[The following post was my contribution to this week's Toronto Torah, which is downloadable here; enjoy!]
Am I doomed to play out my family’s traits in my own life? Aharon haKohen, whose yahrtzeit is observed this coming Sunday night and Monday, Rosh Chodesh Av, is proof that I am not.
We are familiar with the stories of peace and goodwill associated with Aharon. Avot d’Rabbi Natan 12 describes how Aharon involved himself in mediating people’s personal quarrels. Midrashic sources demonstrate Aharon’s conciliatory nature in dealing with the creators of the Golden Calf. Rashi (Bamidbar 20:29) states that every Jew mourned Aharon’s death because of his peace-pursuing traits. The purveyor of Peace and Torah described in Malachi 2:5-6 is said to be Aharon haKohen, who brought peace between individuals and between G-d and the Jewish people. And so on.
What we often miss, though, is that Aharon’s pursuit of peace broke from his family’s dominant trend toward קנאות , zealotry. Aharon’s great-grandfather, Levi, responded with violent outrage to Dinah’s kidnapping and to Yosef’s presumption. Aharon’s elder sister Miriam expressed indignation toward her parents and toward Moshe, and Aharon’s younger brother Moshe displayed outrage numerous times in his career. Aharon’s nephew Chur stood against the Golden Calf to the point of sacrificing his life; Aharon’s family rallied to Moshe’s call, executing the ringleaders of the Calf’s idolatry. Aharon’s grandson Pinchas crowned himself judge and executioner for Zimri; Aharon’s descendants, the Chashmonaim, did likewise against the Hellenists in the era of Chanukah. Eliyahu haNavi, who proclaimed, “I have been zealous for G-d,” was a descendant of Aharon.
Talmudic sources (such as Bava Batra 160b) identify a demanding nature – קפדנות - as an eternal hallmark of kohen conduct, such that the sages needed to create obstacles to prevent them from hasty divorce. The gemara (Sanhedrin 82b) depicts Aharon’s grandson Pinchas challenging Divine justice, and then HaShem justifying this hubris because it was the result of family influence.
Aharon’s family was known for their fiery commitment to proper religious and social conduct, and for putting their lives on the line to defend those principles. Aharon held those same values, but he acted peacefully rather than with anger. Indeed, Ramban (Bamidbar 20:8) asserts, “אהרן לא כעס מימיו, Aharon was never angered.”
Certainly, defying so thoroughly an engrained family trait requires great strength and independence, but how did Aharon even know he was right in shattering this family mold? Where did Aharon find the courage to support his iconoclasm?
Perhaps the answer lies in a brief comment by Ibn Ezra (Shemot 6:13). The Torah describes HaShem’s initial charge to Moshe and Aharon, “ויצום אל בני ישראל,He instructed them regarding the Jewish people.” Ibn Ezra explained, “יש אומרים שצוה שלא יכעסו על ישראל כי רוחם קצרה, Some say that He instructed them not to be angry at the Jewish people, for the people’s spirits were limited.” In other words, HaShem warned Moshe and Aharon to recognize the shortcomings of their generation, and to govern with patience and understanding.
Aharon accepted that the people for whom he was responsible were limited, tortured into smallness by their Egyptian masters and the suffering of exile. He resolved that despite the gene-fueled cauldron burning inside him, he would direct his energy away from the flames of outrage and toward finding creative ways to lead the nation positively, peacefully, and prosperously.
This is the Aharon haKohen who was Miriam and Moshe’s complement in government for forty years, and whose passing we commemorate in the coming week. This is the Aharon haKohen for whom the Torah records (Bamidbar 20:29), “They cried for Aharon for thirty days – the entire house of Israel.” This is the Aharon haKohen who offered korbanot to atone for a nation, and who kindled the lights of the menorah. תהיה נשמתו צרורה בצרור החיים, may his soul be bound in the bond of life.
Certainly, we need leaders of fire and strength, but in our own days of limited spirits may we also merit to be led by the students of Aharon.