When all the congregation saw that Aaron had died, all the house of Israel wept for Aaron thirty days.
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
The 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.
“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.
One 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.
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.”
“The opposite of defeat is hope.”