It's hard being 'the brother of...'
In most biblical traditions, Aaron is portrayed as a supporting actor in the great performance of God and Moses. The biblical character of Aaron lacks outstanding characteristics, and this invites those who study the Torah to offer unique personality traits that are so noticeably absent from the story.
One of the more surprising suggestions for completing Aaron's incomplete personality is found in the words of Hillel the Elder: "Hillel would say: Be of the disciples of Aaron – a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves all people created by God and draws them close to Torah" (Avot 1:12).
A written, historical riddle
Hillel's words can be categorized as a written, historical riddle. The connecting bridge between Biblical Aaron and Hillel's depiction of Aaron is built out of revealed and concealed desires, out of anxieties and political struggles, all of which the Mishnah is attempting to cover up in its simple and naive style. The Mishnah is also inviting us to expose them. How did the anemic character of biblical Aaron transform into Hillel's pursuer of peace? Furthermore, what characterizes "pursuing peace" of which Hillel speaks? What is "peace" and how is it "pursued"?
Large portions of the weekly Torah portion, "Behaalotecha," are dedicated to Aaron and his descendants the priests. Therefore, this week we will follow in the footsteps of the literary riddle composed by Hillel the Elder.
How is peace pursued?
The phrase "pursuer of peace" ("rodef shalom") is an oxymoron composed of two contradictory words. The root word R-D-F appears in the Bible more than 100 times and almost always in a warlike context. For example: "The enemy said, 'I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil'" (Exodus 15:9).
This root word does appear a few times in the context of peace. For example: "Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever" (Psalm 23:6). And of course the source from which Hillel took the phrase "pursuer of peace": "Who is the man who desires life... Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it" (Psalms 34:13-15).
And in these few usages of the root word there is an attempt to utilize war to achieve peace. The poet who authored Psalm 34 and forged the phrase "pursuer of peace" envisioned a special quality of peace, a quality built not only on avoiding violence, but also from enlisting violent energies for the sake of peace.
Despite the surprise at attributing loving peace excessively to Aaron's character, allusions to this idea can be found in the Bible. One such allusion appears in last week's Torah portion in the language of the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:23-27): "Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons saying 'This way you shall bless... May the Lord bless you, and keep you. May the Lord make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.'"
Few are the biblical hints that make any connection between the biblical character of Aaron and the "pursuer of peace" role that Hillel the Elder attributes to him possible. One of the only ones has just been cited and all others are creations fed by our heart's desire, political interest and various attitudes to peace and its guarantees.
And how was Aaron a pursuer of peace?
"Two people were having a quarrel. Aaron went and sat with one of the disputants and said to him, 'My son, look what your friend is saying; he is distraught and is tearing his clothing.' The disputant says, 'Woe to me! How can I look at my friend and see his shame as I am the one who has wronged him.' Aaron sits with him until he removes the fury from his heart. Aaron then goes and sits with the other and says, 'My son, look what your friend is saying; he is distraught and is tearing his clothing'. The disputant says, 'Woe to me! How can I look at my friend and see his shame as I am the one who has wronged him.' Aaron sits with him until he removes the fury from his heart. When the two met each other, they hugged and kissed in reconciliation" (Avot De-Rabbi Natan, Version A, chapter 12).
Is the road to peace paved with lies?
In the tale before us, the "pursuing peace" of Aaron moves forward in small steps, with individual counseling: One person then another person then another. With this description, is the author of this midrash seeking to minimize Aaron's character from a great leader and substitute to Moses to that of a mere private psychologist? Does this minimization originate in the polemical perspective of the Pharisees (and that of their rabbinic descendants) that wanted to reduce the role of the priests in the greater leadership and present them as good people, but also as irrelevant for leadership? It seems likely.
Nonetheless, we should consider the possibility that the author of the midrash is attempting to characterize the world of creating peace as a bottom-up, grass roots process and that peace on a larger scale is impossible. The source of disputes is in outrage and a sense of personal damage, and therefore instilling peace must be accomplished on an individual level.
It is impossible to ignore the problematic assumption of this aggadah, according to which one must lie to achieve peace, as indeed Aaron chooses deception as a strategy for achieving peace. Peace is an end that justifies the means.
The blind man of peace
The conflicted character of Aaron is highlighted by the miracle in the weekly Torah portion which focuses on the famous story of jealousy and competition between the older brothers of Moses, who despite being younger achieved greatness (Numbers 12:1-13): "And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman. And they said, 'Has the Lord indeed spoken only with Moses? Has He not spoken also with us?' And the Lord heard it... And behold, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow; and Aaron looked upon Miriam; and, behold, she was leprous. And Aaron said unto Moses, 'Oh my lord, lay not, I pray thee, sin upon us...'"
An embarrassing, yet very human story. Aaron and Miriam are jealous of their younger brother's success and the jealousy is translated into stinging gossip about "the Cushite woman whom he married." This story has an interesting opening: "And Miriam and Aaron spoke..." Did only Miriam speak? Perhaps both of them spoke but the responsibility fell, or was dumped, only on Miriam's shoulders?
As in the story of the Golden Calf, here Aaron also avoids taking responsibility: "And Miriam and Aaron spoke..." Aaron's character begins to show signs of being weak and tricky, a leader who has lost himself and his leadership, and instead of committing acts of truth, he stands and gossips about the bold and successful leader.
And ironically, also in the gossiping story in which Aaron evades responsibility, his famous public speaking skills disappear: "And Miriam and Aaron spoke..." And of course only Miriam is punished. Aaron is presented as a leader who generally sits on the fence, to see how things will develop. Only when Miriam is punished and Aaron fears that the evil will befall him as well, he grows a backbone and requests: "Oh my lord, lay not, I pray thee, sin upon us..." Aaron will escape punishment and the possibility to demonstrate leadership will escape from Aaron.
Two models for 'man of peace'
From Hillel's words in Pirkei Avot, from the aggadah on pursuing peace in Avot De-Rabbi Natan, and by virtue of the wonderful possibility provided by filling in the par between the biblical character of Aaron and the character granted to him by Hillel the Elder, I propose two models for the man of peace from those days at this time.
The first model: The figure of the man of peace is built out of weak leadership. In view of Aaron's weak biblical character, it is possible to propose that Hillel chose to categorize him as a "pursuer of peace" because he saw in men of peace the weak character of Biblical Aaron.
According to this interpretation, the man of peace is a man who does not wage war, and maybe even a man who doesn't do anything at all. Men of peace are failed leaders that do not have the bravery to fight and peace is non-action. In our day as well, it seems that sometimes a connection is made, at least in the public perception, between the traits of weakness, cowardice, and lack of charisma and values of compromise and peace.
Simultaneously, men of war seem full of power and over-pouring with energy and fitness to lead. Is it out of these human molds that Hillel created the connection between the weak biblical character of Aaron and his character as a man of peace?
The second and opposite model of "pursuer of peace" suggests that bringing about peace is an extremely powerful activity. This is activism for peace. The choice in the path of peace requires constant focus, personal and communal belief, and non-stop activity and action.
The man of peace deals sometimes with minor details, but they are the essence of peace activism. We must remember that to the biblical and historical character of the priests there is also a zealous aspect; the children of Levi who slaughtered the people of Shechem, Pinchas the Zealot, and the Maccabees.
According to this second model, the zealot is the most appropriate person to be a 'man of peace,' as he has the characteristic of the 'pursuer' without which the man of peace could not exist. According to this view, only a person with the potential for zealotry – like Levi, like Pinchas, or like Mattityahu – can transform into a leader for peace. According to this interpretation, Hillel's reading "He was a student of Aaron... pursuing peace" is an attempt to sublimate the characteristics of the sons of Levi for the sake of the culture of peace.
Utilizing the zealot as a model for the man of peace is not easy to understand. How are the zealous character traits translated for the internal and communal struggle against violence? How is the desire to impose on others the 'truth' subjugated for the effort aimed at self-restraint and limiting power?
Do I want to subdue my own desire?
I am reminded of the words of Ben Zoma in the Mishnah: "Who is strong? One who conquers their own will." Ben Zoma is asking us to focus the powers of military domination inwards on ourselves. And I, who always opposes the effort to conquer the will and creativity, for control of urges and desires, find myself this time aligning with hope and with prayer to Ben Zoma's words and at the same time translating his words: Conquering the desire that wants to conquer the other – and not conquering other desires. Sublimating the will for war for worlds of creation, of self-expression, of activity filled with power.
And in the beit midrash of talkbacks
Menashe from Rehovot (talkback #44 from last week), in your comments you claim that "the author has not studied the portion of Sotah". Indeed, valued friend, "the author" did not study many things and she deliberately attempts not to conceal this, but she specifically did study the portion of Sotah.
The difference between me and you does not seem to be in the depth of the familiarity with the portion of Sotah, but with our interpretational approaches to it.
I am deliberate in distinguishing between what is written in the Torah (according to it no evidence is required for a husband to drag his wife for a fidelity check by the priest) and between what is written in rabbinic literature (whose interpretations you have adopted as the exclusively correct ones of the Torah).
I think that both interpretative approaches are of course legitimate, and Ido from Ramat Gan and others have already written responses to you in regards to this matter. I thank you and those who responded to you for this important discussion.
Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas.
Click here to read this article in Hebrew.