This week we read a double portion, Parashat Chukat is most remembered for the laws concerning the red heifer, God's punishment to Moses and Aaron, forbidding them to enter the Promised Land, and Aaron's death. Parashat Balak contains the story of the king of Moab, Balak, who sends for the sorcerer Balaam to curse the people of Israel. However, when he opens his mouth to curse them, God causes him to speak praises.
This Shabbat we will focus on Parashat Chukat and the scene describing the circumstances of Aaron's death, described in the third aliyah in years when a double portion is read. God euphemistically tells Moses and Aaron that Aaron will be gathered to his kin (20:24), that is, he will die. Moses, Aaron, and Aaron's son Eleazar are to ascent Mount Hor. There Moses transfers Aaron's vestments to his son Eleazar and Aaron dies.
"Take Aaron and his son Eleazar and bring them up on Mount Hor. Strip Aaron of his vestmenets and put them on his son Eleazar. There Aaron shall be gathered unto the dead." (20:25-26)
The biblical narrative devotes significant time to the death of Aaron (compare the seven verses from Numbers 20:23-29 to Miriam's half verse in 20:1b). Our commentary will focus around one midrash in particular that embellishes the scene. This midrash deals with some of the most difficult questions we all must face: Why must our loved ones die? How can we come to terms with death? How can we help others to face death with dignity? What role can we play in accompanying our dear ones through the process of death?
In this poignant midrash, Moses uses Torah study to help Aaron to realize that since the time of Adam and Eve, all of us must die.
God says to Moses, "Do me a favor and tell Aaron about his death, for I am ashamed to tell him." So Moses rose early in the morning and went over to Aaron's place. He began calling out, "Aaron, my brother!" Aaron came down to him and asked, "How is it that you have come here so early today?" Moses answered, "There is a matter from the Torah that I was mulling over during the night, and it gave me great difficulty." Aaron asked, "What is the problem?" Moses answered, "I don't know what it was-but I do know that it is in the book of Genesis. Bring it, and let us read it. They took the book of Genesis and read it, story by story, and at each one, Aaron said, "God did well, created well." But when they came to the creation of Adam, Moses said, "What shall I say about Adam who brought death to the world?" Aaron replied, "My brother Moses, you surely would not say that in this we do not accept the decree of God? … Then Moses said, "What about me-who had control over the ministering angels? And what about you-who halted the spread of death? Is our end not the same? We have another few years to live-perhaps twenty years?" Aaron said, "That is only a few years." Then Moses brought the number down more and more, until he spoke of the very day of death. Immediately, Aaron's bones felt as if they were quaking. He said, "Perhaps the matter from Torah was for me?" Moses answered, "Yes." Immediately, the Israelites saw that his stature had shrunk, as it is said, "The whole community saw that Aaron was about to die" (Numbers 20:29). Then Aaron said, "My heart is dead within me, and the terror of death has fallen upon me." Moses asked him, "Do you accept death?" And he answered, "Yes…." (Yalkut Shimoni, Chukat, 764).
In this story, God has difficulty telling Aaron of his death! How much more so do we each struggle with the heartbreaking moments when a friend or family member must decide whether or not to go to hospice, or sign a do not resuscitate order, or how to face a terminal illness! These are moments in which most of us are at a loss. An initial instinct may be to start planning for the funeral and coping with the loss. Moses here is a model for us. Although he may have begun to face the reality of his loss, his chief concern is for his brother. Moses allows Aaron to come to accept death on his own.
Setting aside the anachronistic challenges of the midrash, the bond between brothers is strengthened when they study together. In our story, Torah is a guide and an escort; Torah study accompanies Aaron on his journey to face his own mortality. A great book and a resilient tradition, Torah helps us to struggle with the basic challenges of the human condition. Torah is a guide for us in life and in death.
- In Rabbinic legends, Moses and Aaron are portrayed as having a unique and close brotherly relationship. What do you think are the unique challenges and gifts of sibling relationships?
- How does Torah help you to deal with the real struggles of both life and death?
- God explains that Moses and Aaron will die outside of the Promised Land because you disobeyed my command about the waters of Meribah (Numbers 20:24). Read the scene in Numbers 20:1-13. What did Aaron do (or what didn't Aaron do)? Why do you think Aaron was punished? Can you think of other reasons for Moses and Aaron to die without entering the Promised Land with the people?
For further learning
Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz understands our citation to be evidence of a biblical belief in the survival of the soul: "I believe that 'gathered to his people' signifies a duality of body and soul and suggests an afterlife" (Does the Soul Survive? 189). What have you learned about the idea of an afterlife?