Torah is endless. We conclude our reading of Deuteronomy and begin anew with Genesis in the same breath each Simchat Torah. It is continuous, a blueprint for the world that unfolds before us. By contrast, the humans spoken of in the Torah are temporal beings, whose ends are sometimes of greater significance than their beginnings.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Chukat (Numbers 19:1 – 22:1), we read of the death of the original High Priest, Aaron. We know far more about it than we do of his birth, or even of his early years. Its finality resounds, both painfully and in a manner that offers release to the spiritual leader and spokesperson for our great prophet Moses. Entwined with emotion, we learn that the very same act that precipitates Aaron’s death ensures the continuity of his life’s work: the priesthood. What a lesson about the holy potential and pain inherent to our life’s work, or even our more quotidian work, to a close.
In Numbers 20:26, we hear God’s commands to Moses for Aaron’s final moments upon Mount Hor: “Strip Aaron of his vestments and put them on his son Eleazar. There Aaron shall be gathered unto the dead.” The Medieval commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra, emphasizes that the very instant that Moses strips Aaron of his priestly garments, Aaron will die.
At first glance, the circumstances of Aaron’s demise seem anything but uplifting: Moses’ disobedience to God — and Aaron’s evident complicity — ensure that neither will enter the Promised Land. Yet there is also softness in the denouement of Aaron’s life, suggesting that this ostensible punishment might also be a backhanded blessing to one who does not know how to let go.
Aaron is gifted with the chance to work until his very last day, living out his ideals and safeguarding his legacy as the founding High Priest of our people. The text intimates that Aaron and his life’s work are bound up. Without his role as priest, there is nothing left of him. He literally is clinging onto his vocation for dear life. Moses eases this transition for him, bridging the brief gap in time between when Aaron takes off the sacred garments – and dies – and his son Eleazar puts them on – and leads. Aaron dies passing the mantle to the most reliable of hands. The role of the high priest lives because it is extended beyond Aaron himself.
Many of our own transitions are fraught with existential angst. Each stage, each significant milestone can feel like a miniature death, setting us upon another review of our lives. One of the key questions might not be to whom we pass the mantle of our vocations, family responsibilities, or identities – but who can hold it just long enough and ensure that it ultimately reaches the right hands. Who is the Moses to whom we can bestow our sacred vestments until a worthy successor is found? Even in absence of an Eleazar, a Moses can ensure that our legacies continue long after we pass. Part of life is letting go. The question is to whom.
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and the Director of Leadership Formation at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies.