment, perhaps even therage, that they both feel: Moses and Aaron spend alifetime serving the people and struggling toward agoal they can almost taste and see, only to be toldthey will never achieve it.

And then, as if God's decree were not painful enough,Aaron dies on Mount Hor. This is obviously anenormous tragedy for Moses, who is left all alone both to leadthe people and to bear his disappointment over God'sdecision. But the Torah goes out of its wayto emphasize that the enormity of the tragedy is feltby the entire Israelite people, who experience Aaron'sdeath as something of a national disaster: "The wholecommunity knew that Aaron had breathed his last. Allthe house of Israel bewailed Aaron 30 days"(Numbers 20:29). Twice we are told that all Israelwas involved in the mourning, which goes on for an entire month.

The sensitive reader cannot but ask why. Why is theloss of Aaron felt so poignantly and experienced assuch a devastation? Why are the people so immobilizedby grief? Who was this man, Aaron?

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Jewish tradition abounds with stories andcharacterizations of Aaron as a man with onefundamental mission in life: He is a peacemaker. Withimmense patience and skill, Aaron mediates disputes--between friends, between spouses--andrestores love and harmony to human relationships. IfMoses is in charge of leading the Jewish people, Aaronworks on healing rifts between Jewish persons--andthus becomes Judaism's role model and exemplar of thelover of peace.

Consider, for example, the following passage from arabbinic Midrash:

"If two people had quarreled, Aaron went and sat withone of them. He said, 'My son, see what your neighboris doing: He is tearing out his heart and rending hisgarments, and saying, "Woe is me, how shall I lift upmy eyes and look at my neighbor? I am ashamed infront of him, because it is I who acted offensivelytowards him."' [Aaron] sat with him until he hadremoved hatred from his heart. Then he went and satwith the other, and said the same things to him. Sothat when these two met, they embraced and kissedone another (

Avot DeRabbi Natan,
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