April 15, 2023 | 24 Nissan 5783
Torah: Leviticus 9:1-11:47 Triennial: Leviticus 9:1-10:11
Haftarah: II Samuel 6:1-7:17
Rebecca, sending her son away, cries out, “Why should I mourn both of you on the same day?” Jacob, thinking his son is dead, refuses to be comforted, saying, “I will go down to my son in mourning.” David, hearing of his son’s death, cries, saying, “My son, my son, if only I could die in your place.” And Aaron is silent.
Aaron has not always been silent. When we first met him, it was his ability to speak that made him special. He is to be the mouthpiece of Moses. Moses tries to refuse the calling of God, protesting that he is slow of speech. God responds that Aaron will do the speaking, defining Aaron by his ability to speak, saying, “ki dabber yedabber hu,” “for he really really speaks.” Immediately after this, it will be Aaron who speaks to the Israelites, “saying all the words which God has said to Moses.”
However, Aaron’s speech fades over the Book of Exodus. As Moses gains confidence, Aaron is less necessary. The balance shifts and Moses speaks increasingly. At first, we find Moses and Aaron speaking together, confronting Pharaoh together, instructing the Israelites together. But by the time we have crossed the Sea of Reeds, Aaron has just one final moment of serving as the mouthpiece of Moses. Moses gives him the dubious honor of assuring the Israelites that they will have enough to eat when they complain about provisions. By the time manna appears, Moses takes back the microphone.
Aaron also speaks during the Golden Calf episode. With Moses absent, he serves once more in the capacity of mouthpiece, both for the people and for a higher power. Of course, he does not do this particularly well. Therefore, he loses his ability to serve as the mouthpiece. What we have been reading for weeks now is the silencing of Aaron. His role is transformed. He will no longer be the prophet of Moses, the voice speaking to the nation. Rather, he will be the high priest.
Aaron becomes a symbol. He becomes the wearer of clothes that do the speaking, the breastplate that he wears will carry the names of the tribes of Israel which he is no longer required to verbalize. He will become the performer of rituals that do the speaking, sacrifice as the new method of communication between Israel and God. This new role is a role which can be passed down with a simple transference of clothes. Aaron the person, the big brother of Moses, is no longer necessary.
The loss of Aaron as a brother is devastating for us. The story told in Genesis is of brothers learning to get along. We read in Midrash Tanhuma that, “all brothers hated each other. Cain hated Abel . . . Ishmael hated Isaac . . . And the tribes hated Joseph . . . But…Moses and Aaron, of whom it is said: ‘Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together.’ (Psalms, 133:1) They loved and cherished each other.” We go down to Egypt through the hatred of siblings and come out of Egypt due to the love and cooperation of Miriam, Moses, and Aaron.
In our parashah, Aaron’s sons are dead. Moses cannot mourn for his nephews. He cannot see the pain of his brother. All Moses can see is the high priest. And as high priest, Aaron is silent. The clothing and the rituals of the high priest have nothing to say about this situation beyond a concern for their own purity. When Aaron does finally speak, it will be in a language Moses gets, a language of doing right in the eyes of God. Moses will understand this. But he will not understand Aaron’s grief, he will not reach out to comfort his brother.
As the story continues to unfold, Moses will become increasingly remote from the people. He learns to speak so well that he speaks the entire Book of Deuteronomy. But he forgets how to listen to the people, how to understand what it is to be human. We will complain a lot over the next book and a half. Moses will not get it. And Aaron, who understood us too well, who empathized with our suffering to such a degree that he made the Golden Calf for us, he will remain silent.