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?

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, Version A, Chapter12).

The story is quite carefully told and bears closereading. Notice that Aaron begins and ends by sittingwith each disputant. He does not begin with a lectureor a reprimand; he simply sits with his neighbor'ssuffering, ostensibly content simply to be ofcomfort. When Aaron does speak, he tells each of thedisputants in turn that the other is burdened byoverwhelming guilt over his hurtful behavior.

Atfirst glance, we might be troubled by Aaron's words: How can he make such a claim? Does he in fact knowhis words to be true, or is he playing with the truthbecause he thinks peace is more important?

Here, I think, we learn something crucial about whoAaron is as a person and a leader: Not only will hesit patiently with those who are hurting, but he willalso insist upon judging the disputants favorably,constantly assuming the best of them. Aaron does notknow that the disputants feel remorse over theirbehavior; rather, he assumes it, because they ought tofeel remorse. He assumes that people feel andbehave as they ought.

Aaron thus lures the disputants into seeing one another in the best possible light. To judge strangers favorably is difficult enough formost of us; to judge those who have hurt usand with whom we are angry favorably takes anextraordinary degree of goodness and humanity. It isthis extraordinary humanity that Aaron elicits fromthe "average" Jewish person.

This exquisite combination that Aaron embodies--ofloving peace and working for it on the one hand, andof loving human beings and judging them favorably onthe other--is turned into an ideal for all of us toaspire to by the sage Hillel, himself remembered inJewish tradition for extraordinary modesty andgoodness: "Be among the disciples of Aaron, lovingpeace and pursuing peace, loving human beings andbringing them closer to the Torah" (Ethics of theFathers, 1:12).

Of course, there are critical questions to ask abouttreating peace as the ultimate value. Are there timeswhen the pursuit of justice is in tension with thepursuit of peace, and if so, how do we establish prioritiesamong these conflicting values?

There are no easy answers to this quandary, but it is worth noting thataccording to the rabbis, what most fundamentallydivides Moses and Aaron is their position on thisquestion. The Talmud tells us that Moses wasrelentless in his pursuit of justice, whatever theconsequences, going so far as to declare: "Let justicepierce the mountain!" Aaron, on the other hand, wasconcerned with peace between people, and he sought to end disputes rather than to adjudicate them. Interestingly, it is Aaron's pursuit of peace ratherthan Moses' pursuit of justice that the Talmud seemsto associate with truth (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin6a).

One imagines a people wandering in the desert,thirsty and frustrated, hurting over its past andunsure about its future. Undoubtedly, under suchconditions squabbles and disputes were frequent andplentiful. It is no surprise, then, that Aaron andthe qualities he embodied would be so sorely missed.

Thanks to Mimi Asnes and Naamit Kurshan, whoseinsights into these texts helped shape the readingoffered here.