Many of us keep several yahrzeits every year. It may be those of parents, grandparents, rabbeim, or unfortunately even more tragic petiros. We will daven for the amud, learn some Mishnayos, make a Keil Molei, perhaps give tikkun or a Kiddush. But there is only one yahrzeit specifically mentioned in the entire Torah. It is the upcoming Rosh Chodesh Av, when Aharon, the first kohein gadol, passed away (Bamidbar 33:38). This noteworthy milestone signals us that we should not miss the opportunity to learn from, emulate and identify with this unique figure in the Torah, Jewish history and our very lives.
Last week, I was menachem avel two wonderful families of kohanim who had lost their patriarchs – the Melohn and Muehlgay families, who are also mechutanim. The talk was how each of their fathers had tried and in many ways succeeded in following in the footsteps of their revered zaide, Aharon Hakohein, the progenitor of the clan.
One of the subjects that came up was the unique brocha that we all make when we go up to duchen and give a brocha to Klal Yisroel. While all other brachos mention that Hashem has sanctified us with His mitzvos, only this one reminds us that we have also been sanctified with the kedusha of our ancestor, Aharon. Why this deviation from the text of every other birchas hamitzvos?
The Ozerover Rebbe (Aish Dos 4:318) quotes from the Zohar Hakadosh (Naso, page 147) that any kohein who does not absolutely love Klal Yisroel should not stand up to duchen. Although this condition is actually built into the text of the brocha, which ends in the word b’ahavah, with love, it is a terrifying moment for any kohein who takes this mandate seriously. The families I visited both testified that their fathers had indeed personified this ideal throughout their lives, not only when duchening at the aron kodesh.
But what of the rest of us? What of the non-kohanim? What is Klal Yisroel’s relationship with the first and greatest kohein of all? Let us skip for a moment to a more recent kohein, whom his generation and beyond also recognized as the kohein gadol of recent times, the Chofetz Chaim, whose yahrzeit also will soon arrive in Elul. Many of those who still remember the Chofetz Chaim recall that the great tzaddik would often linger by the aron before descending the steps. Finally, on what turned out to have been the last Shavuos of the Chofetz Chaim’s life, one of his close talmidim asked him what he was thinking and apparently even mumbling to himself at that moment. His answer is not just for kohanim, but for every Yid who wishes to walk in the footsteps of Aharon.
“Hashem,” he began softly with a smile, “gave us the opportunity and zechus to bless His people a certain way and we may not add anything to it. But my heart yearns to give every Jew even more as soon as I can. Therefore, when I am finished the mitzvah itself, I cannot tear myself away without thinking of the many good things I wish for every Yid in the world.” This is one of the things we should think about when considering the loss of the kohein gadol, who loved each and every Jew so much that he was willing to suffer humiliation and insults for them (see meforshim on Pirkei Avos 1:11, “Be like the students of Aharon,” and Avos D’Rebbi Nosson 12).
But that is only the beginning of our learning from Aharon. The Creator Himself testified about Aharon (Shemos 4:14) that his joy at his younger brother’s leadership of Klal Yisroel was as much in the privacy of his heart as it was in his smile. He bore no grudge or even moment of jealousy. That is a lesson that we can all strive to achieve. Aharon wore the choshen and the eifod, and the Torah commands that the two may not be separated. Meforshim tell us that eifod adds up to 85, the gematriah of peh, which means mouth, and the choshen rested upon Aharon’s heart. This signified that there was indeed no divergence between Aharon’s mouth and his heart, no hypocrisy, no sarcasm, nothing but pure unadulterated love. That is another goal for Rosh Chodesh Av, to be as consistent and unified in speech and heart as Aharon.
It has been noted that not only is Aharon’s petirah the only one mentioned in the Torah with the exact date, but it is actually recorded twice, in Parshas Chukas and Parshas Masei (Bamidbar 33:37-39). Why this repetition when it is already a unique honor to Aharon that his yahrtzeit is mentioned at all? The Sefer Eizor Eliyahu answers that the Gemara (Moed Koton 25b) teaches that in heaven there is gladness when a holy and pure soul returns to Hashem. Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach said something in his hesped at the levayah of the Steipler that will help us understand the yahrzeit of Aharon as well. He pointed out that when Shlomo Hamelech enumerated all the various “times” in Koheles (Chapter 3), they are usually prefaced by the letter lamed. For instance, “eis laledes, a time to be born, ve’eis lamus, and a time to die.” However, when he mentions eulogies and dancing, he leaves out the lamed. It is simply “eis sefod v’eis rekod, a time of hesped and a time of dance.”
Rav Shach explained that generally, there can only be eulogies or dancing, but the two cannot be simultaneous. But when a truly great soul returns to heaven, down here there is crying and eulogies, but in heaven they are dancing upon the return of a “pure and holy soul.” The Torah repeats the date of Aharon’s passing to remind us of the loss to us, but also of the gain in Shomayim, where the angels celebrate the return of such kedusha.
Parshas Masei is usually read before Tisha B’Av as a reminder that if we would be more like Aharon, there would be no sinas chinom, the baseless hatred that led to the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh. Bein adam lachaveiro was the life’s work of Aharon.
The Shelah Hakadosh writes that our sadness upon the arrival of the month of Av is not because of the churban Bais Hamikdosh, but because of the passing of Aharon. He proves from various sources that the hesped upon Aharon occurred on Tisha B’Av. We might add that if we each “borrowed” a bit of Aharon’s incredible ahavas Yisroel upon the advent of his yahrzeit, we could indeed bring back the Bais Hamikdosh we lost because we weren’t enough like him. The Baal Haturim (Shemos 2:6) offers a profound gematriah that plumbs the essence of the words. When Basiah (or Bisyah), the daughter of Paroh, saw the baby Moshe Rabbeinu, “naar bocheh, the boy did cry.” He teaches that these words add up to the gematriah (336) of Aharon Hakohein. In other words, she saw the 3-year-old Aharon crying over the fate of his baby brother. This is what moved her to convert to Judaism. After seeing only cruelty and hatred in her father’s house, she saw only love and caring in the face and tears of the future kohein gadol. That was what caused her to declare that “this must be a Jewish child” and allowed all of us the zechus of emulating Aharon, who always loved his brethren, whether it was a blood brother or not.
Yes, we commemorate yahrtzeits, as well we should. But let’s not ignore the only one the Torah itself wishes us to remember. It is perhaps not a day for an extra Kaddish or even tikkun. But it can be a life-changing 24 hours. From the baby Aharon until his petirah, he was a role model for shedding our personal ego and pettiness. He could have sheltered himself in his kedusha and not mingled with others. Instead, he spent his life spreading peace, love and goodwill throughout his beloved nation. Not everyone can duchen, but we can all try to walk in Aharon’s footsteps, especially this Rosh Chodesh Av. May he be both a meilitz yosher and our guide to a life of ahavah and shalom.