By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
July 11, 2003
One generation has passed and another has grown up in freedom,
prepared to enter the Land of Israel. The leaders of the older generation,
too, are departing: first Miriam (Bamidbar 20:1), and now Aharon passes away –
And Hashem said to Moshe and to Aharon at Mount Hor on the border of the land
of Edom [this is said in order to distinguish it from another Mount Hor in the
northwest (Bamidbar 34:7-8)], saying, “Aharon shall be gathered to his people,
because he shall not enter the land that I have given to the Children of
Israel, because you defied My word at the Waters of Merivah. Take Aharon and
Elazar his son and bring them up to Mount Hor. And strip Aharon of his
vestments, and dress Elazar his son in them; and Aharon shall be gathered in
and die there.” (Bamidbar 20:23-26)
Aharon is to ascend Mount Hor dressed in the special garments of the Kohen
Gadol. The transfer of these clothes to his older son Elazar will constitute
the transmission of the office of Kohen Gadol. Then Aharon will surrender his
soul blissfully to Hashem.
Rashi (v.26) describes Aharon’s final moments:
“Moshe said to him, ‘Enter the cave,’ and he entered. He saw a bier laid out,
and a candle lit. (Moshe) said to him, ‘Ascend the bier,’ and he ascended.
‘Stretch out your hands,’ and he extended. ‘Close your mouth,’ and he closed.
‘Close your eyes,’ and he closed.”
With this, Aharon died “the death of the Divine Kiss”.
Against the backdrop of this touching, sorrowful scene, the Midrash (Bamidbar
Rabbah 19:19; Tanchuma Chukat 17) asks a surprisingly technical question,
which requires our understanding.
The Torah prohibits wearing sha’atnez, a mixture of wool and linen (Devarim
22:11). This prohibition applies to all Jews at all times. However, the
garments worn by the Kohanim are to be made of wool and linen (Shemot
39:2,5,29). This is permitted, because the Torah specifically commands that
these garments are to be so composed (Rambam, Laws of the Sanctuary Utensils
8:11-12). As long as the Kohen is performing his duties, his fulfillment of
the mitzvot of the Sanctuary overrides and, in effect, cancels the prohibition
However, this is not the case when the Kohen leaves the precincts of the
Sanctuary or, according to the Rambam, even within the Sanctuary when not
engaged in the Temple Service (Laws of Mixed Kinds 10:32). Then, the Kohen is
like all other Jews who are forbidden to wear sha’atnez.
Hence, the Midrash asks, how can Aharon be instructed to wear the garments of
the Kohen Gadol when he leaves the Mishkan for Mount Hor? Would he not be
guilty of wearing sha’atnez, a sin which carries the penalty of lashes?
This question itself is surprising. After all, as the Midrash commentator, R.
Zeev Wolf Einhorn (d.1862) says:
“The One who commanded regarding sha’atnez permitted it for him, both during
the Temple Service and at the time of his death!”
Then why does the Midrash find it so strange that Aharon should wear these
But, the answer of the Midrash is stranger still:
“With the same expression with which He brought him close to the priesthood
when He said to Moshe, ‘Take Aharon’ (Vayikra 8:2) did He say to him to ascend
The use of the words “take Aharon” – which appear at Aharon’s investiture and
now before his death (and nowhere else!) – is what finally “permits” the
wearing of sha’atnez.
How are we to understand this Midrash?
The repetition of “take Aharon” and the issue of sha’atnez do not indicate
that Aharon’s dying is to be regarded as an exception to the mitzvah of
sha’atnez. Instead, his death is an extension of the definition of Aharon’s
service. Aharon, as Kohen Gadol, was initiated with the command, “Take Aharon”,
and from that moment he had many duties to discharge: including the service of
Yom Kippur, which is annual, and the daily sacrifices, which he could perform
at any time he chose.
Aharon died, as he lived, totally devoted to serving Hashem:
And Moshe did as Hashem had commanded, and they ascended Mount Hor before the
eyes of the entire assembly. And Moshe stripped Aharon of his garments and he
dressed Elazar his son in them, and Aharon died there on top of the mountain,
and Moshe and Elazar descended from the mountain. (Bamidbar 20:27-28)
Aharon’s duties as Kohen Gadol were not complete until he fulfilled the
transfer of his office to Elazar. He could be comforted by Moshe’s words, as
taught by Rashi:
“How fortunate are you, for you will see your crown given to your son.”
Ensuring the continuity of Divine services is itself a part of that Divine
The same is true of every form of service to Hashem. It is not enough that we
value Torah, that we cherish prayer, that we give to tzedakah; we are
duty-bound to ensure that the next generation will do so, as well, just like
Torah K'Torat Eretz Yisrael!"- Torah from Aloh Na'aleh*
Bil'am tries very hard to curse Israel. It is only after several failed
attempts that he finally realizes that God will not allow Israel to be
cursed. Eventually, he turns quite sarcastic towards his patron, Balak,
King of Moav, and then provides him with one more "free," unsolicited
prophecy (Bamidbar 24:14-24).
In this last speech, Bil'am is finally free from his internal struggle and
his attempts to satisfy Balak's desire to pronounce a curse. Bil'am is at
long last able to see things in a wider perspective. He soars in prophetic
genius. With prophetic insight, he is able to envisage the people of
Israel as they are meant to be. He transcends the narrow vision of Israel
in the desert, his new perception leading him to an appreciation of the
true destiny of the Jewish people.
Now Bil'am is able to glimpse at the ideal of Israel's future. Israel will
emerge from the desert and achieve its destiny as a nation dwelling
securely and proudly in its own land. The many enemies surrounding Eretz
Yisrael and massing on its borders, Mo'av, Edom, Se'ir, and Amalek, are
diminished in their destructive power and importance. The Kenites - the
one nation truly willing to live in peace with Israel and acknowledge
Israel's role in Eretz Yisrael - are envisaged as dwelling happily and
peacefully in the land, secure in their own national identity, yet
acknowledging Israel's divinely sanctioned presence.
As we read Bil'am's inspired words, we understand that not only is his
vision of how Israel would finally achieve full self-realization true, but
that we today, living as Jews in an independent state of Israel, have been
privileged to participate in its partial fulfillment.
Rabbi Aubrey Isaacs
WUJS Institute, Arad
*D’var Torah from Aloh Na'aleh:
an initiative of former North American Rabbis and laymen who successfully
made Aliyah, aimed at highlighting the centrality of Israel and promoting
Aliyah. They send emissaries – Rabbis, academicians, and others – on
speaking-tours throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Tel: 972-2-566-1181 ext. 320