“The whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last” (Numbers 20:29). In the Midrash, we read:
When Moses and Elazar descended from the mountain, all the people gathered against them and demanded of them, “Where is Aaron?” They said to them: “Dead.” They replied, “How could the Angel of Death touch him, a man who stood up against the Angel of Death and stopped him, as it is written, he stood between the living and the dead (Numbers 17:13)? If you bring him [back to us], good; if not, we will stone you!” At that moment, Moses stood in prayer and said, “Ruler of the world, free us from suspicion!” Immediately, the Blessed Holy One opened the cave [where Aaron lay dead] and showed it to them, as it is said, the people saw that Aaron had breathed his last. (B’midbar Rabbah 19:20)
What an amazing midrash.
Parashat Chukat is in the middle of the Book of Numbers, and its narrative spans 38 of the 40 years in the wilderness. It is also full of death, and the human struggle to comprehend it.
Chukat opens with the ritual of the red heifer, to provide an avenue to purify those who have had contact with the dead. Then, in quick sequence, Miriam dies; Moses and Aaron strike the rock for water and are condemned to die in the desert; Aaron dies; and many Israelites are killed by divinely-sent serpents, to punish them for their endless complaints. Yet all this death is paired with an existential disbelief. How can Aaron die — Aaron, who himself stopped death when he was saving the Israelites from the plague that followed Korach’s rebellion? This question is not just existential; it is eternal. We still ask: How is it that the people who we love die? How is it that we ourselves are mortal? As a rabbi, I have officiated at countless funerals. But whether I am at the graveside of a centenarian or a stillborn child, the fact of death still astonishes me, and the pain of mourners continues to break my heart.
The two essential teachings of Judaism around death are kibud hameit, “honoring the deceased,” and nichum aveilim, “comforting those who mourn.” Both of these can be found woven into the narrative of Chukat.
The ritual of the “red heifer,” parah adumah, has long been the subject of debate (Numbers 19:1-10). The classic Rabbinic response is that it is a chok, a divine “law” with no explanation; in other words, we do it because God said so and we cannot hope to understand. The scholarly theory, developed by Jacob Milgrom,1 is that it is the vestige of a pre-Israelite exorcism ritual, tamed and transformed to be integrated into the sacrificial system. My own suggestion is simply that the ritual teaches us that both life and death require contact, and that the contact with mortality has consequences. Who has not felt the impact of being in the physical presence of death? We know that the demand for this purification ritual was high throughout the time of the Second Temple, and even after its destruction.2 We see its vestiges when we wash our hands after attending a funeral or going to the cemetery. The first lesson of Chukat is that contact with death requires attention. We do not simply go on with our business.
Moses and Aaron seem to learn this the hard way. Miriam dies, and the story goes on (Numbers 20:1). There is no account of the people mourning her. Not even Moses and Aaron stop to mourn. It is not clear whether this is due to their own ignorance or on account of pressure from the people. We do know that right after this loss, the Israelites show a remarkable insensitivity, complaining to Moses and Aaron: “Why have you brought the Eternal’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there?” (Numbers 20:2). They do not understand the basic rule of shiva calls: that the focus is on the mourner, not the visitor. Abarbanel (Portuguese, 15th century) notes that their complaint comes “just at the time when they ought to have comforted them [Moses and Aaron] for the loss of their sister.” No wonder Moses and Aaron act out and strike the rock, leading to a harsh reminder of their own mortality: God’s edict that they will not live to see the Promised Land. Not mourning Miriam was a mistake with many consequences. It is a double loss for her family and her people. Not only are they missing her wisdom (Gersonides observes that as the eldest sibling and a prophet, Miriam would have kept her brothers from doing anything so stupid as hitting the rock), but also they are missing the opportunity for healing and reflection that mourning can bring.
Strikingly, when Aaron dies, his loss is handled very differently (Numbers 20:22-29). This could be understood as sexism: all too often, the Miriams among our leaders are passed over in both life and death, while the Aarons get the glory. This may well be true. But it is also true that we can find a learning curve in this parashah, as the Israelites learn to navigate death. They may not want to believe that Aaron has died, but once they see it, they mourn him.
Aaron’s passing is presented as the ideal of a good death. He gets to pass down his legacy, in the form of his priestly garments, to his son Eleazar. His brother Moses is with him when he ascends to his deathbed, stretches out his hands, closes his mouth, closes his eyes, and dies. There is a light by his deathbed, and the Divine Presence is felt. He is not alone. Rashi writes, “at that moment, Moses longed for that self-same death” (Rashi on Numbers 20:26). Indeed, we are later assured that God tends to Moses when his time comes, and his people mourn him.
The Chasidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunim,2 said on his deathbed: “All of life is but a preparation for death, and a person must study for his entire life in order to know how to die.” Hundreds of years before, Moses Ibn Ezra put it more poetically:
A man should remember, from time to time,
That he is occupied with death,
That he is taken a little further
On a journey each day —
Though he thinks he is at rest,
Like a ship’s passenger lounging on deck,
Being carried by the wings of the wind.
Chukat gives us guidance as we grapple with this fundamental truth.
- Jacob Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990], excursus 48, pp.438-443)
- Ibid., Milgrom, p. 161
- Aharon Yaakov Greenberg compiled, quoted by Y.Y. Tronk of Kutno in Torah Gems, v.3 (Tel Aviv: Yavneh, 1998), p.102
Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, D. Phil., is senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Montreal, Canada. Rabbi Grushcow is the author of Writing the Wayward Wife: Rabbinic Interpretations of Sotah, the editor of The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, a contributor to The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, and a regular columnist with the Canadian Jewish News. She serves as co-president of the Montreal Board of Rabbis.