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Chukat 5779-2019

“Can Death Be Sweet?”
(Revised and updated from Chukat 5761-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s Torah portion, parashat Chukat, we learn of the death of Aaron at Mt. Hor.

G-d speaks to Moses and Aaron at the border of Edom and says, Numbers 20:24, יֵאָסֵף אַהֲרֹן אֶל עַמָּיו , Aaron shall be gathered to his people. He will not enter the land of Israel because of the rebellion at מֵי מְרִיבָהMay Meh’riva, the Waters of Strife. G-d then instructs Moses to go, together with Aaron and his son Elazar, to the top of the mountain where Aaron will die.

The text itself is stark, but moving. Perhaps because Aaron was such a beloved figure in Israel, the Yalkut Shimoni embellishes Aaron’s demise even further.

The Midrash records that Moses was reluctant to tell Aaron that he would die, so he, indirectly, engaged him in conversation regarding a scriptural passage that Moses said he found difficult and distressing. Together, Moses and Aaron read the selection in the book of Genesis regarding the sin of Adam, and the introduction of death to the world. Moses gently informed Aaron that both he and Aaron must pass on. Immediately, Aaron felt the imminence of his own demise.

The Midrash relates that the People of Israel were unaware of the reason why Aaron, Elazar and Moses had gone up the mountain. Had they known the real reason, they would have strongly protested, or at least prayed that the decree be rescinded. When Moses, Aaron and Elazar reached the top of the mountain, a cave opened for them, in which they found a burning lamp and a couch. The Midrash dramatically describes that Aaron proceeded to remove each of his priestly garments, one by one, and placed them on Elazar. At that point, Moses said poignantly to Aaron, “Just think Aaron, my brother, when Miriam died, you and I attended to her. Now that you are about to die, I and Elazar are attending to you. But, when I die, who will attend to me?” The Al-mighty said to Moses, “As you live, I will attend to you.”

As we shall soon see, Moses’ concern was entirely warranted.

Moses then said to Aaron, “My brother, go up and lie on this couch,” and he went up. “Stretch out your arms,” and he stretched them out. “Shut your eyes,” and he shut them. “Close your mouth,” and he closed it. At once, the Divine Presence came down, kissed Aaron, and his soul departed. Then, as Moses and Elazar kissed Aaron on his cheeks, the Cloud of Glory rose up and covered Aaron. The Holy One commanded Moses and Elazar to go. They departed, and the cave was sealed.

The Midrash relates that the People of Israel refused to believe that Aaron had died. After all, in last week’s parasha it had been reported that Aaron had been able to stop the Angel of Death and stop the plague in which 14,700 people died. When the people became rambunctious, G-d beckoned some of His angels to open the cave and bring forth Aaron’s bier which then floated in the air, while other angels sang praise before it. Thus, all of Israel saw Aaron, as it is written in Numbers 20:29: וַיִּרְאוּ כָּל הָעֵדָה כִּי גָוַע אַהֲרֹן , And all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead.

In Numbers 20:26  Rashi informs us: מִיַּד חָמַד מֹשֶׁה לְאוֹתָה מִיתָה . When Moses saw Aaron’s death by the kiss of G-d, he too coveted that death, and eventually, when Moses’s time came, he also passes on with the kiss of the Al-mighty. But there, the parallel ends.

While Moses also died with the kiss of G-d, there was no one to attend to Moses. But for G-d’s presence, he died alone. Moses, the teacher of all of Israel, the inspiring pedagogue of Aaron’s surviving sons, had no one to attend to him. Not one of his children are reputed to have been present at his death. In fact, in Judges 18:13, which tells of the infamous idol of Michah, we are told that Michah sought out a descendent of Levi to serve as a priest for his idolatry. The Levite that Michah found to fulfill the priestly functions was none other than Yonaton ben Gershom ben Menashe. The Rabbis say that the name Menashe is really a disguise for the name “Moshe” – Moses. It is hard to believe, but rabbinic tradition has it that Moses’ grandson, became an idolatrous priest!

How powerful a contrast of the two leaders, Moses and Aaron. Moses dies alone, and is buried in an anonymous grave. Aaron dies in his full glory. He truly has a “sweet death.” For what could be sweeter than for a person who leaves the physical world, and knows that his children are following in his own footsteps, committed to serve the Jewish People, and will be donning the same priestly garments that Aaron himself wore during his own lifetime. Because they love him so much, all of Israel mourns for Aaron for thirty days. Not so Moses, who was left alone and bereft. Is this the price of leadership?

May you be blessed.