My cousin Howard called me on Wednesday. It was great to catch up with him. Better yet, it was great that Howard is still here. He had a brain tumor. An operation and radiation have given him clean readings so far, and he’s pretty much back to normal. If, having had a tumor, life can ever resemble normal again.
But as Howard said in so many words, “None of us is getting out of here alive.” Yet how we go makes a big difference. An uncle of mine, 96, hasn’t long. Hospice has been arranged so he can die at home. I hope this comes to pass. My friend Yury died of pancreatic cancer in a hospital two years ago. Neither of us would have chosen that path.
If death is on my mind this week, it’s only natural. Yesterday marked the 76th anniversary of my parents’ wedding, somewhat sandwiched in between the anniversaries of their deaths. And this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (Numbers 19:1–22:1) brings us two significant deaths. The first is that of Miriam. We know little about it. “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there (Num. 20:1).” A quiet death we presume and hopefully a dignified one.
The second death is Aaron’s. And while Aaron’s passing is seemingly peaceful, it has always disturbed me. After the Israelites arrive at Mount Hor, God instructs both Moses and Aaron, “Let Aaron be gathered to his kin: he is not to enter the land that I have assigned to the Israelite people, because you disobeyed my command about the waters of Meribah (Num. 20:24).” Earlier, Moses had struck a rock rather than speaking to it to bring forth water. God was not pleased. For now, Aaron must pay the price.
Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s son Eleazar, his successor as High Priest, ascend the mountain. Moses strips Aaron of his vestments and puts them on Eleazar. Aaron dies. No farewell tour. No parties. No speeches and toasts. And of course, no video tribute. It all seems so callous. Seemingly without emotion, one generation hands off its duties to the next. The Israelites only realize what has happened when Moses and Eleazar come down. They wail for thirty days—equivalent to today’s Jewish mourning period known as Shloshim.
What can we say? We all die. How else can we make room for our children and grandchildren? And our end will not be glorious. A funeral. Some kind words (true or not). Maybe an obituary in the newspaper (exaggerated or not). Hopefully for Jews, Kaddish recited and a yarzheit candle lit on each anniversary of our passing until no one is left to remember.
But the story of Aaron’s death is also the story of his life. With it all, he died with dignity. And the Sages tell us that Aaron—who pursued peace and sought to bring people together—was beloved where Moses, our great teacher, was feared.
As for me, I’m not prone to worrying about when and how I’ll die. I’d much rather focus on how I’m living.
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