The Death of Aharon
Parashat Chukat, midway through Sefer BeMidbar, constitutes the chronological turning point of the Book. The Parasha begins with a lengthy description of the mysterious rites of the Red Heifer, a ceremony that restores a state of Tahara to an individual who has come in contact with corpse Tuma. The Red Heifer is burned along with cedar, hyssop and scarlet, the collected ashes are gathered and combined with spring water, and the mixture is sprinkled upon the petitioner on the third and seventh days. Henceforth, the individual is permitted entry into the sanctified precincts of the Tabernacle and can once again partake of the holy sacrificial meats. Whatever the deeper meaning of this service, it is thematically significant, for it offers closure to the wilderness experience. The generation that left Egypt, condemned to perish for its indiscretions and tainted with the drabness of death, takes its leave in this week's Parasha; with an unexpected suddenness, the generation poised to enter the Promised Land takes its place.
In the fortieth and final year of the wanderings, as the people reach the arid wilderness of Zin, Miriam perishes, soon to be followed by her brother Aharon and eventually Moshe himself. The people of Israel, thirsty and impatient to embrace their new destiny, had cried out for water and relief, and Moshe and Aharon sought God's counsel. These two brothers, who had faithfully led the people since the Exodus, are told by God to speak to the rock so that it might give water to the parched masses, but they impetuously abrogate God's command and strike it. In consequence, they too are doomed to not enter the land of Canaan.
In essence then, the Parasha describes the completion of the wilderness era, as the entire adult generation of the Exodus, including its illustrious and faithful leaders, passes from the scene. Miriam's death is narrated first, but the Torah offers us scant details about the event:
The people of Israel, all of the congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin, and the people dwelt in Kadesh. Miriam died there and there she was buried. The congregation had no water, and they gathered against Moshe and Aharon…(BeMidbar 20:1-2).
All we know is that her demise takes place during the final year of the wanderings, that at the time the people are located at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, and that in the aftermath of her death the people thirst for water. Rabbinic tradition attempted to fill in for some of the obscurity by explaining the linkage between these seemingly disparate elements:
Rabbi Yose bar Yehuda says: The people of Israel had three excellent leaders – Moshe, Aharon and Miriam. Three good gifts were extended to the people of Israel on their behalf – the well, the clouds, and the manna. The well was provided due to the merit of Miriam, the clouds of glory because of Aharon, and the manna on account of Moshe. When Miriam died, the well disappeared, as it says: " The people of Israel, all of the congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin, and the people dwelt in Kadesh. Miriam died there and there she was buried". Immediately afterwards, the text states: "The congregation had no water, and they gathered against Moshe and Aharon…" When Aharon died, the clouds of glory disappeared…when Moshe died, all three were gone… (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Ta'anit 9a).
As Rashi explains, this mysterious well was a "rock from which would issue forth water. It would roll along and accompany the people of Israel (in their wanderings from place to place). It was the very rock that Moshe struck, for it had initially refused to give forth its water on his behalf, since Miriam had died" (commentary to above passage from Tractate Ta'anit 9a). In other words, the Sages drew a connection between the fragments mentioned in the text: during the final year of the wanderings, Miriam died. As a result, the miraculous well dried up and the people became thirsty. But because the well only provided its waters on her behalf, it remained deaf to Moshe's entreaties (as God had commanded him to "speak to the rock" – BeMidbar 20:8), and so he struck it and, in the process, sealed his own fate. By ascribing the well to Miriam's merit, the Sages are indicating the profound impact that she her guidance had on the people of Israel. The life-giving waters that refreshed them during the entire course of their wilderness wanderings were understood by the Sages as metaphors for her inspiring words and deeds, just as surely as Miriam's impassioned song at the Sea of Reeds had lifted their flagging spirits and given them hope (see Shemot 15:20-21).
INTIMATIONS OF MOSHE'S DEATH
While Moshe's actual death is not narrated until the very completion of the Torah (Devarim Chapter 34), his active leadership of the people of Israel is terminates in our Parasha, as his loyal protיgי Yehoshua becomes more and more active in handling the affairs of the people. While Moshe continues to act as the formal leader of the people of Israel until the moment of his death, the transition to new leadership is now well underway. As for the manna – the ongoing and tangible expression of the needed sustenance that only God's laws communicated by Moshe could provide – it does indeed cease falling as soon as the people traverse the river Yarden, just more than a short month after the death of Moshe:
The people of Israel encamped at Gilgal and they celebrated the Pesach on the fourteenth day of the month at evening time in the plains of Yericho. On the morrow, they ate of the produce of the land, matzot and roasted grain, on this very day. The manna ceased on the morrow when they began to eat of the produce of the land, so that the people of Israel no longer had the manna. They therefore at of the new produce of the land of Canaan during that year (Yehoshua 5:10-12).
THE DEATH OF AHARON
It is, though, the death of Aharon that is most intriguing. While yet located at Kadesh, with Moshe and Aharon already condemned to die because of their failure at the waters of Meriva, messengers are sent to the king of Edom requesting passage through his territory. Now the kingdom of Edom was located to the southeast of the Dead Sea and the people of Israel had to traverse that land if they were to go from Kadesh in the southern Negev over to the Transjordan. But the Edomites responded threateningly: "Edom said to them: you shall not pass through me, lest I come out and attack you by the sword…Edom went out to meet them with a powerful force and a strong display. So Edom refused to let Israel pass through his borders, and Israel turned away from his territory" (BeMidbar 20:18-21).
The people therefore journeyed from Kadesh a short distance to Mount Hor (as of yet, unidentified with certainty), and it was there that Aharon was informed of the bitter news:
Moshe said to Moshe and Aharon at Mount Hor, on the border of Edomite territory: Aharon shall be gathered to his people, for he will not enter the land that I have given to the people of Israel, for you both abrogated My words at the waters of Meriva (BeMidbar 20:22-24).
CONTRASTS TO MIRIAM AND MOSHE
But in glaring contrast to Miriam who perished without so much as a mention of any offspring or apprentice taking her place, Aharon's demise is marked by a remarkable description of succession. And in glaring contrast to Moshe who died and was buried while entirely shielded from Israel's saddened eyes, Aharon passes from this world in the full view of the entire congregation of Israel:
"Take Aharon and El'azar his son, and ascend with them to Mount Hor. Remove Aharon's vestments and place them upon El'azar his son, and Aharon will then be gathered and die there". Moshe did just as God commanded, and they ascended Mount Hor in the presence of the entire congregation. Moshe removed Aharon's vestments and placed them upon El'azar his son, and Aharon died there at the summit of the mountain. Then Moshe and El'azar descended from the mountain. All of the congregation saw that Aharon had perished, and the entire house of Israel then mourned for Aharon for a period of thirty days (BeMidbar 20:25-29).
The commentaries are uncharacteristically silent about the significance of this passage, leaving us to speculate as to why Aharon's demise was marked in this way. We may approach the matter from the national as well as from the personal perspective. Recall that last week's Parasha described the aborted rebellion of Korach and his cohorts, who so viciously opposed the appointment of Aharon to the priesthood. Could it be that this week's lengthy description of his succession, carried out according to God's command under the watchful gaze of the entire congregation of Israel, was meant to dispel any lingering doubts among the people concerning Aharon's election and concerning the legacy of the priesthood that was to be passed on to his descendents only? Of course, that would imply the unlikely scenario that some factions in Israel still had reservations about the appointment of Aharon even some forty years after Korach and his band had been so soundly defeated!
THE PERSONAL DIMENSION
Perhaps, then, it is better to consider the matter in accordance with its personal dimension. In other words, what transpires in this passage is not so much for the benefit of the people of Israel as much as for the benefit of Aharon himself. As Rashi (11th century, France) so poignantly describes:
(God said to Moshe to) "take Aharon" meaning with comforting words. Say to him: "Happy are you to see your crown given over to your son, something that I will not merit"…Moshe clothed him with the garments of the high priesthood, and then removed them from him to give them to his son El'azar while he looked on. He said to him: "enter the cave", and he entered. There he saw a bed prepared and a candle lit. He said to him: "ascend to the bed", and he ascended, "straighten your arms", and he straightened them, "close your mouth", and he closed it, "shut your eyes", and he shut them. Moshe immediately desired just such a death for himself…
In essence, Aharon merited to not only have the precious opportunity to survey his life and its accomplishments before leaving them behind forever, but to actively observe his own funeral while he was yet alive! Our passage effectively describes all of the trappings of a well-attended burial processional – loving family, tearful mourners, and a moving if somewhat detached eulogy provided by the narration – except that the "deceased" is not yet gone. Thus, the text stresses that the entire congregation gathered to escort him on his final way, that his beloved brother Moshe who had stood by his side since the time of the Exodus led him as he ascended the mountain for the last time, and that his precious son and successor accompanied him as he prepared to die.
While yet fully cognizant and in possession of all of his faculties, Aharon transferred his illustrious responsibilities, symbolized by the golden and bejeweled vestments of his office, to his own son. The Torah records no final words that Aharon uttered as he left this world behind, but under the circumstances, no words would have been necessary or even appropriate. The entire episode transpires in profound silence as the three take their leave from the people, and the people look on in sadness and in gratitude. No doubt they reach out to touch him as he floats by them led away by some mysterious necessity. His eyes meet theirs and fill with tears, but sad and knowing smiles are simultaneously exchanged.
In narrating the death of Aharon, the Torah seems to be indicating to us the value of conscious living. Aharon dies prepared, but his death is described against the backdrop of his life's mission fulfilled. For almost forty years he has served the people well, occasionally faltering and failing them in the process, but always recovering because he truly has their best interests at heart. He leaves them and reunites with his God not only satisfied with his accomplishments and possessed of the people's love and respect, but also secure in the knowledge that his own son will perpetuate his legacy. These are the real "clouds of glory" that the Sages insist dissipated with Aharon's passing, as he ascended to meet his Maker and to experience the unparalleled glory of His unfiltered presence. Who indeed, to paraphrase Rashi's words, could ask for a more meaningful and "painless" death?