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Aaron, Kohen Gadol: A True Humanitarian

This week’s Torah portion, Chukat, records the death of Aaron, Kohen Gadol. There the Torah states, “When the entire assembly saw that Aaron died, they wept for Aaron 30 days, the entire House of Israel.” (Bamidbar 20:29) This verse stands in contrast to the one stated by the death of Moshe. There it says only, “The Children of Israel wept.” (Devorim 38:8) Surprisingly the Torah does not say, “the entire House of Israel.” Moshe was mourned grievously by those to whom he taught Torah while the death of Aaron brought deep mourning to every man and woman of Israel. Why? What caused this universal mourning of Aaron but not for Moshe?

Moshe was the lawgiver and was known as “Moshe rabbenu” “Moses our teacher.” True, anyone who wanted could come and learn each day directly from Moshe Rabbenu. But then as now, how many availed themselves of the opportunity? While those who did come and learn certainly appreciated the brilliance of Moshe’s mind, the skillfulness of his instruction and the impact his death had on them, many as well viewed Moshe as the person who imposed all sorts of laws and restrictions on them. Naturally, a certain ambivalence existed in the relationship between him and a great many of the people in the nation.

However, the tractate of Talmud, Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of our Fathers,” (chapter 1, Mishnah 12) tells a different story about Aaron. The great sage, Hillel, states “Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to the Torah.” Rashi’s commentary on this Mishnah mentions two stories that describe Aaron. One story relates how in his effort to settle a personal dispute or feud, Aaron would go back and forth between the disputants to make peace between them. A second story depicts the lengths of personal degradation Aaron would go to in order to bring shalom between a man and his wife. The entire House of Israel cried at the loss of Aaron, Kohen Gadol.

What is remarkable about Aaron is that he did it, he got involved in these personal affairs. What compelled him to do so? Most people aren’t that disturbed that others are not getting along. They aren’t bothered because they don’t identify with the conflict. “That’s their problem.” There is also a certain satisfaction that two people are not getting along with each other. For one, it creates an opportunity for a third person to step in and make a new friendship or create a new alliance. Second, “a true friend” would commiserate agreeing how horrible the other person is. Making peace might be viewed as being disloyal. Third, people have certain insecurities so they look for defects in others in an attempt to build themselves up. Fourth, sustaining the enmity may give vicarious outlet to other aggressive human characteristics which the person enjoys. Any of these causes may exist not to mention a host of other petty issues blocking reconciliation and creating friendly relations between people.

What made Aaron different? He was motivated by a different value. He was operating from a different perspective. In his commentary to this Mishnah, Rabbenu Yonah says “He (Aaron) loves in his heart the truth and the peace.” To a person on a certain philosophic plane, truth permeates every fiber of his being. He is without any hesitation about living in line with reality. There are no internal conflicts with objective reality. Part of that reality is the existence of mankind and that all mankind should come to recognize the Creator of reality, Hashem. To bring this situation about, it is the will of the Creator that His universe should be in harmony. Therefore, shouldn’t every effort be put forth to bring mankind into a state of shalom, peace and harmony with each other? In such a person as Aaron, his love for humanity stems directly from his love of God.

Aaron’s approach in making peace between people was to discuss with each individual and show them how petty their issue with the other person was. He was successful because he wasn’t just suppressing his own petty feelings. People realized his interaction with them was based on a natural love of humanity that stemmed from his love of truth. In such a state of perfection, he enjoyed seeing the system activated whereby people lived and worked together in peace and harmony.

Aaron’s desire for peace between people, surprisingly then, was not personal, to compile an enormous list of Facebook friends. It did not stem from the usual sources upon which friendships occur. Rather, his desire was genuine and selfless. It stemmed from a source outside of himself. He loved peace because this is the philosophic conclusion of someone who attained true human perfection. He ran after peace because seeking it is God’s will for all humanity. He loved all mankind because human beings are the chief object of God’s creation and if you truly love God, you must love mankind. In so doing, out of his genuine love of humanity, he was able to draw closer to the Torah all people with whom he came in contact.

May Hashem grant each of us the opportunity to become true disciples of Aaron.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan