In the middle of this weeks parsha we have a very interesting story of the death of Aharon Hakohen, which is usually ignored because of the wealth of other episodes in the parsha. We read that Am Yisrael reached Hor hahar and Hashem tells Moshe to take his brother to the top of the mountain as his time has come to die. Moshe is commanded to remove the “clothes” from Aharon and dress his son Elazar in the clothes and Aharon will not return from the mountain. This is precisely what takes place and the people witness the absence of Aharon and are particularly distraught over this and “all the people mourn for thirty days”.
The scene is very dramatic. The Netziv is his comments on the parsha describes how the people saw three of leaders of the nation ascend the mountain in a most strange manner, while Aharon was wearing the special garments of the Kohen Gadol, which in principle could not be worn outside of the confines of the mishkan. Three ascended the mountain but only two returned. The reality of what had taken place slowly began to sink in and the mourning began.
Rashi based on the midrash adds to the intrigue, teaching us that the people at first refused to believe that such an individual who had on various occasions “beaten death” could be overcome by death itself. Moshe was forced to show them a vision of Aharon dead in order for them to come to terms with the facts.
The passing of Aharon is unique in many ways as compared to the passing of many other figures in the Torah. Firstly it is not every day that we are told of the specific time and place of a persons death, in general this information is not given out to the interested party or the reader of the story. In most cases the death just occurs, note the death of Miriam earlier in the parsha, or the death of the avot which, may have been clearly expected were dictated with Divine instruction.
Of course the death of Aharon does share this aspect with the death of Moshe at the end of the Torah but Aharon’s passing has another unique feature.
Aharon is told to ascend the mountain with his son Elazar. Rashi notes (20:25) that this was meant to be a soothing element to Aharon in his final journey as he would clearly see his son take over his position. Rashi quotes Moshe as bemoaning the fact that he himself, Moshe, would not be worthy of such an event and would not be succeeded by his children.
The succession of the Kehunah is clearly a major theme of the episode as the Torah tells it. The changing of the clothes represents a changing of the guard. A Kohen attains the special status of Kohen Gadol by one of two methods, either by being anointed specifically for this purpose or by beginning to wear the special garments of the Kohen Gadol.
(Rav Soloveichik quotes his grandfather, Rav Chaim Soloveichik, as pointing out that the donning of the clothing of the Kohen Gadol is much more than his uniform without which he could not perform his functions in the Mikdash. The Kohen Gadol is allowed to wear his garments even beyond the time of the actual Avodah and this is despite the fact that his clothes contain shatneiz. The principle of “asei doche lo taasei” a positive mitzvah takes precedence over a negative one is applied. The application of this rule during the avodah makes sense, however “after hours” it would seem as though there is no purpose and therefore no mitzvah in wearing the clothes. The fact that he is allowed to continue wearing the garments indicates that a mitzvah exists not related or limited to the avodah. This indicates the special nature of his clothes representing the office which he holds).
The Ramban describes the miraculous manner in which the dressing and undressing took place. Basing himself on a midrash the Ramban tells us that each of the garments were removed by Aharon and immediately put onto Elazar. This of course creates a serious technical problem, Elazar would end up wearing the outer layers on the bottom and the bottom layers on the top. It is clear that on the pshat level this explanation is not neede as the Ramban points out. (I other words this midrash does not serve the function of some midrashim which is to fill in “holes” in the text, rather it is a midrash whose purpose is to enhance the story and teach us additional messages and lessons). The lesson is the death of Aharon is only one facet of the episode, the othere being the continuation of the family of Aharon in an unbroken chain. The debates with Korach in last weeks parsha could easily have continued into the next generation. The message of our story is that the kehuna did not stop for even one moment and was transfeded directly to Elazar.
I would like to note a very interesting comment of the Sforno on the parsha in this context. He remarks that Elazar himself was wearing bigde kehuna, the four garment of a standard Kohen, and that all he really neede to make him a Kohen Gadol were the additional four garments of the Kohen Gadol. The result being that when Aharon removed the special four garments he was then left wearing four garments. This “simple” uniform of the four garments were worn by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur as he entered the holiest place, the Kodesh Hakodoshim. The Sforno notes that Aharon is to enter a direct meeting with Hashem and as such he is not “disrobed” but rather he is “suiting up” for the most holy of meetings that a Kohen can have.