| 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?
R. 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. The 1st century BCE sage Hillel instructs us to be disciples of Aaron, who love peace and pursue it. The Talmud explains that Aaron would fabricate a 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 eternal 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. Teachers are tasked with educating children on a certain standard. In order to do so they must sometimes take disciplinary action which puts them at odds with the students and sometimes the parents. If teacher don’t hold them accountable for attendance, homework, and discipline in the classroom, they 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 and Grandpa as kind and loving whereas the parents are perceived as being more difficult to live with. Consider this: 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, and 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 which required tough, consistent leadership.
The fact that the entire nation did not mourn Moses is a praise because it is indicative of the integrity of his leadership. Although he was mourned by many, there is no way he could have been mourned by all. He “suffered” the fate of one who makes truth 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 perceived as those with true love for fellow Jews (ahavat Yisrael). A life of truth and commitment sometimes comes at the cost of people not appreciating it, but that has never been a deterrent to one who has resolved to be led by the beacons of integrity and dedication. Those are indeed the people we choose emulate.This Tuesday night and Wednesday 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 many think it is based on their negative perceptions, 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 for possessing the uniquely Jewish book called the Torah. At that time, let’s allow ourselves to be the next link in the chain of Jews who, for centuries, have rejoiced over having this treasure. (And if this all sounds foreign, maybe this is the year to commit to finding out why so many people love it.) (Sources: Rashi, Devarim 34:8, Bamidbar 20:29; M’rosh Emunah p. 352)