How do we imagine the death of Aaron, the High Priest — the pursuer of peace, the brother of Moses?
I finish my work for the day: presenting the daily offering, lighting the incense, arranging the lamps[fn]Nachmanides on Numbers 20:26[/fn], and it is now time to go. Still dressed in my vestments, I take one last look at the altar. Then I go to join Moses and Eleazar waiting for me at the foot of Mount Hor.
We begin our climb towards my death, my brother and my son at my sides. With each step I feel more and more the old man I have become. My feet and back are sore. My hands ache from years of service. As we ascend, it becomes harder to hear the crowds gathered below. The bells on my robe jingle, adding a measured beat to our pace; step, jingle jingle, step, jingle jingle. I need to rest, a quick moment to gather myself, but I know the next rest I take will be my last. Instinctively, I reach for the breastplate and finger each of the stones, mentally counting each gem: one, there’s Reuben … two, there’s Shimon … three, there’s Levi … making sure each tribe’s stone is present and secure.[fn]Exodus 28:15-30[/fn]
It takes a lot out of man to carry any and all sins that arise from a stiff-necked and impossible people.[fn]Exodus 28:36-38[/fn] As we left, Moses said to me, “How fortunate you are, my dear brother, to see your crown given to your son — a privilege I will not share.”[fn]Rashi on Numbers 20:25[/fn] I look now at Eleazar and wonder how he will bear this responsibility. I see in his face the faces of his two brothers, foolish and rash, believing they could offer a sacrifice alone and unsupervised.[fn]Leviticus 10:1-2.[/fn] Hadn’t I instructed them? Every day, at every offering, I would order my boys to pay attention. “Listen to me!” I would shout over the music of my robes jingling away, “lest you die!”[fn]Leviticus 8:35.[/fn] Jingle, jingle. “We have to follow the correct sequence!” Jingle, jingle. “There are rules in place!” Jingle, jingle. I was terrified to give them the detailed instructions of sacrifice and yet terrified to not teach them well enough to save their lives. “This is the calf for the sin offering.” Jingle, jingle. “This is the ram for the burnt offering.”[fn]Leviticus 9:2.[/fn] Jingle, jingle. I could see that their eyes were mesmerized by the smoke, the fire, the blood splattering on the sides of the altar.[fn]Leviticus 9.[/fn] “Listen to your father.” Jingle, jingle. “Remember what I’m saying.” Jingle, jingle.
After I lost them, Moses’ words haunted me every day, “This is what Hashem meant,” he said. “Hashem said, ‘Through those near to Me, I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.”[fn]Leviticus 10:3.[/fn] And for the first time in our relationship, I was the silent one. What could I say? Raising a son in the shadow of God’s glory is an impossible task, an unbelievable burden. Moses had his own burden to bear, his own sons. Who was I to yell back in anger?
We reach the summit of Mount Hor. Moses stops walking. Dutifully, Eleazer stops as well, waiting for instruction. Moses doesn’t mention my sin of the golden calf, and I don’t mention his sin of striking the rock. He does say, “We shall die together, even if at different times.” He then continues, quietly this time and with a pained expression on his face, “I want so badly to die with you here and now.”[fn]Rashi on Numbers 20:26[/fn]
Moses explains what will happen next. I know what will happen. I was there when God instructed him, but maybe Moses is trying to make sense of the next few steps, maybe he is speaking out loud to hear the instructions again. “Take Aaron and his son, Eleazer and bring them up on Mount Hor. Strip Aaron of his vestments and put them on his son Eleazer. There Aaron shall be gathered unto the dead.”[fn]Numbers 20:25-26[/fn]
My brother begins the process. First, the breastplate is removed, then the ephod, then the blue robe encircled with pomegranates and bells, then the linen undergarments.[fn]Ecclesiasticus 45:8-9[/fn] Then God’s chosen one, the redeemer of Israel, Moses my brother, places my burial shroud over my body.[fn]Nachmanides on Numbers 20:26[/fn] Moses dresses Eleazar. In a passing moment, I see the face of my father in Eleazar’s face. I put my hands on Eleazar’s dressed shoulders, over the two onyx stones[fn]Exodus 28:9[/fn], and say, “The lips of a priest guard knowledge, and men seek rulings from his mouth; for he is a messenger of the LORD of Hosts.”[fn]Malachi 2:7[/fn] I kiss his forehead and turn to Moses.
“Go into the cave,”[fn]Rashi on Numbers 20:26[/fn] Moses says. I step into the cave and see a stone slab and a burning lamp. “Get onto the stone and stretch out your arms by your side.” I do as I am told. “Close your mouth.” I close my mouth. And then, as a great silence falls over the mountain, the last words I hear are, “Shut your eyes.”