2016-06-30
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.

At first glance, we might be troubled by Aaron's words: How can he make such a claim? Does he in fact know his words to be true, or is he playing with the truth because he thinks peace is more important?

Here, I think, we learn something crucial about who Aaron is as a person and a leader: Not only will he sit patiently with those who are hurting, but he will also insist upon judging the disputants favorably, constantly assuming the best of them. Aaron does not know that the disputants feel remorse over their behavior; rather, he assumes it, because they ought to feel remorse. He assumes that people feel and behave as they ought.

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

This exquisite combination that Aaron embodies--of loving peace and working for it on the one hand, and of loving human beings and judging them favorably on the other--is turned into an ideal for all of us to aspire to by the sage Hillel, himself remembered in Jewish tradition for extraordinary modesty and goodness: "Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving human beings and bringing them closer to the Torah" (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:12).

Of course, there are critical questions to ask about treating peace as the ultimate value. Are there times when the pursuit of justice is in tension with the pursuit of peace, and if so, how do we establish priorities among these conflicting values?

There are no easy answers to this quandary, but it is worth noting that according to the rabbis, what most fundamentally divides Moses and Aaron is their position on this question. The Talmud tells us that Moses was relentless in his pursuit of justice, whatever the consequences, going so far as to declare: "Let justice pierce the mountain!" Aaron, on the other hand, was concerned with peace between people, and he sought to end disputes rather than to adjudicate them. Interestingly, it is Aaron's pursuit of peace rather than Moses' pursuit of justice that the Talmud seems to associate with truth (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 6a).

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

Thanks to Mimi Asnes and Naamit Kurshan, whose insights into these texts helped shape the reading offered here.


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