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JTS Torah Commentary

Parashat Hukkat-Balak
Numbers 19:1–25:9
July 8, 2006    12 Tammuz, 5766

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow, JTS

We communicate with each other and with God through our voices. Voices create relationship. This notion of voice, or lack of voice, plays a central role in the first of this week's Torah readings, Parashat Hukkat. Not only does voice give us insight into Moses and Aaron's personalities, but more importantly, it gives us a window into the role of Torah and ourselves.

In Numbers 20, God tells Moses and Aaron to ascend Mount Hor so that Aaron will die there. Moses obeys. He climbs the mountain with Aaron and Aaron's son, Eleazar, strips Aaron of his priestly garments, and places them on Eleazar. Very matter-of-factly the Torah concludes, "Aaron dies there on the summit of the mountain." Though elegant in its simplicity, the narrative leaves us thirsty for the voices of all those involved in this drama. Midrash, rabbinic commentary sparked by sensitive readings of the text, gives voice to the initial silence. A tender midrash (Yalkut, Hukkat 764) envisions the scenario in which Moses "broke the news" to his brother.

In this rabbinic legend, God first tells Moses of Aaron's impending death and asks Moses to inform his brother:

Moses rose early in the morning and went to Aaron.
Moses called out, "Aaron my brother."
Aaron came down and asked, "What made you come here so early today?"
Moses replied, "During the night I studied a passage of Torah which I found troubling, and so I rose early and came to you."
"What was the matter?" Aaron asked.
"I do not remember, but I know it was in the Book of Genesis. Bring it and we'll read it."
Together they read through Genesis and commented on each passage, "The Holy One created well." But when they came to the creation of Adam, Moses asked, "What is one to say of Adam who brought death into the world? And we, who staved off death for the Israelite people, no doubt will face the same end. After all, how many more years have we to live?"
"Not many," Aaron answered.
Moses continued talking, until finally he mentioned to him the exact day when death would strike. At that moment Aaron's bones felt the imminence of his own demise.
So he asked, "Is it because of me that you found the matter so distressing?"
Moses answered, "Yes."

What is truly remarkable in this midrash is the way Moses decides to break the news to his brother. Notice Moses does not run straight to Aaron and tell him God's message. He understands the message must be given with care. Moreover, the message is so difficult for Moses that his own voice cannot be the sole carrier of this news. He cannot handle it on his own, and so he turns to the heart of the tradition — to God's word, to God's voice: Moses and Aaron learn Torah together. Moses delicately frames his message in the form of a text-based inquiry. They turn to the beginning, when Adam brings death into the world as a result of transgressing God's commandment. One feels the trembling behind Moses' question: "What is one to say of Adam who brought death into the world? And we, who staved off death for the Israelite people, no doubt will face the same end. After all, how many more years have we to live?" It is not only Aaron's fate that Moses is addressing at this point, but also his own fate — for he too will meet his end. By placing their own lives in the context of a biblical story, their own uniqueness and particular experiences are given a universal dimension. Moses sees himself as a descendent of Adam, reconciling himself to the fate decreed over human destiny. Now he encourages his brother to see the world through the same lens of Torah. Aaron senses what Moses is hinting at, as his bones literally anticipate his own demise. Aaron is also sensitive to his brother Moses' own feelings, questioning if it was because of his own death that Moses' finds the text to be troubling. Thus, the Torah and God's voice, help us give expression to the ineffable and the unknowable. Whereas our silent voices may be appropriate at such a time (see also Aaron's response to the death of his sons (Leviticus 10:3)), we must search deeply to hear God's voice so as to shed light upon our darkest moments.

Just as the Torah gives a voice of understanding to Moses and Aaron in a dark moment, so can it lend us a voice of understanding in the moments of life. Literary critic George Steiner distills the essence of our discussion most poetically in his essay entitled, "Our Homeland, the Text." Steiner writes of the Torah: "The text is home; each commentary a return. When [the Jew] reads, when, by virtue of commentary, he makes of his reading a dialogue and life-giving echo, the Jew is ... 'the shepherd of being.'" Torah is indeed the means by which Moses and Aaron return home. Turning to the text allows them to encounter mortality and eternity. Mortal lives and eternal voices: it is in the exquisite silence of the narrative that we begin to hear the most profound voice immanent in the world — the voice of Torah, the voice of God.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz

The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld. This is a reprint from 5760.