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, is filled with heartbreak and frustration. Miriam, Moses' sister and a significant leader in her own right, dies and is buried in the wilderness at Kadesh. The people complain of abiding thirst, turn against their leaders, and hunger to return to Egypt. Moses and Aaron handle the situation inappropriately, and as a result of their "lack of faith" God informs them that they will not reach the Promised Land. One can imagine the profound disappointment, perhaps even the rage, that they both feel: Moses and Aaron spend a lifetime serving the people and struggling toward a goal they can almost taste and see, only to be told they will never achieve it.
And then, as if God's decree were not painful enough, Aaron dies on Mount Hor. This is obviously an enormous tragedy for Moses, who is left all alone both to lead the people and to bear his disappointment over God's decision. But the Torah goes out of its way to emphasize that the enormity of the tragedy is felt by the entire Israelite people, who experience Aaron's death as something of a national disaster: "The whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last. All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron 30 days" (Numbers 20:29). Twice we are told that all Israel was involved in the mourning, which goes on for an entire month.
The sensitive reader cannot but ask why. Why is the loss of Aaron felt so poignantly and experienced as such a devastation? Why are the people so immobilized by grief? Who was this man, Aaron?
Jewish tradition abounds with stories and characterizations of Aaron as a man with one fundamental mission in life: He is a peacemaker. With immense patience and skill, Aaron mediates disputes-- between friends, between spouses--and restores love and harmony to human relationships. If Moses is in charge of leading the Jewish people, Aaron works on healing rifts between Jewish persons--and thus becomes Judaism's role model and exemplar of the lover of peace.
Consider, for example, the following passage from a rabbinic Midrash:
"If two people had quarreled, Aaron went and sat with one of them. He said, 'My son, see what your neighbor is doing: He is tearing out his heart and rending his garments, and saying, "Woe is me, how shall I lift up my eyes and look at my neighbor? I am ashamed in front of him, because it is I who acted offensively towards him."' [Aaron] sat with him until he had removed hatred from his heart. Then he went and sat with the other, and said the same things to him. So that when these two met, they embraced and kissed one another (Avot DeRabbi Natan,
Version A, Chapter 12).
The story is quite carefully told and bears close reading. Notice that Aaron begins and ends by sitting with each disputant. He does not begin with a lecture or a reprimand; he simply sits with his neighbor's suffering, ostensibly content simply to be of comfort. When Aaron does speak, he tells each of the disputants in turn that the other is burdened by overwhelming guilt over his hurtful behavior.