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But Why Aharon?

By: Rav Yonny Sack

In this week’s parasha, Tetzaveh, Hashem commands Moshe to consecrate Aharon as the Cohen Gadol (High Priest) and his sons as the Cohanim with special priestly garments. Due to the fact that Aharon’s position as Cohen Gadol is well known to us, we often do not contemplate why in fact he was chosen for this role. What was it about Aharon that made him fitting to be in this position? This question is strengthened by the fact that the service of the Cohanim in the Temple was originally reserved for the first born yet this honor was withdrawn from them in response to their participation in the sin of the Golden Calf[1]. This rite was then transferred to the tribe of Levi whose hands were clean as they had not participated in this debacle. Aharon and his brother Moshe were from the tribe of Levi. As such, one might have thought that the position of Cohen Gadol, the holy spiritual servant of the people, should have gone to Moshe. Why was it Aharon and his descendants alone from the tribe of Levi that were chosen to be Cohanim? 

Let us delve into some of the depth behind Aharon’s appointment and reveal some wonderful lessons to take with us into this holy Shabbat.

Back in Parashat Shmot (Chapter 3), Hashem reveals Himself to Moshe amidst the burning bush and instructs him to go down to Egypt, speak to Pharoah and begin the process of the redemption of the Jewish People. Moshe tries his utmost to refuse to take on the role. According to many commentaries, Moshe’s humility held him back from entertaining the possibility that he could be fitting for such a task[2]. In fact, the Midrash tells us that for 7 days Hashem contended with him over the matter until he finally agreed. The last point that Moshe raises in his counter argument as to why he should not be the chosen leader of the redemption is that Hashem has others whom he could send – like Aharon – who Moshe thinks would be a better choice (Rashi 4:13). Rashi (4:14) reveals that underlying Moshe’s words was a concern that Aharon might be bitter that his younger brother Moshe had risen to greatness instead of himself. To this Hashem says that Aharon is “aware of your ascension to leadership of the People and he will come out to greet you with happiness in his heart” (Shmot 4:14). In other words, Hashem is telling Moshe that his presumptions of Aharon’s bitterness at Moshe’s leadership were off the mark. In fact, Aharon is not only not bitter; he is genuinely happy for you[3]!

Rashi then reveals a remarkable insight. Moshe was in fact destined to be the Cohen Gadol, but as a result of his refusal to take on the leadership, the status of Cohen Gadol would go to Aharon – and Aharon specifically – because he had happiness in his heart for Moshe’s new leadership role. In Rashi’s words, “And he will see you and be glad in his heart: not like you thought, that he would feel bitterness towards you because you are rising to greatness. And because of this Aharon merited to have the breastplate of the Cohen Gadol on his heart.” The Midrash adds “The verse does not say ‘he was happy in his mouth but rather that he was happy in his heart’. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said: The heart that was happy with the greatness of his brother, will adorn the Urim and Tumim (part of the Cohen Gadol’s breast plate) as it says (Shmot 28:30) “and they shall be on the heart of Aharon”[4].  The Midrash also says that this is the meaning of the verse in Tehillim (Psalms 133)  “Hinei Matov U Manayim Shevet Achim Gam Yachad”, “How good and pleasant is it, the sitting of brothers together”; meaning, How good is it when brothers feel happy for each others’ success[5].

As such, we see that the appointment of Aharon as the holy Cohen Gadol was in great part the result of his happiness with another’s fortune rather than feeling bitter and envious[6].

But why is this a necessary and critical character trait that is needed for the Cohen Gadol? To understand, let’s first delve into the flip side of this character trait.

One of the more challenging and damaging negative midot that a person may possess is the ailment of chasing after the honor and approval of others. This can express itself in a variety of negative ways in our day-to-day lives. A primary expression of our desire to be seen as great in other’s eyes is our lack of genuine happiness for another person’s success.  It is as though we have been taught by this competitive-focus world that we stand on a vertical measuring scale in reference to other people and, when we are higher up on the scale, we think it will make us happy; and when we are lower than another, we feel less valuable, as if we are worth less.  

This, of course, is absurd as our value and worth is not dependent on how we place with regards to others, but on something eternal and untouchable that lies within. And if we are indeed to measure up against anyone – it is only constructive to do so against ourselves; against our own potential.[7] 

Someone who sees themselves as great only because they view themselves as greater than others is destined to miss their mission and purpose in this world. They could betray their incredible potential as they squash themselves into the limits of “as long as I am better than the next person, it is enough”. Conversely, they could never feel satisfaction with themselves, as no matter how hard they try there will always be someone around the corner who is ‘greater’, wealthier, better-looking, more talented, etc. - presenting them with constant feelings of inadequacy. Despite this comparative approach being so obviously illogical and damaging to self-esteem, so many of us still seem to fall for it.  The key test of course is whether or not you can feel genuine happiness for another person’s elevation – this is a sign that you are no longer self-focused, hung up on comparisons, jealousy and bitterness – but rather your focus is outward, absorbed in the happiness of the other.

Returning back to our question; Why was this a prerequisite to the service of Cohen Gadol? 

A Cohen needs to feel joy when he blesses the people[8]. There is no room for ego in the make-up of a true leader, especially a spiritual one, for a leader is someone who is at the service of the people and is to act as the conduit for peace and blessing. Once the ego gets in the way, the leadership becomes a means of controlling others, feeding one’s fame, and the flow of blessing is obstructed.  This is especially true of the Cohen Gadol who is charged with helping the nation achieve atonement from sins and assisting their spiritual growth[9]. Only one who truly sees the needs of others as their own - is happy for their happiness and pained by their pain - can hope to help them build their connection with Hashem.

In truth, this was not a one-time show of greatness on the part of Aharon. His whole life embodied the traits that would set him on the path to this position. The Mishna in Avot (Perek 1) teaches that one should “be like students of Aharon; Love peace, pursue peace, love people and bring them closer to Torah”. The Midrash explains that Aharon would go out of his way to make peace between people. In fact, it says, he saved so many marriages that we are told that at his funeral there was a procession of thousands of children named Aharon, named after this great man who brought peace back into the home of their parents. His way was a gentle one, his love so genuine, so truthful that people felt inspired to be greater just by being in his presence[10]. Instead of preaching, judging, or accusing, he was able to bring wayward Jews back to connection with Hashem simply through love.

This was the man of peace, Shalom, which in Hebrew is also the word for completion Shalem. Through the genuine heartfelt connectivity that he fostered between man and man, and man and Hashem, he brought the true peace that is the sense of completion into the world. To this day, Cohanim bless the congregations of Israel and begin with the blessing “Baruch atah Hashem . . . that has made us holy with the holiness of Aharon and has given us the mitzvah to bless His People Israel, with Love.”

The Mishna’s advice, to learn from Aharon, is guidance that we should all take in. It is a key to peace with others, blessing in our lives, personal spiritual growth and connection with Hashem and it all starts with seeing others with love and compassion instead of competitive comparisons and judgment. May we merit to be like Aharon, and each of us in our own unique way will merit to wear the spiritual light akin to the Cohen Gadol’s ‘breast plate’ on our hearts[11].

Have a wonderful Shabbat.



[1] Bamidbar Raba 6:2

[2] Moshe’s refusal to take the role is fascinating and deserves in depth study. See for example the explanations of Rashi, the Ramban (Shmot 4:14), the Ohr HaChayim, the Meshech Chochma and others who all speak about Moshe’s Humility as the cause of refusal.

[3] Aharon received the prophecy of Moshe’s ascension to leadership at the same time as Moshe.

[4] Midrash Tanchuma Shmot  27 quoted in the Rabbeinu Bachayei Shmot 4:14

[5] Ibid.

[6] There are other reasons given in the midrashim as well.

[7] See Siftei Chayim, Rav Chaim Friedlander on the Midda of Anava where he writes at length about this concept.

[8] See Mishna Berurah 128:156. I saw this originally in Rav Ari Kahn’s dvar Torah on this topic. This, according to some, is one of the reasons why the Cohanim’s blessing is only recited daily in Israel but not in the Diaspora, as the requisite simcha is not found by one dwelling in the Diaspora.

[9] The Cohen Gadol is a central figure on Yom Kippur. He is also the one who assists the Lashon Hara speaker along the path of rectification and purity. These are but a few of many examples.

[10] See the Bartenura on the Mishna in Avot above.

[11] Parasha message was partly inspired by the more in depth look at Aharon’s appointment written by Rav Ari Kahn which can be found at . 


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