By Shlomo Riskin
“And Aaron the High Priest went up to Mount Hor at the word of the Lord and died there…” (Num. 33:38)
In this week’s Biblical portion, we read – for the second time – of the death of Aaron atop Mt. Hor, as a kind of accompaniment to the closing travelogue of the various encampments of the Israelites during their desert sojourn. When we are initially told of his demise in the portion of Hukkat, we read, “The entire household of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days” (Num. 20:29). Likewise, when the Bible informs us of the death of Moses who was our greatest prophet and the great liberator and law-giver of Israel (apparently greater than Aaron), we read, “and the children of Israel wept for Moses for thirty days” (Deut. 34:8).
The classical commentator Rashi notes a glaring absence at Moses’ funeral: “(only) the males (mourned for Moses), whereas for Aaron, the entire House of Israel mourned, men and women; that was because Aaron was a seeker after peace and effectuated peace between neighbors and between husbands and wives.” A comparison of these two leaders may well highlight two crucial aspects of rabbinic leadership today.
In the last Biblical portion of the Book of Deuteronomy, the opening verse refers to Moses as “a man of God”, Ish Ha’E-lohim (Deut. 33:1) and in the very last chapter Moses is referred to as a “servant of the Lord,” eved Hashem (ibid 34:5). Indeed we have seen how Moses constantly sought God’s “fellowship” (as it were), how Moses was the most unique of prophets, to whom God spoke “mouth to mouth” (Num. 12:8), and that his “heaviness of speech” may well refer to the kind of conversation which interested him – matters of theology, jurisprudence and philosophy – rather than to a physiological problem of stuttering or stammering.
Moses spends much time atop Mount Sinai, perhaps even in the supernal realm of God’s presence, and he takes his “tent of meeting” with God “outside the Camp,” far away from the camp of human social intercourse (Ex. 33:7). Aaron, on the other hand, is a man of the people, wearing an apron ephod with two shoulder straps sporting two shoham stones, each engraved with the names of six of the twelve tribes, the people of Israel. Likewise, on the High Priests’ breast-plate of judgment were precious stones, each inscribed with the name of a different tribe, so that Aaron bore the names of the sons of Israel on his heart (Ex. 28:29).
Moses was first and foremost a devoted man of God, who saw his task as faithfully communicating the vision of a God of “compassionate righteousness and moral justice’ to Israel and the world. Hence he slays the Egyptian task-master to protect the Hebrew slave, chastises the Hebrew who struck his brother Hebrew, and rescues the Midianite shepherd daughters of Yitro from their Midianite shepherd oppressors. Hence he liberates the Hebrews from Egyptian subjugation. Hence he revealed God’s Decalogue at Sinai, the most pithy expression of ethical probity in human history, based upon humanity’s having been created to be free in the Divine image.
Similarly, our rabbis must, first and foremost, be supremely honest individuals, above suspicion and without avarice. They must be fearless in the face of graft and corruption, establishing moral probity as the greatest Israeli product. They must be deeply learned, committed to solving problems of Jewish law such as women bound to recalcitrant husbands, issues whose lack of solution not only causes tragic individual sufferings, but also brings disrepute upon our Holy Torah and the God who gave it.
Aaron the High Priest was a man of the people, “one who loved peace and pursued peace, loved all human beings and brought them close to Torah” (Avot 1: 12). He took responsibility for every single Jew, carrying the tribal names of all upon his shoulders and within his heart. He was responsible for the Temple ritual, the synagogue liturgy, Sabbath and Festivals, rites of passage and life style events. He had to minister to all non-judgmentally and lovingly.
So our rabbis must recognize that Israel is the homeland of every Jew – not only the Orthodox Jews – and that we must make the House of Israel open and welcoming to all. They must love the convert from the moment they ask about conversion. We’ve had such rabbis in the past and we must make sure there are more in the future.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.