Friday, July 12, 2019 /9 Tammuz, 5779
Parashat Hukat Numbers 19:1-22:1
For thirty-eight years, Moses and Aaron had led the Israelites through the wilderness. In that time, they had faced no shortage of challenges, including wars, rebellions, hunger, thirst, and illness. In this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat, the duo demonstrate that it is time for a new generation of leadership. While Moses and Aaron are no strangers to the people’s lament over food and water, this time it is different. The people’s complaints surface as Moses and Aaron’s beloved sister, Miriam, suddenly dies. Suddenly the wells dry up, and the people are not only thirsty; they are also in mourning.
Moses and Aaron fall on their faces, and cry out to God. “Take the rod and assemble the community,” is God’s reply. “Before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock” (Numbers 20:8). Moses and Aaron assemble the people. Rather than speaking to the rock, as God commanded, Moses allows his emotions to get the better of him. “Listen you rebels, shall she get water from this rock?,” he says, as he strikes the rock twice with his rod (Numbers 20:10-11). Aaron is silent.
Water gushes forth, satisfying the people’s thirst. Why, then, does Aaron die just a few verses later for disobeying God’s command about the waters of Meribah?
Aaron was known as a keeper of peace, creating peace not only between God and God’s people, but also between a person and his fellow. One midrash teaches that Aaron would seek out people who were quarreling and say to them “If only you knew how sorry the other person was!” In this way, he inspired people to forgive one another (Avot D’Rebbi Natan 12:3). According to J H Hertz, chief Rabbi of the UK in the early 20th century, the people knew how invested Aaron was in each of them. Before committing a sin, they would ask themselves “If I do this, how would I be able to life up my eyes to Aaron’s face after Aaron has been so kind to me?” In this way, Aaron brought out the best in people, through his gentle and encouraging touch.
After the death of Miriam, the people of Israel could have used Aaron’s gentle touch, but Aaron, couldn’t be what the people needed him to be. Even Aaron, the keeper of peace, was not perfect. Even Aaron, our beloved high priest, had an end to his illustrious career. His failing in this week’s portion in no way discounts his legacy of forgiveness, inspiration, and gentle encouragement. Just as Eleazar takes on Aaron’s sacred vestments, may we take on Aaron’s sacred task of inspiring one another to the best versions of ourselves, and fostering peace, forgiveness, and love.
Rabbi Cassi Kail