Kiss of Death

Midrash explains how Moses could be happy with dying.

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"Moses did as the Lord had commanded. They ascended Mount Hor in the sight of the whole community. Moses stripped Aaron of his vestments and put them on his [Aaron's] son Eleazar; and Aaron died there on the summit of the mountain" (Numbers 20:27-28).

Thus, the Rabbis say that "as your brother Aaron died"means the death that he, Moses, longed for. The Rabbis wonder: How did Moses long to die as Aaron [died]?

That is, where would Moses have an experience with death that would be a model to him? It was when the Holy One, praised is He, told him, Moses, "Take Aaron and his son Eleazar... Strip Aaron of his vestments." These are the clothes that Aaron wore when officiating as Kohen, or priest. Moses himself, as leader of the people and God's appointed representative, was to take his own brother to the top of the mountain, where Aaron would die. He, God, told him, Aaron, "Enter the cave," and he entered.

The Rabbis assume that Aaron was buried in a cave upon the mountain. This explana­tion helps solve a problem in the biblical text. At the beginning of the section, we are told that "they ascended Mount Hor in the sight of the whole community" (20:27). But then, even though the events take place in plain sight, the Israelite community has no idea that Aaron has died, for the next verse tells us that "when Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain, the whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last" (20:28-29). How is it that they know only when Moses and Eleazar came down? The Rabbis solve this inconsistency by interpretation: A burial cave on top of the moun­tain obscured their view....

Moses saw a very peaceful and calm death, as Aaron went through the various steps to prepare for his own demise. At that very moment, Moses said, "Happy is one who dies this kind of death!" Thus it says, "As your brother Aaron died," the death that he longed for. God, in an act of kindness, allowed Moses to die the same kind of death that his older brother had.

D'rash

Ashrei means "happy." "Happy is one who dies this kind of death!" How can death be happy?

There are two ways. First, death can be a "friend" that releases a person from suf­fering. As Tennyson put it, "Sweet is death who puts an end to pain." Sweet is a death that releases a loved one from torturous suffering, that allows us to remember the strong, active person rather than the tormented skeleton that illness has created.

Death can also be happy because it forces us to face life. Our mortality prevents us from putting off things that have to be done. We must accomplish what we envision in life now because life does not last forever. Death happily pushes us to do what we would otherwise delay, and perhaps avoid altogether.

Thus, death is not necessarily something to be feared. It is not the enemy. We, like Moses, can see death as a friend. Rather than thinking, "If only I could live forever...," we should say, "I'm happy to live this kind of life, and I'd be happythen to die that kind of death!"

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Gershon Schwartz was the rabbi of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, Penn., from 2000-2003. He co-authored Swimming in the Sea of Talmud: Lessons for Everyday Living.

Rabbi Michael Katz

Michael Katz is the rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Westbury, N.Y. He is the author of The Rabbi's Wife.