By Rabbi Daniel Levitt
This week’s Torah portion is the double parshah of Matot-Masei, which deals primarily with wars with Canaanite nations, the laws associated with warfare and some of the first laws pertaining to the future conquest and settlement of the land of Israel. It also includes a detailed list of all the encampments of the Israelites during their time wandering in the desert.
Almost as an aside, the Torah mentions the death of Aaron in the relevant encampment during its recounting of all the places the Israelites camped. Our tradition tells us that is not typical for the Torah to repeat words or to elaborate unnecessarily. Therefore, it is curious that the Torah recounts the death of Aaron here after already elaborating on this incident earlier in the book of Numbers.
When we analyze our tradition’s expositions of aspects of Aaron’s personality, the timing of his death and the place in the Jewish calendar when this Torah portion is typically read, we will find that the intentional out of order mentioning of Aaron’s death teaches us an important lesson.
Pirkei Avot describes Aaron, saying, “Aaron loved peace and pursued peace; He loved all of God’s creations and brought them close to the Torah.” Many people would argue that they love peace and think that peace is of primary importance, but we see that Aaron wasn’t just a man of words: He was a man of action and pursued opportunities to make peace between people.
Aaron also valued the Torah and Jewish tradition and had an overwhelming desire to bring people close to the Torah, but in a way that was respectful of everyone as creations of God. Aaron wasn’t patronizing or triumphalist in his approach. He loved people and he respected everyone equally. Aaron was a man of peace committed to taking action to bring about peace and he did it in a way that was not alienating to those who knew him.
There is a Midrash that describes one of the ways Aaron would influence people was by simply being overwhelmingly kind to everyone he came in contact with — the saints, the sinners and everyone in between. Everyone who experienced his kindness was so inspired by the respect and care that he showed them that after their encounter with the high priest, they would resolve to be better people and better Jews. The people loved Aaron so much that we understand that his death was mourned even greater than Moses’ death.
Aaron’s death was supposed to have occurred at the beginning of the Jewish month of Av, which happens to have fallen out this week. Every year, this Torah portion is read right around the same time Aaron’s death occurred so many years ago. Similarly, it is no coincidence that this placement in the Jewish calendar is related to the month of Av.
The Jewish tradition commemorates the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem on the ninth of Av. During the first nine days of Av, many Jews have a tradition to practice mourning customs to make the lesson of the temple’s destruction meaningful in a personal way. The rabbis taught us that the temple’s destruction, the subsequent exile of the Jewish people, and the fact that we have yet to experience a full redemption are all punishment for the sin of baseless hatred between people.
During the month of Av (as well as many other fine points of Jewish tradition and culture throughout the year) we are taught to overcome this most egregious of sins — the sin of baseless hatred.
Aaron is the perfect role model to serve as an antidote to the sin of hatred between individuals as well as within our community.
Aaron lived a life worthy of emulation, he was inspired and inspirational, and he did it in a way that drew people in rather than alienating. Aaron didn’t treat people like he was right, and they were wrong; he didn’t require that he approve of people’s actions or opinions to be respectful of them as human beings. He made a point to be respectful of everyone. He went out of his way to help people learn to respect each other, get along with one another and resolve their differences to build community.
Aaron was a unique unifying force that the world desperately needs today.
While we may not all be Aaron, we are all able to learn from Aaron and try to emulate him. We can make an effort to disagree with the people around us without being disagreeable and we can go out of our way to make an extra effort to show all people that we respect them as human beings without qualification. No matter what your belief is around the Messianic concept and redemption, if we all attempted to emulate Aaron even just a little bit, the world would be a much better place.
Rabbi Daniel Levitt is the executive director of the Hillel at Temple University: The Edward H. Rosen Center for Jewish Life. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.