Commentary for Matot-Ma’sei

5 Aug

This week’s parshah contains the only time in the entire Torah that a specific date is given for someone’s death. Numbers 33:38 lists the death of Aaron, the first High Priest, as having taken place “in the fifth month, on the first of the month.” Not Moses, our greatest prophet who led us through the desert for forty years. Not Joseph, who had the amazing ability to interpret dreams. Not any of the matriarchs or patriarchs. Only Aaron. While Aaron was certainly a very important man, why is his specific date of death the only one recorded?

The key to answering this question lies in understanding both the importance of the specific date and the important role that Aaron played within Israelite society. The date of Aaron’s death coincides with the beginning of the month of Av (and this week’s parshah is always read on the Shabbat either preceding, following, or coinciding with that date). The ninth day of Av is the fast of Tisha B’Av, one of the saddest days on the Jewish calendar. On Tisha B’Av, we commemorate the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish People throughout history on this sorrowful day, including the destruction of both the First Temple and the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where Aaron’s descendents served the Jewish People as priests.

As a prelude to the sadness of this day, many Jews take restrictions upon themselves starting with the first of the month- the same day as Aaron’s yahrzeit. These restrictions vary from custom to custom, but often include not shaving or getting haircuts, not wearing new clothes, and not bathing in hot water, all of which are also part of the observance of shivah. In this way, not only are we mourning the tragedies of Tisha B’Av, but we also seem to be sitting something of a limited shivah for Aaron.

Aaron’s loss was deeply mourned by the Israelites, perhaps more than any other leader. A well-known commentary compares the description of the mourning for Aaron- “all the house of Israel bewailed Aaron”(Num. 20:29)- to that of Moses- which merely says that “the Israelites bewailed Moses (Deut. 34:8)”- excluding the word “all,” teaches that while Moses was respected, his work as a judge meant that there would sometimes be resentment towards him form those he ruled against, whereas Aaron was beloved by all for his reputation as a peacemaker in all manner of quarrels, be they domestic, municipal, or professional.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Torsa teaches that the First Temple was destroyed because of sins like murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality, “but the Second Temple- [where we know that] people occupied themselves with Torah, mitzvot, and acts of kindness- why was it destroyed? Because of the gratuitous hatred that existed there [in Israelite society] (Yoma 9b).” When the going gets tough we band together, but when things are good- when we have no major worries on our collective conscious- is when we start to let the little things bother us, and it is these little things that balloon up into the “gratuitous hatred” mentioned in the Gemara.

Chassidic tradition teaches that on someone’s yahrzeit, his or her positive qualities shine down onto the world. Just as the first of Av is the beginning of the countdown to Tisha B’Av, that same day- the day of Aaron’s death, can also be the beginning of the countdown to the final Tisha B’Av. Tradition teaches us that the messiah will be born on the afternoon of Tisha B’Av, but the messiah will only be born when we have merited redemption. In order to be redeemed, we must all work to eliminate gratuitous hatred from our society, and the best way to do that is to nip it in the bud, ending quarrels before they become full-blown feuds. If we are to merit redemption, we must follow Aaron’s example and strive to make and keep peace between us and our fellows, “loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all that were created, and bringing them closer to Torah (Pirkei Avot: 1:12).”

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