Aaron was not allowed to enter the promised land. Did the punishment fit the crime?
Table for Five: Chukat-Balak
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
Let Aaron be gathered to his kin: he is not to enter the land that I have assigned to the Israelite people, because you disobeyed my command about the waters of Meribah. -Num. 20:24
Tova Leibovic-Douglas, Rabbi, teacher and spiritual counselor
The Torah, with all its wisdom, is not for the faint of heart. It is a reflection of the good, bad, and everything in between. This verse recounts one of the most painful and tragic moments. We learn that due to the incident at the Waters of Meribah, Aaron, known for his conflict resolution, orator gifts, partnership with his brother, beloved leadership – who buried two of his sons and lived his adult life working towards the dream of getting to the land of “milk and honey” will not enter the land.
It is a tragic and sad moment in our Torah, analogous to our current world. We weep as we consider Aaron’s struggle for freedom suddenly be taken away. One shakes off the chains of bondage and enslavement and yet is denied deliverance into the privileged land of opportunity. We are finally reckoning, as a society and as a Jewish community, with the degradation, injustice, and brutality bestowed upon Black lives. In this examination of internalized racism and white supremacy that befalls and erodes us, we are finally acknowledging that when emancipation occurred, a full and just liberation never did.
Just like Aaron, the Promised Land was close but never reached. This verse demands us to look in the mirror and feel this profound loss, sit with the sadness and finally, to find our way towards the land of Milk and Honey. This time knowing that our liberation is bound up together. It is time. #BlackLivesMatter
David Porush, Student, teacher, writer
Is this just another sad story of sibling rivalry?
No, this time is different. When Aaron and Moses reunite before going down to Egypt, they kiss. Moses stands in for his brother, but only Aaron can operate the Tabernacle. And we see here, their fates remain entwined to the end, the exemplar of brotherly love. Psalms sings, “How sweet for brothers to dwell together.” Hinei mah tov u’manaim, shevet achim gam yachad.
Yeah, there’s a kerfuffle when Aaron and Miriam gossip about Moses – what family doesn’t have its ups and downs? G-d punishes Miriam with leprosy for her evil tongue, but Aaron takes his share of blame and begs Moses, “Please don’t count our sins.” Moses immediately pleads with G-d to spare his sister’s life, heartrendingly.
Their devotion ends the cycle of animus; the Hebrews have evolved. The sanctity of family becomes the foundation for Torah’s vision of a holy civilization. Israel’s citizens will treat each other as siblings – achim – rather than neighbors who merely submit to a mutually convenient social contract.
It’s said the Diaspora will end only after Jacob’s progeny – Israel – reconciles with Esau’s (Edom’s) – Western civilization/Christianity. If sibling love can heal such cosmic rifts, shouldn’t we be practicing at home, especially now?
Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, MHL, MAEd ahavattorahla.org
God tells Moses and Aaron that because of what happened in the waters of Meribah they are punished and will not enter the Promised Land with the people of Israel. Really? What did those two do that was so wrong? Why does God judge them so harshly? They both cared for the disgruntled slaves for forty years and shaped them into a nation. Now that the People of Israel are so close and can almost touch the Promised Land, God says no! Why?
Could it only be because Moses hit the rock rather than talking to it? What did Aaron do? Why was he punished equally?
Miriam, the supportive loyal older sister to Aaron and Moses, dies. They are mourning and emotionally in chaos. The people exasperate Moses and he loses it. Justifiably, he is impatient and lets anger control him. He flies into a rage, insults and shames them in public by calling them rebels. Moses replaces trust and faith in God with power. Aaron is known to love and pursue peace. He looks on while his younger brother Moses cannot breathe and is in a state of frenzy.
Why didn’t Aaron intervene by calming or creating peace for Moses? By standing idly by Aaron became an accessory! Sound familiar? Are these the character qualities we look for in leadership?
Yes, Moses had anger issues. He was not perfect and forgot that he and all the people were made in the image of God. May we all remember this lesson. Amen.
Rabbi David Block, Associate Head of School, Shalhevet High School
Aaron didn’t just die, he was “gathered (asaf) into his people.”
Throughout Tanakh, the word “asaf,” as R. S. R. Hirsch notes, means not just to gather (to bring together disparate things), but to bring one back to one’s original home. Thus, “ye’asef el amav” means that when one passes away, “the soul returns home and is received in the waiting circles of those to whom it belongs” (Hirsch, Bereishis 25:8).
When God created humanity, it was God’s breath (nishmas chayim) that animated the inanimate clay and created life (Bereishis 2:7). Our truest selves, our source of life, came from that which was within God. If one spends one’s life strengthening that magnetic pull between the breath and Breather, then when physicality is removed, that literal piece of God is reunited with its Source, reconnected with the other reunited breaths of God (“el amav” – with his people). Death, then, is the truest return home.
It’s fascinating to note that, here, Aaron was sentenced to death because he was, perhaps, no longer able to lead the people. The relationship of Leader and Nation was no longer working. But that, anyway, was never the truest, deepest relationship of Aharon (or anyone) to his people. The result was Aharon being gathered – returning home – to his people. “Up above, there are no “children” [or familial relationships]; there, all are one family.” (ibid). Perhaps Aharon wasn’t punished, but was given the opportunity to reset and return to his truest relationship with his community.
Dini Coopersmith, Trip Coordinator Women’s Reconnection Trips
Commentaries abound regarding the sin of “the waters of meriva” which precluded Moshe’s ability to enter Israel as the leader of the Jewish People.
But that is a topic for another discussion. This verse is surprising, as it focuses on Aharon, Moshe’s brother. The famous sin of hitting the rock is not only attributed to Moshe, but to Aharon as well, who is punished to the same degree, and not allowed to enter the promised land!
Yes, both Aharon and Moshe received the commandment to speak to the rock, but wasn’t it Moshe alone who made the decision to hit the rock instead, and who chastised the Jewish people? Why should Aharon, the trusty sidekick, suffer the same consequences?
Although in the past, Aharon was praised for his silence and acceptance (‘And Aharon was silent’ after his sons were killed), and humble and unassuming (‘He will see you and be happy in his heart’, to be in the inferior role), there is a time and a place for everything. In this case, Aharon was expected to speak up!! He could have said: ‘Moshe: what are you doing?!! God said to speak to the rock!’ He could have stayed his hand, even spoken to the rock himself as a stand-in for a compromised leader. Instead, he was silent, passive, thereby an enabler and an accomplice.
As a result, he suffered the same consequences. A true ‘supporting role’ entails confronting, opposing when necessary, and taking a stand to do the right thing. Silence is not always golden.
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