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Torah Commentary
Matot/Mas'ei (July 22, 2017)

The Death of Aaron

Aaron the priest ascended Mount Hor at the command of the Lord and died there, in the fortieth year after the Israelites left the land of Egypt, on the first day of the fifth month. Aaron was a hundred and twenty-four years old when he died on Mount Hor. And the Canaanite, king of Arad, who dwelt in the Negeb, in the land of Canaan, learned of the coming of the Israelites.

— Numbers 33:38-40

Bettijane Eisenpreis

Whoa! What have we here? Amid a long recital of all the places the Israelites travelled in their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, the Torah casually mentions that Aaron died. I included the third sentence, which deals with the king of Arad, to show that the account of Aaron’s death doesn’t even take up a whole paragraph.

It is true that Aaron is not a wholly admirable character. When Moses was up on Mount Sinai and the Israelites got restless and decided to build the Golden Calf, Aaron tried to deny any responsibility. I always love reading his lines: “So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off!’ They gave it to me, and I hurled it into the fire, and out came this calf!” (Exodus 32:24) Come on, Aaron, you know that calf didn’t make itself! Who are you kidding?

Then there was the time that Aaron and Miriam were gossiping about Moses’ wife. The Lord punished Miriam by giving her leprosy, but Aaron got off scot-free. Oh, I have heard that Aaron suffered by watching Miriam have leprosy, but I am not convinced.

On the other hand, Aaron lost his two sons, Nadab and Abihu, for putting “strange fire” — whatever that is — on the altar, and he wasn’t even allowed to mourn. So, Aaron had his share of tsuris. He was the eldest child, but he was treated throughout the Bible like a middle child. Moses was the leader of the people, who talked to God face to face. Wherever Miriam went, wells of water sprang up to nourish the Israelites. And what did Aaron do? He spoke for Moses, although Moses seemed to do a good deal of speaking for himself. And he became the High Priest, the kohein and progenitor of all the kohanim to come. With the destruction of the Temple, the kohanim lost most of their power, although there are still synagogues where people named Cohen (and Cohn, Kohn, Coleman, etc.) recite the Priestly Benediction from the bimah.

Poor Aaron! He lived longer than his brother — 124 years to Moses’ 120 years. Yet, the traditional wish to a birthday man or woman is, “May you live to 120,” the age of Moses. Whatever Moses did was right; whatever Aaron did was not quite so good.

I’m the daughter of a middle child, so I can relate to Aaron’s plight. During the Depression, my grandparents paid my uncle an allowance to help him make ends meet. They paid my father the same amount, but it was a salary for helping them pay bills and balance their checkbook. And, as I said before, Aaron seems more like a middle child than the eldest.

Let’s face it — people in families are not all alike. They can have the same parents, live in the same household, and still be very different. The book of Deuteronomy states: “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses — whom the Lord singled out face to face.” (Deuteronomy 34:10) When you’ve got a brother like that, I guess you have to settle for second best.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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