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The Death of a Kohain; the Life of a Nation

By: Rav Jonathan Bailey

Trivia question: Who is the only character in chumash to have his/her date of death recorded? The answer: Aharon. Stranger still, the date of his death is not even recorded at the time of his death (in this week’s parsha, Chukat); rather, it is mentioned later, during the review of the list of Bnei Yisrael’s travels, in Parshat Maasei. Two questions therefore: why did (only) Aharon have the date of his death recorded, and why did the Torah then wait to mention it?

The Torah states that after the nation left Kadesh, they encamped at Hor HaHar (Bemidbar 33:38-39):

And Aharon the Kohain went up upon Hor HaHar according to God’s words and died there; forty years after Bnei Yisrael’s exodus from Egypt – on the fifth month, on the first of that month. And Aharon was 123 years old upon his death on Hor HaHar.

One theory as to the significance of the date mentioned for Aharon’s death could be the date itself. Perhaps it was exactly forty years to the day after the Exodus? Alas, it wasn’t. Maybe the month of Av (the fifth month) is significant in any way in the Torah’s text? Also, no. Perhaps, therefore, it’s not really about the actual date at all, but rather about the fact that there is a date to begin with. In other words, maybe there is something important to recording for Aharon – and only Aharon – a ‘yahrtzeit’; and it’s the nature of a yahrtzeit that is teaching us the significant lesson.

Normally, when someone’s death is recorded in the Torah, only the amount of years he or she has lived is mentioned. This allows the reader to appreciate a specific transition of time; a significant passing of one’s existence (and accomplishments). However, when the specific date of someone’s passing is also recorded, it adds yet another layer of appreciation. One can now actively mark exactly when a person has died, inherently lending a unique personalization to the deceased; it allows he and his memory to become more relatable - more finite and real - to the people he has left behind.

As Kohain, Aharon represented an elevated sacred untouchable existence, a Divinely distinct and separated entity amongst the nation; a far cry from an ‘Every-Man’ existence[1]. Therefore, when the Torah specifically decided to record Aharon’s yahrtzeit, we were being purposefully directed to appreciate Aharon not as the Kohain - the paradigmatic, separated servant of God - but as Aharon, the man. And this is also alluded to in the pesukim that describe his death: he’s listed as ‘Aharon the Kohain’ when he goes up the mountain to die (38), but then only labeled simply as ‘Aharon’ when the years of his life are then listed after his death (39).  When Aharon dies, all of us, for generations to come, can mark his death, just as they did in the desert; Aharon’s death joins him with a nation’s ever-growing list of their own relatives to be mourned and remembered.

However, why is it so important for us to see Aharon in this normalized and personalized light?  Aharon became “Aharon HaKohain” in the desert, at the time when what was to become the (relative) beginning of their long journey of wandering there. He was renamed, redefined and repurposed: from the pre-desert assistant liberator/brother of Bnei Yisrael from Egypt, to the spiritual leader of the fledgling nation – only once having arrived in the desert.   So, when we are told – through the unique vehicle of the recording of Aharon’s yahrtzeit - that he has now returned to ‘normalcy’ and that now he has reassumed his original Aharon-the-relatable-person personae, a larger message is also conveyed[2]. With the end of his Kohain career - established in the desert - and the return to his ‘regular person’ status last seen before entering the desert, we are being told that the nation’s sojourn in the desert has now also come to its end! Unlike Moshe, Miriam, Yehoshua, Kalev and all the other personalities during this specific national history, Aharon was the only one to become ‘someone else’ during their time within the desert. So Aharon’s death and ‘yahrtzeit-normalizing’ is therefore used as the perfect reflection for the path of the greater national sojourn in the desert. The Torah announces the conclusion of Bnei Yisrael’s time in the desert directly through the announcement of the death of the only unique ‘product’ of that time in the desert. And this explains the strange placement of the mentioning of Aharon’s yahrtzeit in Maasei, two parshiyot after his death. For, it was at the moment of Aharon’s death, during their travels, that the last vestige of ‘desert’ passed away too and their travels outside Eretz Yisrael would officially come to an end.  

And brilliantly, the very next pesukim which follow immediately after this yahrtzeit, tell of the King of Canaan coming to attack them – and as R. Hirsch points out – this is the first attack from an enemy from within Eretz Yisrael! A perfect transition moment! With Aharon’s ‘normalizing’ death, the desert campaign is formally over. Then a representative from the future Eretz Yisrael existence arrives…while the nation is still presently within the desert –a perfect bridge to the upcoming stage when Bnei Yisrael truly and finally enter their Promised  Land.

 

[1] Similar to Moshe’s unapproachable קרני אור, and the microcosm of the ‘quarantined’ kohanim during their eight-day inauguration.

[2] The scene which describes the removal of his Kohain clothing before his death focused more on the transference of the Kohain Gadol status to his son Elaazar than the ‘return’ of Aharon to mundanity.

 

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