And the sons of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab…. (34:8)
The men mourned when Moses died but when his older brother, Aaron, died sometime before that, the entire house of Israel cried over his loss, then, everyone, both men and women, mourned his loss. This Parsha occupies itself with the praise of Moses, and even testifies that there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face (34:10). Why, then, would it mention Moses in a way that slightly diminishes his persona by saying that not everyone mourned his loss but they did all mourn Aaron’s death? Can’t the Torah me give a more generous compliment to the ultimate Jewish leader on the last day of his life?
Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin (1817-1898) explained that the verse is actually a praise. How so? Before answering, we must look at the main principles that guided Moses and Aaron. Aaron was the quintessential peace maker. In Chapters of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot 1:12), Hillel (died 1st century BCE) instructs us to be disciples of Aaron, who loved peace and pursued it. The Talmud explains that when Aaron saw two friends who had a fight and had become estranged from one another, he went to each of them individually with the same fabricated story: “I just came from your old friend…he felt awful about hurting your feelings and is anxious to make peace.” He made each one feel as if the other wanted to make amends and when the two eventually did meet, their new perspective enabled them to reconnect and make peace. He was especially known for doing this with married couples who were not on speaking terms. Peace was one of the leading motivating principles of his life.
Moses had a different mandate. He was the lawgiver and even disciplinarian. His task was to ensure that the Torah would be the Jewish instruction book for living. When someone is charged with making certain that something will exist and maintained, that person will encounter angry people who do not want to be told what to do or how to lead their lives. A teacher in school is tasked with educating the children on a certain standard. In order to do so (s)he must sometimes take disciplinary action that put him or her at odds with the students and sometimes the parents. If the teacher does not hold them accountable for attendance, homework, and discipline in the classroom, (s)he will not be doing their job and will have failed their task. The task of a country is to protect its citizens; when Israel constructs a security wall, they are criticized-even vilified-for their actions. If the Israeli government allowed its citizens to be vulnerable, they would be considered a failure as a government. A parent’s job is to protect and raise their children and that is why it is easier for a child to perceive Grandma or Grandpa as kind and loving whereas the parents are perceived as being more difficult to live with. When we consider that some of the most hated people in life–school principals, IRS examiners, parking enforcement officers, bill collectors-are actually doing things that allow us to live together in society in a civil and organized fashion.
The ultimate guiding principle of Moses’ life was not peace, it was truth. He had to maintain a legal, moral, and charitable standard for a nation that was chosen to be a light to the nations. As such, he was not as popular as Aaron, who at times allowed peace to overpower truth. Aaron ultimately enabled the people to build the Golden Calf but it was Moses who chastised and punished the them for doing so. Severe action had to be taken; if not, if the Golden Calf would have remained, the Jewish nation never would have come to fruition. Moses fought Korach’s rebellion (Numbers 16), dealt with the complainers (Exodus 17;Numbers 11:4), the malicious report of the spies (Numbers 13), and many other incidents that required tough, consistent leadership.
The fact that the entire nation did not mourn Moses is a praise because it indicative of the integrity of his leadership and that truth was the guiding principle of his life. Although he was mourned by many, there is no way that he could have been mourned by all. He “suffered” the fate of one who makes the Torah the playbook that trumps all others. Sometimes the one who is scorned is really the one it is most fitting to mourn.
We read this week’s Parsha every year at Simchat Torah, the festival designated for rejoicing in the gift that has kept us a people. Many times the people who uphold the Torah are vilified for doing so and the ones who deviate are the ones perceived as the ones with true ahavat Yisrael-love for fellow Jews. This Monday night and Tuesday when we rejoice at Simchat Torah, let us rethink our Judaism and open our minds to the possibility that we actually have something for which to rejoice. Judaism is not the burden you might think it is based on your negative Hebrew school experience; it is a vibrant source of practical wisdom and system of values that has stood the test of time better than any other. In a few days we will sing, dance, and rejoice in the most uniquely Jewish book in the world. What will be your thoughts on that day?
(Sources: Rashi,Devarim 34:8,Bamidbar 20:29;M’rosh Emunah p. 352)