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Chukat 5777-2017

“Moses’ Painful Words of Comfort”

Among the diverse themes found in parashat Chukat, we learn of the death of Aaron.

According to tradition, on the first day of Av, in the fortieth and final year of the Israelites’ march through the wilderness toward the Promised Land, Aaron dies. The Torah, in Numbers 33:39, reports that Aaron was 123 years old when he passed, and was succeeded as High Priest by his son, Elazar. Before he died, Aaron had the unique satisfaction of seeing his son Elazar clothed in the garments of the High Priest. The great father is succeeded by his great son.

In Numbers 20:25-26, G-d says to Moses, קַח אֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת אֶלְעָזָר בְּנוֹ, וְהַעַל אֹתָם הֹר הָהָר , “Take Aaron and Elazar, his son, and bring them up to Mount Hor. Take off the vestments of Aaron and dress Elazar his son in them, then Aaron shall be gathered in and die there.”

In a deeply moving ceremony that was described in a previous weekly message (Chukat 5761-2001), Moses takes his older brother, Aaron, up Mount Hor, which literally means a mountain on top of a mountain, to prepare for his demise.

Rashi quoting the Sifre states that Moses brought Aaron into a cave on top of the mountain where there was a burning lamp and a bed. Moses removed the eight special garments of the High Priest from Aaron and, one by one, transferred them to the new High Priest, Elazar.

He then instructed Aaron to climb onto the bed, straighten his arms, close his mouth and close his eyes. According to tradition, Aaron then died with a kiss from G-d.

The “kiss of death” is understood to mean that the soul of Aaron united with the holiness of the Divine Presence. In the Talmud, Brachot 8a, it is described as the soul effortlessly departing as if removing a “hair from milk.”

The Pri Tzedek  explains that some sinful people suffer difficult deaths because their souls have become too closely attached to this world, and its blandishments. The sages (Brachot 8a) compare such a death to removing thistles which have become ensnared in a sheep’s wool. Righteous people, however, such as Moses and Aaron, experience no pain, since their souls remain pure as the day they were born. That is why their deaths are described as “death by a kiss” from the Al-mighty

Citing the Midrash Tanchuma, Rashi explains that when G-d instructs Moses קַח אֶת אַהֲרֹן , “take” Aaron, it means that he should do so by using consoling words and persuade Aaron by saying, “Happy are you that you will merit to see your own crown being given to your son, something to which I [Moses] am not privileged.”

To what exactly is Moses referring when he says: “I am not privileged”? Already in parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha (Numbers 12:1) there is allusion to the lack of domestic tranquility in Moses’ family, when Miriam and Aaron reprove Moses for being estranged from his wife, Tzippora.

Other references are found in scripture where there are indications that Moses was distant from his wife and sees little satisfaction from his children.

When Moses is summoned back to Egypt (Exodus 4:24-26), an angel of the Al-mighty tries to kill him on the way because he has not circumcised his newborn son. Tzippora has to grab a flint stone to circumcise the child and save Moses’ life (Shemot 5762-2001). Moses always felt that his mission to rescue the People of Israel was more important than his own personal life and his family.

While Aaron’s surviving sons serve as his assistants and successors, Joshua, Moses’ loyal disciple, becomes the primary assistant and the successor to Moses, and not one of Moses’ own children.

The Midrash (Mechilta Yitro and Yalkut Shemoni Exodus 1:2) maintains that when Moses left Midian to return to Egypt, Jethro required him to take an oath that his oldest son would be given over to the service of idolatry. The fulfillment of this oath is alluded to in the Book of Judges 18:30, where a Levite by the name of Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Menashe, becomes a priest for idolatry, in the northern city of Dan. The rabbis (Baba Batra 109b) maintain that that person is none other than Moses’ grandson. To save Moses from shame, a diminutive “Nun” appears in the word, “Menashe,” to disguise the name of “Moshe.”

While it is true that Aaron suffered a most devastating loss in his life when his two eldest sons, Nadav and Abihu, brought a strange fire and died, he did experience much happiness and joy from his two youngest sons. Clearly, the joy that Aaron saw from his youngest children could never make up for the profound loss of his two eldest children.

Nevertheless, it would be difficult to suggest that Moses would be prepared to trade his lot and the fate of his own children with that of Aaron and his children.

Notwithstanding, here was Moses, standing aside his beloved brother, Aaron, who was soon to pass away. Moses witnesses the emotional transfer of the sacred garments from Aaron to Elazar, who enters into the exalted position of High Priest. Moses comforts his brother Aaron by saying to him that at least he merited to see joy from his children before his passing, and knowing that there will be continuity in his family. This, of course, is something, which Moses himself will never merit.

The outstanding character of Moses is once again on display. Like a committed friend, a good counselor and a devoted spiritual leader, Moses fulfills his task of seeking to bring comfort to his brother, Aaron, saying words of consolation to Aaron that are deeply distressing to himself. Knowing that he does not see, and will never see, great joy from his own children, Moses, nevertheless, forces himself to say, “Look how lucky you are, brother Aaron.” Comforting others with words that are so profoundly personally painful, is surely going far beyond the call of duty.

Moses does not hesitate, and says what needs to be said, “You, Aaron, had the nachat (pleasure) of seeing your children. Something that I did not. May you be comforted and go to your eternal rest with that knowledge.”

Few mortals could say those heartbreaking words under such circumstances. But then again, Moses was no ordinary mortal.

May you be blessed.