Torah Portion of the Week: Chukat
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, God 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.”
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 God.
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.”
Citing the Midrash Tanchuma, Rashi explains that when God 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.”
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.” Shabbat Shalom