Tags: Aaron's sons, Leviticus, Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, ordination, prophets and priests, torah portion
The Israelites complete the tent that will serve as a portable temple at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot. Moses consecrates the altar and the priests who will perform all the required rituals in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, the second portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.
Moses assembles the whole community outside the entrance of the new Tent of Meeting. In front of everyone he washes his brother Aaron and Aaron’s four sons, then dresses them in the white, gold, red, purple, and blue ritual garments described in the book of Exodus/Shemot.1
The ceremony continues with the ritual slaughter of a bull and three rams, offerings of animal parts and three kinds of flat cakes, and the application of anointing oil and blood from the slaughtered animals in various locations and combinations. (See my post Tzav: Horns, Ears, Thumbs, and Toes.) After the gorgeous new ceremonial garments are spotted all over with oil and blood they are holy—dedicated to God. So are Aaron and his sons, but they are not yet priests.
Moses leaves them with a supply of boiled meat (from the second ram) and leftover grain products (from the grain offering), and gives them strict instructions:
You must not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day of melot the days of your milu-im; because in seven days yemallei your yad. (Leviticus/Vayikra 8:33)
melot (מְלֺאת) = filling up, being full, fulfilling, completing. (A form of the verb mala, מָלַא = filled, was full.)
milu-im (מִילֻּאִים) = ordination; setting for a jewel to fill. (From the root mala.)
yemallei (יְמַלֵּא) = it will fill up. (Another form of the verb mala.)
yad (יַד) = hand; power, ability.
mala yad (מָלַא יַד) = Literally: filled the hand. Idiomatically: ordained.2
According to God’s instructions to Moses in the book of Exodus, one part of the ritual will be repeated each day during this seven-day period: the slaughter of a bull and consecration of the altar with its blood.3 But Aaron and his sons will simply sit in the tent entrance in their spattered garments, gradually eating their portions of the meat and grain offerings that they had shared with God.
God commanded to do what was done today, to atone for you. And you must sit at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting day and night for seven days, and you must watch over the watch of God, so you will not die; for so I was commanded. (Leviticus 8:34-35)
The Torah does not say whether the long ritual served as a general atonement and spiritual purification, or whether it atones for Aaron’s sin of making the golden calf back in the book of Exodus.4
Nor does it say what Aaron and his sons must watch over or guard for seven days. Many commentators have written that they spend the seven days meditating on the rules of holiness and ritual purity for serving God.5
Another viewpoint is that they are mourning, because they have a premonition that at least one of them will die on the eighth day, when they first serve God as official priests.6 But when Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, do die on the eighth day, in next week’s Torah portion, it comes as a shock to everyone.
The Torah also quotes Moses as telling Aaron and his sons that they must not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days because “it will fill up (yemallei) your ability (yad)”. Maybe it takes seven days in the entrance to God’s dwelling-place to fill up with sufficient holy awe to be able to conduct the business of holiness.
What strikes me is that Aaron and his sons are neither born nor trained to be priests. They get their new positions without any previous job experience.
Up to this point, Aaron has not been the sort of man who wears a gold medallion on his forehead saying “Holy to God”. It’s clear in the book of Exodus that God only calls Aaron in because Moses makes so many objections to the job God gives him at the burning bush.7 To his credit, Aaron greets his long-lost brother without jealousy, and willingly serves as Moses’ sidekick. When the Israelites are attacked by Amalek on the way to Mount Sinai, Aaron literally supports Moses’ arm and helps him save the day.8 But when Moses climbs Mount Sinai and does not return for 40 days, and the people panic and ask for idols, Aaron makes the golden calf.
Now Aaron is promoted from Moses’ unreliable assistant to High Priest. Aaron will officiate over the ritual offerings in the sanctuary. Aaron will light the menorah. Aaron will be in charge of God’s dwelling place.
Aaron’s four sons are also getting major promotions. They have not done anything of distinction, though they would be treated with the respect simply because they are Aaron’s sons.9 Now they are being ordained as priests. They will be the only people besides Moses and Aaron and Moses who are allowed to enter the Tent of Meeting, the only people allowed to handle the holiest objects inside it. Only they will turn the offerings of their people into smoke that ascends to God.
For seven days Aaron and his sons sit inside the sanctuary, in the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Perhaps they face out, gazing at the bronze altar and the wash-basin in the sunlit courtyard. Perhaps they face in, gazing at the golden menorah, incense altar, and bread table under the tent roof, not to mention the curtain screening off the ark itself. For seven days they sit there, without distractions, realizing they will spend the rest of their lives dedicated to holy service.
I doubt they are doing anticipatory mourning for the coming deaths of Nadav and Avihu. But they may be mourning for their old way of life, which has ended forever. At the end of seven days, they will be the servants of God’s dwelling-place, who must act as God’s representatives every waking minute.
Their new lives as priests are imposed on them. They do not apply for the job. They do not even hear God call them, the way prophets in the Hebrew Bible are called into service. Moses simply tells them what God told him do. It might seem like a great honor to them, or it might seem as arbitrary as an accident.
At least they are granted seven days to sit at the entrance of their new lives, experiencing the grief, fear, awe, and whatever else comes along, letting the transformation sink in.
We don’t have a Moses to set aside seven days for us when we face a sudden major change in life. But we have the example in this week’s Torah portion. May everyone who can take time on the threshold between an old life and a new one receive the inspiration to sit and reflect. And whenever our lives change, may God fill up our ability to meet the new challenge.
(An earlier version of this essay was posted in March 2010.)
1 Exodus 28:1-43, 39:1-31. See my post Tetzavveh: The Clothes Make the Man.
2 The source of this idiom is not known, but it may be related to the elevation offering, the tenufah (תְּנוּפָה), in which priests lay the meat or grain cakes to be offered on their palms and either hold them out, raise them, or wave them toward God before burning them. A tenufah was part of the ordination ceremony for Aaron and his sons (Leviticus 8:26-28).
3 Exodus 29:35-38.
4 Exodus 32:1-8, 21-25. See my post Ki Tissa: Out Came this Calf!
5 e.g. 13th-century rabbi Moses ben Nachman (a.k.a. Ramban, Nachmanides), paraphrased in Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, trans. by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, 1992, p. 71; 19th-century rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra, Part 1, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 277.
6 Midrash Tanchuma, a collection of commentary from the 5th through 8th centuries C.E., paraphrased in Munk, p. 72. Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, do die on the eighth day, consumed by a fire from God (Leviticus 10:1-2); and Moses forbids Aaron and his two surviving sons to engage in mourning for them (Leviticus 10:6-7). The seven days sitting at the tent entrance are compared to the initial seven-day mourning period of shivah, but “sitting shivah” is a later Jewish custom.
7 Exodus 4:10-17.
8 Exodus 17:8-13. See my post Beshallach: Hands Up.
9 Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, are treated as if they are elders when they walk partway up Mount Sinai with the 70 regular elders, Moses, and Aaron to behold a vision of God’s feet (Exodus 24:1, 9-11).
Tags: Aaron and Miriam, prophets and priests, torah portion
Miriam and Aaron both die in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“Decree”). The portion opens in the first month of the fortieth and final year the Israelites must spend in the wilderness. Miriam’s death is described in a single sentence.
The Children of Israel, the whole community, came to the wilderness of Tzin in the first month, and the people stayed at Kadeish. And Miriam died there and she was buried there. (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:1)
kadeish (קָדֵשׁ) = being holy, being dedicated to God; a Canaanite male temple prostitute; one of two places named before the Israelites took Canaan, presumably sacred spots for non-Israelites (Kadeish in the wilderness of Paran in the southern Negev, or Kadeish in the wilderness of Tzin on the border of Edom).
The Torah says nothing further about Miriam’s death. All the Israelites observe 30-day mourning periods after the deaths of Aaron and Moses. But no official mourning period is set for Miriam.
Aaron dies later in this week’s Torah portion, after the Israelites have begun circling around Edom and Moab. (At the end of this week’s Torah portion they camp on the east bank of the Jordan River, across from Jericho.)
The Torah describes Aaron’s death in detail.
And they pulled out from Kadeish and the Children of Israel, the whole community, came to hor hahar. And God spoke to Moses and Aaron at hor hahar, on the border of the land of Edom, saying: Let Aaron be gathered to his people … Take Aaron and his son Elazar and bring them up to hor hahar. And strip off Aaron’s garments, and clothe his son Elazar. Then Aaron will be gathered, and die there. And Moses did as God commanded, and they headed up hor hahar before the eyes of the whole community. Moses stripped off Aaron’s garments, and he clothed his son Elazar. And Aaron died there, on the head of hahar. And Moses went down, and Elazar, from hor hahar. Then the whole community saw that Aaron had expired, and the whole house of Israel mourned for Aaron 30 days. (Numbers 20:22-29)
Hor hahar (הֹר הָהָר) = mountain of the mountain, hill on the hill, Hor Mountain. (Rashi—11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki—spoke for the majority of commentators when he wrote that Hor hahar looked like a small mound on top of a large mound.)
Miriam and Aaron both die near the border of Edom. The Torah calls them both prophets, and ranks them both as leaders of the Israelites along with Moses. So why is Miriam’s death described in a single verse, while Aaron’s death takes eight verses?
The books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers are full of Aaron, since much of the material concerns the establishment of rituals conducted by male priests and Levites. But the Torah gives Miriam only three scenes.
In her first scene, Miriam comes forward after the pharaoh’s daughter rescues the infant Moses from the Nile. In one sentence (Shall I go and summon a nursing woman from the Hebrews, that she may suckle the child for you?) she gives the pharaoh’s daughter both the idea of adopting the baby, and the idea of hiring a Hebrew woman to nurse him. Then Miriam arranges for her own mother—and Moses’—to be the wet nurse.
Miriam’s second scene comes after the Israelites cross the Reed Sea safely and God drowns the Egyptian army. Then Miriam has another brilliant idea. It was customary, when soldiers came home from a victory, for women to greet them with dancing, drumming, and chanting. Miriam picks up her timbrel and gets the women to do the same thing to celebrate God’s victory.
The Torah calls Miriam a prophetess at this point, and confirms her status as a prophet again in her third scene. Here she speaks out against Moses regarding his wife, and gets Aaron to agree with her. God responds by saying Moses’s level of prophecy trumps Miriam and Aaron’s, and gives her a seven-day skin disease. The people wait for her to recover and rejoin them before they journey on.
Miriam’s role in the Torah is to be a prophet, not a priest. She receives divine inspiration, and inspires other people through her words and actions. I think she dies at a place that was already named holy (Kadeish) because she is intrinsically holy (kadosh). She is dedicated not only to serving God, but also to making things right for human beings.
Hor Hahar, the place where Aaron dies, has neither a holy name, like Miriam’s gravesite, nor a view of the “promised land” of Canaan, like Moses’. It is merely a mountain with an unusual shape.
Aaron is called a prophet, along with Miriam, because he does occasionally hear God’s voice giving instructions. But he lacks inspiration. He fails God and succumbs to the will of the mob when he makes the Golden Calf. He becomes the high priest only when Moses dresses him in the high priest’s garments and anoints him. After that Aaron spends his days performing rituals and keeping track of holy objects.
The most important part of Aaron’s death is when Moses removes the unique vestments he wears as the high priest, and puts them on his son and successor, Elazar. What makes someone a high priest is the breastplate with the divining gems, and the gold plate inscribed “Holy to God”. The clothes make the man.
Aaron the high priest is easily replaced by his son, through a change of clothing. But nobody replaces Miriam.
Aaron has to leave the camp and die with only Moses and Elazar as witnesses. Miriam dies in the camp, surrounded by the Children of Israel.
Yes, I admire Miriam, for her brilliance, her courage, and her dedication to her calling. And I also admire Aaron, for his dedication to the job he was assigned—serving as the people’s high priest for nearly 40 years despite his own personal failure in making the Golden Calf.
In the book of Micah, God reminds the Israelites:
I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
And from the house of slavery I redeemed you,
And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. (Micah 6:4)
It took all three leaders to get the people out of Egypt and ready to enter Canaan: Moses to work with God to create a new religion; Aaron to faithfully play his role within that religion; and Miriam to challenge people and transmit inspiration.
Every person has a different set of abilities, and a different role to play in life. Whatever our own roles are, may each of us be blessed with the whole-hearted dedication of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.