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Parshat 06/18/2010

Parashat Chukat
submitted by Robert Rabinoff

For the ascent of the soul of Daniel Swartz

One of the incidents in our Parashah is the death of Aharon HaKohen, our first and greatest Kohen Gadol.  The scene is extremely moving: Gd instructs Moshe to bring Aharon and his son, Elazar, up to the mountain and to pass the High Priestly vestments from Aharon to Elazar.  Then Aharon would be “gathered to his people.”  Rashi (to 20:26), quoting the Midrash gives the details:

[Moshe] said to him [Aharon], “Enter the cave” and he entered.

He saw there was a bed made up for him, and a lit candle.

“Go up onto the bed” and he went up.

“Spread out your hands” and he spread them out.

“Close your mouth” and he closed it.

“Close your eyes” and he closed them.

Moshe immediately longed for this kind of death, and Gd [later] told him [to go up to Mt. Nebo and die] “as your brother Aharon died.”

When Moshe and Elazar came back down from the mountain, without Aharon, and with Elazar dressed in the garments of the Kohen Gadol, the people asked what was going on.  When told that Aharon had died, they retorted “The one who stands in the Divine Presence and who stood up to the Angel of Death [when he stopped a plague with the incense], can the Angel of Death have dominion over him?”  Moshe showed them [a vision] of Aharon on his bier in the cave, and then the whole community mourned his death – they were all profoundly and personally affected by his loss, as he had worked tirelessly on behalf of the community, bringing people together, mending broken fences, soothing hurt feelings, raising everyone’s level of spiritual sensitivity.

In fact, according to Malbim (to 20:24), the people were correct – the Angel of Death had no dominion over Aharon.

Aaron did not die by the hand of the Angel of Death, rather by a “kiss. (neshikah)”  It wasn’t anything external, rather his body was stripped off [hitpashtut] his soul due to the great longing of his soul to leave the confinement [ma’asar] of the body and to cling to the bond of life, to Gd.  …  Therefore the command came to Aaron so that he could thereby [i.e. by leaving the body] fulfill Hashem’s commandment.  Thus it doesn’t say that he died, rather that he was “gathered to his people,” for his soul went out of the world of materiality to return to its “people” in the heaven of its righteous companion souls.  And this is the reason Scripture goes on to say “He will not come into the Land (ha’aretz)”, therefore he had nothing more to do in this world; he had already fulfilled everything that he had to accomplish in his life.

Note that the same word that is used to describe the body’s being removed from the soul is also used to describe the clothing’s being removed from the body.  Also, the expression “he will not come into the Land” can also mean that his body will not return to the earth; in fact this is what happens with Moshe Rabbeinu, and many traditions have the understanding that when a pure soul leaves the world, the body, the pure receptacle for that soul, unsullied by attachment to materiality, does not decay.

The Artscroll Chumash comments:

The Talmud describes this as the most exalted form of death, likening it to pulling a hair from milk, meaning that the soul leaves the body without resistance. R. Gedaliah Schorr explains that to the extent that people sin in life and establish a bond between their souls and the pleasures of this world, it becomes difficult for them to part from physical life.  For those who become totally attached to physicality, the Sages liken death to pulling embedded thistles from sheep’s wool.  But for those of the stature of Moses and Aaron, whose souls remained as pure as when they first arrived on earth, there is no effort, no regret, and no pain when the soul is reunited with its Gdly source (see Resisai Laylah 56).

When a pure soul leaves us, it leaves an unfillable void.  The community, and the world, are without a source of holiness, a connection to the infinite, Divine Source of life that is indispensable if life is to continue.  Why was it necessary for them to leave?  In the case of Aharon and Moshe, one could argue that the constant complaining of the community precipitated the incident where Moshe struck the rock instead of speaking to it, and that error sealed their fate.  In other words, the community as a whole was not at an exalted enough spiritual level to support leaders of the stature of Moshe and Aharon.

When we as a community lose a very pure and exalted soul, we all need to take a look at ourselves, our speech, our behavior towards each other and towards Gd, and see what we are putting out into the atmosphere, and how we can do better.  In just a few days we begin the “3 weeks,” the period beginning with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz and ending with Tisha B’Av, and shortly after that we’ll be leading up to the High Holidays.  It is a period that is auspicious for introspection and improvement.  Life on this earth is very short, but it is an opportunity to perfect ourselves.  Let us not lose any of this opportunity.  Our lives depend on it.

Pirke Avot Chapter 5

Mishnah 9

There are seven qualities … of a wise person: … (7) He acknowledges the truth.

Seems simple enough.  Does one even have to be wise to acknowledge the truth?  Perhaps on a surface level, even though most people find it difficult to say “I was wrong,” still, even an uneducated person can do it.  Perhaps being able to admit error is more a sign of humility than wisdom.  On a deeper level, we can identify Truth with the infinite, unchanging pure Divinity that underlies all life, including our own.  Since we inhabit material bodies, that level generally gets covered over and encrusted with material desires.  It is this encrustation that prevents us from knowing who we are in our essence.  The wise person, the one who has transcended the material crust of life and infused infinity even into the finite values of personality and body, is the one who is able to acknowledge the pure Truth of existence.

The following was a footnote to a long drash about Parashat Chukat, on the Aish HaTorah site.  It bears repeating given the kind of hysteria that is engulfing the world today:

During the recent Second Lebanon War, I received a phone call from a group of soldiers who were in southern Lebanon. They had run out of supplies, and had entered a store that had been abandoned by the proprietors. Based on the signs and pictures hanging all around them, the soldiers had no doubt that the shopkeeper, as well as the entire town, were supporters of the ruthless terrorists with whom we were at war. The question they posed was whether they should leave money behind for the goods taken from the store. It is, quite frankly, impossible to imagine that soldiers in any other army in the world would be occupied with similar questions of ethics and morality in the middle of a war. It is the moral strength of these soldiers, and thousands more like them, that protects us.

— Bob