Judaism: The Timeless Impact of Aaron’s Death
The end of Aaron’s life was a tremendous tragedy for Bnai Yisrael (the Children of Israel), as evidenced by their intense and long mourning after his death. Aaron had had a profound effect on the nation, but his significance for them was twofold. Firstly, he was a leader, Moses’s right hand who represented Torah and mitzvot, beloved and admired by all. Yet, he was also the kohen gadol , the HIgh Priest, the person entrusted with the daily activities of the Mishkan. That was his job and in that respect, he had a specific role that was unique to him alone.
It is the events surrounding his death that help elucidate these two personas, crucial to our perspective on Aaron and his relationship with Bnai Yisrael.
The main thrust of the Torah’s description of Aaron’s death dealt with the transfer of the bigdei kehuna, the priestly garments, to his son, Elazar. The Torah describes the commandment from God and the subsequent events (Bamidbar 20:22-28):
“They traveled from Kodeish, and the entire community of Bnei Yisroel came to Mount Hor.
God spoke to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor, at the border of the land of Edom, saying. 'Aaron will now be gathered (die) to his people, for he shall not enter the land that I have given to Bnei Yisroel, because you defied My word at the waters of dispute. Take Aaron and his son Elazar, and bring them up to Mount Hor. Remove Aaron's vestments and dress his son Elazar in them; Aaron will be gathered in and die there.’
Moses did as God commanded; and they went up Mount Hor in the presence of the entire community. Moses then removed Aaron's vestments and dressed Aaron's son, Elazar, in them; Aaron died there on top of the mountain, and Moses and Elazar descended from the mountain.”
What begs questioning in this communication from God is the importance of ensuring that Aaron’s specific garments be handed over to Elazar. Why not make a new set of bigdei kehuna (the specific garb for the kohen gadol) for Elazar? Furthermore, why have this whole procedure take place publicly on the mountain? Moses could have taken Aaron up and then returned from the mountain with his clothes. And why was it necessary for Moses to be involved in this process altogether?
The Ramban expands on the events that took place on the mountain, quoting a Midrash (ibid 26):
“According to the Midrash of our Rabbis there were miracles done for them, they said “how could Moses remove the clothes from Aaron in order? Aren’t the above ones above and the lower ones lower? Rather, there were miracles done by God in his death more so than his life. Moses took him to the rock and removed the priestly garments, and the Divine garments ( bigdei shechina) were worn underneath. ‘And he dressed Elazar his son’ - and how could he dress Elazar in order? Rather, a great honor was apportioned by God to Aaron in his death more so than his life, since he had on the Divine garments at first underneath, and Moses then returned and removed from Aaron the garments in order and placed them on Elazar in order...”
What is this Midrash teaching us? Why should we be concerned about the possible change in the order of the removal/placing of these garments?
Why the need for this elaborate process?
For the first time, there was going to be a new kohen gadol, someone other than Aaron to occupy this exalted position. The fact that there was a commandment from God as to this process meant there was an idea to be expressed. It was not simply handing of the scepter to the next one in line.
The specific concept may be tied into an understanding of the two types of leaders of Bnai Yisrael, the melech (Jewish king) and the kohen gadol. There are certain similarities that exist between the two. For example, both appointments required the approval of the Sanhedrin, both required being anointed with oil as an act of designation (the kohen gadol could also just don the extra garments to acquire his status), and both were given special kavod,honor, by the nation.
Obviously, their functions were completely different, yet an important idea emerges from this dissimilarity. Each new king that arose to lead the Jewish people would put his own imprint on his reign. The king would bring with him a unique personality and different attributes. There would be opportunities to apply his own mind to tackle whatever set of problems faced Bnai Yisrael. He could choose to declare war, raise taxes, or numerous other actions indicative of the position. While constantly guided by the Torah, the king still had the means to express himself through his reign and act independently of his predecessor or successor.
Such was not the case with the kohen gadol. The person occupying this position naturally had to be on a very high level, possessing superior intellect and middos,character traits, among other attributes. However, the very role itself did not allow for any individual expression whatsoever. The job of the kohen gadol, and of all the kohanim, was to be vehicles in the performance of avodas Hashem, service of G-d.
There was no opportunity for individualistic expressions of creativity or imagination in the avoda of the Bais Hamikdash. The kohen gadol needed to remove all sense of self, to sublimate his ego and recognize he is “working” before the Creator and King. This concept is crystallized in the clothes worn by the kohen gadol. Each garment was fabricated based on the word of God--there was no human creativity or mark of individuality possible in their invention (so too with the vessels). Furthermore, the purpose of each garment was not to position the kohen gadol as the arbiter of high fashion. Instead, each garment reflected a fundamental idea, helping to focus the mind and psyche of the kohen gadol towards God during his service.
The main idea here is that there really was no unique “individual” with each new kohen gadol. This helps explain the importance of the same garments being used. If Moses constructed a new set of clothes for Elazar, one would think that there would be something different and unique about Elazar’s service in the Bais Hamikdash versus Aaron’s. While they were two different people, their avoda was identical, both in form and function. Finally, Moses’s role can be understood as well. Moses was functioning as God’s messenger, the intermediary in this process. Had Aaron handed over his garments to Elozar, it would imply a personal involvement in this transition. Moses functioning as the go-between demonstrated Aaron’s complete removal from the process.
Within this very idea lies the unique phenomenon of Aaron’s position as kohen gadol. It was critical to separate who Aaron was as a person from his role as kohen gadol for fear of a distorted view of the kehuna, priesthood. Bnai Yisrael would consider Aaron, due to both his personality and perfection, and due to his being the first kohen gadol, as the “greatest kohen gadol”, the paradigm of kehuna, the one who set the standard for what kehuna should be.
To view Aaron as a qualitatively superior kohen gadol would by definition apply the individualistic character anathema to the Bais Hamikdash. Moreover, the direct result of this belief would be Elazar being both different, and somehow inferior, in his new role as kohen gadol.
The Midrash illuminates this point. The idea being expressed is that there was no differentiation whatsoever that emerged in passing along the kohen gadol role to Elazar. Even a change in the order of removal and adorning could create this sense of differentiation, the process being one way by Aaron but different with Elazar. Any inkling of this would lead to the inappropriate view of the kohen gadol.
The success of this objective can be seen in Bnai Yisrael’s mourning for Aaron. The Torah records that (ibid 29) the “entire House of Israel” mourned for Aaron. Rashi (ibid) explains this reference to the entire nation as follows:
“Men and women, because Aaron pursued peace, and instilled affection between antagonists, and between husband and wife”.
They mourned for the unique person Aaron was, his perfection, his desire for peace, his ability to bring the nation together. But they did not mourn not for him as the kohen gadol. This institution continued on, without interruption. The expression of this separation demonstrated Bnai Yisrael’s internalization of this idea.
This is a concept that extends beyond the kehuna. The same duality that exists with Aaron exists in many ways in all of us. On the one hand, the Torah, through learning, affords us a unique opportunity for personal creativity and innovation. Each area of Torah knowledge has within it infinite ideas, waiting to be uncovered by those who pursue them. At the same time, we are subservient to the halakhic system. We are obligated to carry the mitzvot and in that role, there is no room for individuality. While we may follow a different psak with respect to halakha, we do not have the right to daven, keep Shabbos or perform mitzvos the way we see fit.
In regards to our obligation to follow the mitzvos, we are not superior or inferior to the generations that came before us or that will exist when we are gone. We do not get to put a special stamp on our observance, nor veer from the guidelines that have been prescribed. With Aaron’s death, the importance of this duality comes to light, guiding us in our pursuit of yediyas Hashem.