Tag Archives: Aaron

Commentary for Beshalach

10 Feb

Exodus 15:20-21 reads “And Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aaron, took the drum in her hand and all the women went forth after her with drums and with dances. And Miriam spoke up to them: “Sing to the Lord for He is exalted above all; horse and rider He has hurled into the sea.” These verses are the subject of many questions, ranging form the analytical (where did they get the drums?) to the philosophical (what purpose does it serve for Miriam and the women to repeat the song that Moses and all of the Israelites had just sung?), but in all of this questioning, an important milestone is often overlooked: Despite having been in the story of Exodus since almost the beginning, this is the first time that Miriam is named.


Outside of genealogies, Biblical figures are usually only named if they are going to play some sort of important role, be it a role within the story or a role in service to the community. Miriam, however, plays a role in the story when she is introduced way back in Ex. 2:4, following Moses’ basket until it is spotted by Pharaoh’s daughter and then suggesting that her mother be chosen as a wet-nurse. Why, then, is Miriam only given a name now?


The answer is found in the other strikingly odd part of Miriam’s naming in this verse. While she is introduced in Ex. 2:4 as Moses’ sister, several chapters before Aaron is ever mentioned, she is instead identified in 15:20 as “the sister of Aaron” and from this we are left to infer that she is therefore also Moses’ sister who was mentioned back in chapter two.


When he is anointed as the High Priest in chapter twenty-nine of Exodus, Moses is instructed to anoint Aaron by placing the sacrificial blood on his ear, his thumb, and his big toe. A midrash explains the symbolic nature of these parts of the body as follows: the toe symbolizes that the High Priest must go out and walk among the people, the ear symbolizes that he must listen to them, and the thumb symbolizes that he must act on their behalf. In other words, Aaron’s job is not just to perform the sacrifices that are asked of him, but to also reach out to the people and help to lift them up spiritually as well.


While the song that Miriam sings with the women is the same as the first line of the song that Moses had just sung with the entire people, the phrases used to introduce them are very different. While Moses is depicted as singing with the people, Miriam is depicted as leading the women by singing to them. Moses sings with the people when they are all at a spiritual high together after having witnessed God’s awesome might saving them from the Egyptians, Miriam waits until that high has died down and then attempts to bring the women back up to that level. Miriam is named here, as Aaron’s sister, rather than back in 2:4 as Moses’ because it is only now that she has found her true role. Her job is not to teach like Moses’ is, but rather, like Aaron, her job is to serve the people by helping to bring them up higher and establish a greater spiritual connection with God.


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).”

Commentary for Tetzaveh

7 Feb

This week’s parshah contains the  ceremony of the instillation of Aaron and his sons as the priests.  The Torah does not spare any details in describing both the preparation of Aaron and his sons and the nitty-gritty details of the ceremony and its related sacrifice.  Many modern readers have the tendency to tune out sections related to sacrifices, but to do so would be a mistake because every little bit of the Torah, even the space between the letters, is meant to teach us something.


As part of the ceremony, Moses is commanded to take some of the blood of the sacrifice and put it on the right thumbs, right toes, and the ridges of the right ears of Aaron and his sons.  There are two midrashim that comment on this odd choice of body parts.  The first comments that this is to teach us that in order to act as a representative of the people to God, a priest must walk among the people and must listen to them so that he understands them, and only then may he act on their behalf.  This is certainly an important lesson to learn in all generations, and might have been necessary to impart to Aaron’s sons in particular, about whose personalities we know very little, but Aaron has always been portrayed as being very in tune with the people, becoming a highly respected mediator because of his ability to comment and empathize with everyone.


A second midrash fills us in on what this ceremony provided for Aaron, and what it can teach us as well.  The Midrash Habiur teaches: “the ear that heard the words ‘you shall have no other god beside Me’ and then listened to the people’s demand for a calf; the hands which had pledged to serve God and the fashioned a calf; the feet that had climbed Mount Sinai and then hastened to do that which was wrong.” in the incident of the golden calf all had to be purged of their sin in order to be rededicated to serving God.


Over the generations, many commentators have tried to mitigate Aaron’s complicity in the sin of the golden calf, either by explaining his intentions in agreeing to build it or by saying he was afraid the people would kill him if he did not build it, but all commentaries acknowledge that, as the text says, Aaron played a central role in its construction.  Through this ceremony, God not only shows that He is forgiving Aaron for his misdeed, but God is also teaching us that forgiveness is not quite enough.


During the Ten Days of Repentance, we ask for forgiveness from our fellow man and from God, but recognizing our wrongdoings and asking for forgiveness is only the first step.  Part of atoning for our sins is doing our best to not make the same mistakes again and trying to instead channel the effort we put into sinning into doing positive things.  God does not just forgive Aaron for his role in the sin of the golden calf.  He also gives Aaron the chance to make up for his sin by using the same faculties that he used to sin to now serve God.