Chukat: The Last Question of the Disciple of Peace

When all the congregation saw that Aaron had died, all the house of Israel wept for Aaron thirty days.

Numbers 20:29

Hillel and Shammai received from them. Hillel would say: Be of the disciples of Aaron—a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves the creatures and draws them close to Torah.

-Pirkei Avot 1:12

Note: This was written before my blog post The Broken Saint.

Last week, I started something of a minor storm in my little corner of the blogosphere by writing a blog post (actually, a series of them) based on Fruit Fruits of Zion‘s (FFOZ) commentary on Torah Portion Shelach. This week, I thought I’d try something different, using FFOZ’s commentary on Torah Portion Chukat to set a more gentle tone.

Why did Israel weep for Aaron thirty days? Aaron was 123 years old when he died, a ripe old age, full of years, yet all Israel wept for Aaron thirty days. Thirty days is the customary term of mourning for a close relative, and Aaron, as high priest over the congregation, was like a close relative to all Israel. According to Jewish tradition, Aaron was especially beloved by all Israel because he was known as a peacemaker.

-FFOZ Torah Commentary

There were thousands in Israel who were called by the name of Aaron, for if not for Aaron, they would not have come into the world. Aaron made peace between husband and wife so that they came together, and they named the child that was born after him.

-Avot d’Rabbi Nattan

Perhaps you are not a fan of midrash and don’t consider Rabbinic commentary to be a valid method of relating to the Bible. Nevertheless, I believe these statements can say a great deal about who we are as disciples of the Master today, or at least they can say something about me.

“They went down to the pit alive” (Numbers 16:30) – even in the grave they think they are alive. There is a blessing contained in “They went down to the pit alive,” as with “the sons of Korach did not die,” (ibid. 26:11) – “a place was established for them (Gehinom; see Megilla 14a) and they repented.” For teshuva, repentance, is effective only while one is still alive. This, then, is the blessing – that even in the pit they will live, and they will be able to effect teshuva.

-from “Today’s Day”
Tuesday, Sivan 26, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschack Meir Kagan

This refers to last week’s Torah portion and is a midrash on the fate of Korach and the others who went down into the pit with him. We know that Korach’s sons survived, and we see here the Rabbinic commentary on how they did so (though I do not take this as literal fact).

But the midrash provides encouragement that even when we have descended so low that everything seems totally hopeless, God will still find a way to redeem us if we repent, if we make teshuvah, if we turn away from our sin and back to Him…perhaps by becoming a peacemaker.

Aaron said to them, “Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” Now when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.”

Then Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you, that you have brought such great sin upon them?” Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn; you know the people yourself, that they are prone to evil. For they said to me, ‘Make a god for us who will go before us; for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ I said to them, ‘Whoever has any gold, let them tear it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.”

Exodus 32:2-5, 21-24

golden calfThe incident of the Golden Calf was perhaps Aaron’s greatest failure, but as we see in this week’s Torah portion, by the time of his death, he was beloved and mourned as one mourns for a father as the commentary said above, Israel mourned Aaron like a close relative.

Redemption is possible, even when everything seems hopeless and everyone is against you…everyone.

Frankfurt, Germany is closed down on Christmas, and I took the opportunity to visit Heidelberg, an hour away by rail. I walked through the train looking for a window seat where, guidebooks in hand, I could follow all the storied towns along the way. My eyes fell upon a young man wearing a black skullcap. An Orthodox Jew, I thought. Despite the pallid face of a yeshiva bocher, and the yarmulke clasped to his hair in traditional style, there was something troubling about the identification.

“Funny, you don’t look Jewish.” The punch line from a joke about Chinese Hebrews tickled my mind. The face looked German and the hair in careful, casual wisps gently falling over the forehead suggested mod or punk rock.

-Burton Caine
“Strangers on a Train in Germany”

Caine’s chance encounter with another Jew on a train from Frankfurt initially seemed a little odd but the mystery deepened considerably as their conversation progressed. Caine’s traveling companion was a German, born of German parents, and except for a few years of study in Israel, the young gentleman had lived all his life in his native country.

Caine inquired and found the fellow studied Bible, Talmud, and Hebrew in West Berlin, even though opportunities to do are not common there. He was traveling to Darmstadt, the place of origin of the famous 15th century manuscript of the Haggadah.

But why was Caine so bothered by the other man’s appearance. He didn’t look Jewish. Do all Jews necessarily look “Jewish”? What cues was Caine picking up on that told him there was a lot more to this person’s story?

The train was slowing down now and time was running out. Had I missed every clue? Calm down, I whispered to myself; not every Jew in Germany has a saga. He bent down to put his books into his bag, and the black skullcap now confronted me as a blatant proclamation of his orthodoxy. Why that suggested to me the key question, I cannot imagine, but I blurted it out.

“How do your parents react to your piety?”

“Badly,” he said with a wan smile as he buttoned his coat. “They are very hostile.” He spared me the final question. The train stopped; we had reached Darmstadt. He turned to go and paused only to add, “They were Nazis and are bitter anti-Semites. I converted to Judaism,” which he repeated in English as if he was not sure of the Hebrew word.

“They never forgave me. I am going home to visit them on Christmas.”

This story was originally published in the Christian Science Monitor in 1987 and the dating of the original encounter seems like it should be years before that.

Man alone in a caveOne young man’s answer to the Holocaust, to his parents being Nazis and bitter anti-Semites, was to convert to Judaism. Perhaps that was the only way he could atone and make teshuvah. Who is to say (according to midrash) how the sons of Korach made teshuvah in the pit, suspended between life and death, and thus were saved? Was this one person’s way to become a peacemaker, by turning away from the path of his parents and turning toward the world of their victims?

Imagine, a Jew going home to visit his anti-Semitic parents for Christmas in the heart of Germany. How much more alone could he possibly feel?

Although (hopefully), the religious blogosphere isn’t as hostile as I imagine it was for a Jewish convert visiting his ex-Nazi parents for Christmas, it isn’t always a friendly place, either. It seems as if there’s an endless series of taunts and barbs being tossed back and forth, either as an active “dialog” or, as I recently discovered, “covert” blog posts based on private email exchanges. It seems that you can’t say anything, publicly or privately, without it becoming grist for the mill.

Not only that, but even within the same, basic theological construct, interpretations and opinions vary widely and each side holds fast to their position, defending it vigorously, taking no prisoners.

Who wants to be a part of that? If this is the “Church” established by Jesus Christ, the “ekklesia” of Messiah for his disciples and the worshipers of the God of Israel, why would I want to be a member of such a divisive “club”?

I periodically think of quitting. As I write this, I haven’t been to church in a couple of weeks. Once was because it was Father’s Day and I used that as a justification for “taking it easy” at home. Last Sunday, I was just tired, I had done my Sunday school homework, it wasn’t particularly stimulating, and I felt I could get more mileage out of just studying at home.

But if I am committed to worshiping with a community, then it’s not right to “dodge” them. I did have coffee with a good friend that afternoon, a devout believer for over forty years. We periodically toss about the idea of starting a small Torah study, but who would we invite who would (or could) be interested and illuminated by such an endeavor?

And then there’s the online religious world. There are days I could drop the whole thing like a hot rock. I know it seems odd for me to say that, since I’m such a prolific blogger, even when I try not to be. But who needs opponents and “frienemies” taking pot shots at you, while people you thought were your friends don’t say anything at all?

But then, on Rabbi Packouz’s Torah commentary, I found this:

Failure is when one stops trying, not when one doesn’t succeed.


There are times when I don’t even know what I’m trying to succeed at but I know that whatever I’m doing, if I quit, I’ve failed.

Meriam Ibrahim
Daniel Wani and Meriam Ibrahim

This probably comes under the heading of first world problems since none of my “religious issues” (and recently, I was confronted on exactly that) even come close to the persecution Christians experience around the world, not the least of which is the plight of Pastor Saeed Abedini and his family or Miriam Ibrahim’s struggles, though praise God, she was released from prison and no longer faces the death penalty (but then I recently heard she was re-arrested trying to leave the country).

Christian persecution always has external sources, people, other religious groups, nations, who are against the disciples of Christ. But Christianity is also its own worst enemy (and for the sake of this one blog post, I’ll toss the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish movements and their many variants into the mix). We’re always worse off when the world doesn’t attack us because then we attack each other. So much for “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9).

Which brings us back to Aaron and this week’s Torah Portion. As the first High Priest of God and brother to Moses, Aaron lived a larger-than-life existence. Just being among that first generation of Israelites that left Egypt, to see all they had seen would have been marvelous and terrifying.

But Aaron also lived a very human existence, he was flawed and he struggled, in some ways, just like the rest of us. But it’s not always just about what you’ve left behind, but how you’ve lived, and Aaron lived before God, presided in the Tabernacle as Kohen Gadol, provided atonement for all of Israel in the Most Holy Place once a year.

And yet, Hillel and Shammai remembered him first and foremost as a maker of peace, and adjured others to be like Aaron’s disciples.

What is it to be like Messiah’s disciples? What are we to do in the face of an imperfect life, existing within an imperfect “Church” (and I use the term in the widest possible sense), filled with imperfect people?

I wish I had an answer to give you. I’d love to have that answer myself. But the only thing I keep returning to is not how to succeed but how to avoid failure. As much as I sometimes want to, I can’t give up. It’s not that I’m some sort of guru or wise man (or wise guy) or visionary. I’m only me. One ordinary human being who happens to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and who is constantly challenged by the enormity of that role (and make no mistake, you’re in the same boat I am…being an “ordinary” believer doesn’t mean fading into the woodwork).

I have no long-term plans. I live in a world where God can turn human plans on their ear in a heartbeat. In such a place, I simply stand before God and ask, “Here I am, God. What do I do now?” I think the answer God gave Aaron was, “live, serve, and die, and after that, continue to live before God”. Regardless of the paths we each travel along in our faith, that’s probably the only answer any of us will receive.

He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job 1:21

“The opposite of defeat is hope.”


25 thoughts on “Chukat: The Last Question of the Disciple of Peace”

  1. Why don’t you join your friend and have a torah study together, chavrusa style? Perhaps others will want to join you? I would love to have a local study partner, who was really interested in detailed study.

  2. Reblogged this on The Ladder to the Paradise of God and commented:
    A beautiful meditation on Aaron, the disciple of peace. May the light of G-d most High shine upon the face of His people always and bring all men into deeper communion and peace with and through Him.

  3. “Redemption is possible, even when everything seems hopeless and everyone is against you…everyone.”

    James, if all you had said was this, it would have been enough. Thank you !!!

  4. @Chaya: I just realized I didn’t respond to your question. I meet with my friend about once every two weeks (although sometimes our schedules are so messed up that we don’t see each other for months) so I don’t know how we’d study the weekly sidra. I supposed if it’s important enough, we could make a special arrangement. I’ll suggest it the next time I see him.

    @yohananclimacus: Thanks for the reblog and the complement.

  5. I don’t suppose someone can stand up to teach while at the same time absolving his or her self from all responsibility for said teaching and how it affects others in the community. Everyone who teaches must ultimately stand before Yeshua and give an account.

    From my view, you have not mearly shared your experience of spiritual travel. You have taken a stand on primary doctrinal issues and are teaching it to your readers, as someone who understands things the church has misunderstood, seeking to influence the people at your church as well. So, you don’t get a pass if you teach an error. But, you do get grace to grow in the truth and change your view as the Holly Spirit leads you.

    Yeshua was the ultimate teacher and he spokein parables, why? To make things simple and easy to understand? No.

    “And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?

    He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them IT IS NOT GIVEN.

    For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.

    Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.”

    Teachers are not always understood, nor should they be. People understand as it is given to them to understand. Shalom for today, may G-d give us eyes to see. 🙂

    1. I agree that anything I teach, I’m held accountable for, though I think there’s a difference between me just being wrong and me deliberately trying to mislead people. I think ultimately, most teachers who are acting in good faith will probably be called on the carpet when Yeshua comes and teaches everything correctly. We’ll all (I suspect) have egg on our faces about something we were so sure was right that turns out is wrong.

      However, if I am teaching anything, I consider it teaching by example, or more to the point, teaching by walking the path. The path is rocky, uneven, twisty, muddy, and lots of other things that makes it difficult to walk. Most of those things aren’t really the path, they’re a reflection of the person walking the path, that is, me.

      If I’m not perfect (and far from it, actually) hopefully God will give me the grace not to expect perfection (or anything near it) from anyone else, either.

      Oh, as far as parables are concerned (I love parables), you might try watching this thirty-minute video from First Fruits of Zion: Speaking in Parables, Also, I’m rather enjoying Brad Young’s book The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, which is somewhat reminiscent of The Hasidic Tale by Gedalyah Nigal.

      1. Love Brad Young. I don’t see that you are setting yourself up as a teacher, proclaiming that others should follow you or what you say is truth. You are only sharing your thoughts, experiences and responses like many do these days. I have more of a problem with, “authoritative,” teachers, who claim authority that I view as illegitimate.

  6. I listened to FFOZ speaking in parables and what a joke. To declare Jesus’ statement “it is not given to them to understand” as the premise for a “mystery” and then to supposedly solve the mystery by twisting the meaning into its exact opposite?

    I would laugh if it did not make me so sick inside, what false teachers.

    Here is scripture that speaks of blindness at the hand of G-d (which FFOZ says in the video he never did.

    “(According as it is written, God hath given them the spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear;) unto this day.

    And David saith, Let their table be made a snare, and a trap, and a stumbling block, and a recompence unto them:

    Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see, and bow down their back alway.”

    Who do these boys think they are anyway, changing and denying the very word of G-d?

    But, not to argue, have a wonderful Shabbat James.

    1. In relation to Toby’s teaching on Isaiah 6, I wrote:

      Toby told his audience that the conjunction “but” as in “but you do not understand” would better be rendered as “and”. If we substituted the word “and” for “but” in the scripture from Isaiah 6, it would read more like God telling Isaiah that He wants the prophet to relate a message of repentance, but that the people are not going to listen to him.

      Otherwise, it looks like God is saying, through Isaiah, that He wants the people to repent, but He also is making it impossible for them to hear the message and obey. Sort of a cosmic “bait and switch,” with God playing the role of the infinite trickster in relation to Israel.

      I think the main thrust of that television episode was to explain to a traditionally Christian audience, that Jesus didn’t speak in parables to deliberately trick or fool his audience. The TV show is crafted for an audience of Evangelical Christians who have little to no knowledge of Hebrew Roots or Messianic Judaism, so the teaching is necessarily elementary. I’m not quite sure what you are trying to say unless it is to once again state that the Jewish people failed Jesus and God by uniformly not accepting Jesus as the Messiah.

      You also have a tendency to use scriptures that condemn a sub-group within the Jewish people and apply them out of context to all of the Jewish people, both within the time frame in which the scriptures were written and across all of Jewish history into the present day. I have to disagree with this practice since it paints all Jewish people everywhere with an excessively broad brush.

      I think you’ll find the “meditation” I have scheduled to publish on Monday morning interesting (though I imagine you won’t agree with its conclusion), because it has Israel and the Jewish people being redeemed and restored as God’s ultimate “endgame.” I can’t see any other way of reading the Bible that would make any sense.

      Hope your Shabbat was wonderful as well, Steven. Peace.

  7. I wanted to allow myself just one response… to say you are right about my broad brush, and I wanted to explain why I have that idea.

    First, in the prophecy Isaiah asks how long would they would be blind and G-d answers. (you can look it up in Chapter 6 G-d’s response.)

    Second, Yeshua used the broad brush when he quoted the prophecy, and applied it over time, up to and including his day,concerning the entire generation save for the few (relative to the entire number)that came to belief.

    Third, Paul quoted the prophecy with the same broad brush when he quoted it in Acts 28, and he says specifically it continued to that very day.

    Forth, you also used the same broad brush over time when you recently pointed out how the Jews are blind, “that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in.”

    Fifth, as you pointed out also recently, the Jews over millennial, and even to today, do not see or hear Yeshua as a nation, although a small number do.

    Finally, there WILL BE an end to the blindness when the time of the gentiles is fulfilled. The broad brush of “this people” will then apply to open eyes and ears over eternity. May we look forward to this day.

    1. @Steven — One must be very careful in the application or interpretation of hyperbole, broad brushes, or any kind of sweeping exaggeration or generalization. In the case of Is.6, the “until” that marks the end of the direct application of Jeremiah’s announcement of blindness is reflected in the decimation of the northern Kingdom of Israel, followed within about a century by the devastation of the southern Kingdom of Judah and the Babylonian exile. If you wish to consider Rav Yeshua’s evocation of a similar blindness with respect to an exaggerated generalization about his own generation as some sort of re-application of the same prophecy with the same termination conditions, then those conditions were more than fulfilled in the second exile following the Hurban. If, on the other hand, you wish to consider the “fullness of gentiles” as the terminating condition for Rav Yeshua’s plaint or Rav Shaul’s observation, then you are discussing a phenomenon that is attributed not to Jewish action but rather to HaShem’s intervention in a way that reduces Jewish responsibility for the blindness or callousness or partial hardening phenomenon. Certainly that complaint cannot be levied too generally against all Jews, because we see even in Acts 21 that tens of thousands of Jews were Torah-zealous disciples of Rav Yeshua in the Jerusalem area. Who knows the total number scattered further afield? One must also weigh heavily the responsibility of gentile anti-Jewish behavior and attitudes within the Roman Empire, particularly as they affected Christians and later the Christian Empires of Rome, Byzantium, and onward, because these behaviors and attitudes pushed Jews away from any consideration of the kind of Messiah that Christians espoused. Of course, the real Rav Yeshua was not in view, having been submerged under false representions that were inimical to Jews and Jewish obedience to HaShem.

      Therefore I recommend very strongly against blithely trying to apply prophetic passages or Rav Yeshua’s observations about his own generation to Jews of later generations. Too many additional historio-political events and influences have complicated any proper analysis of current conditions. It may be suggested with some valid justification that Jewish blindness will end very shortly after currently patent gentile blindness ends.

      1. Steven has been trolling Messianic blogs. I guess he got bored and came here. Suggestion: Don’t feed the troll. He is not interested in learning, only in revealing his own indoctrination. Haven’t I heard that somewhere?

      2. Does that, then, suggest the advice from Prov.26:5 about answering a fool as his folly deserves, lest he be wise in his own conceit? On the other hand, there must be a limit, as in the preceding verse Prov.26:4, which recommends against answering a fool in the same vein as his foolishness, lest one be deemed just as foolish. See also related advice in Prov.15:1-2.

  8. I don’t mind being called a fool or a troll. 🙂 I’m just going to do my best to not argue, love my brothers and sisters in Messiah, turn the other cheek and not take offense.

      1. It’s OK to disagree with Steven Chaya, but he has been making an effort to be civil in his comments. I don’t mind differing opinions if I can see that conflicts aren’t being personalized.

      2. Go look at his comments on Judah’s blog. They progress. And it is all the same comments. Maybe he could be honest and say whose horn he is tooting; for example, John MacArthur’s? The shadowy, “Hebrew Roots Heresy? Someone else?

  9. I’m hoping, invoking Proverbs 15:1, that even in disagreement, that we can still strive to provide a “gentle answer”. I just got back from church and certainly I have to make every effort to provide a “gentle answer,” particularly when I disagree with the consensus.

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