I have a riddle for you. There is only one yahrzeit mentioned in the Torah. Only once does the Torah provide us with the date of someone’s death. In fact, there is only one time the Torah gives us a date relative to any event in someone’s life. Who is this person and what is the date?
The answer is found in the reading of Massai and the person is Aharon. The Torah tells us, in the middle of the listing of the encampments of Israel during their 40 years in the wilderness that when they got to Hor Hahor, Aharon went up to the mountain there to die. It goes on to say that his death occurred on the first day of the fifth month (Av) in the 40th year from the Exodus. We might well wonder why? Why is Aharon’s death significant enough that we are given its exact date. Why only him, not Moshe or Avraham, Yaakov or Noach? And why does the Torah interrupt the names of the encampments to tell us this event that occurred when they reached Hor Hahor. Until this point the list was given with no mention of events that occurred in the places the Israelites camped. We were told a list of names, without reference to their historical relevance. When we are told about the encampment at Sinai there is no mention of the giving of the Torah. Nor is their mention of the story of the spies when we are told of the encampment at Kadesh. Why is the episode of Aharon’s death recorded here with the place of the encampment. It is not given to us to tell us the story . We already know the story of his death from the parsha of Chukat we read a few weeks ago. Why then interrupt the series of names with the telling, albeit briefly of Aharon’s death ?
I must say that the questions posed caused me considerable challenge. I could not make any sense of the Torah’s message when I thought of why Aharon might be special so as to have his yahrzeit marked. I then thought not about Aharon but about the people, the Israelites and their experience in the wilderness and with loss. And I thought about the message we may be being given here in the context of my own life and the losses I have sustained.
Truth is I have found that people can be divided into two groups; those that have gone through a significant loss, like the death of a parent, and those who have not. Persons who have sustained the loss of a loved one or of something profound that can never be retrieved have a sobriety about life that is absent in the one who has not yet lost. They never again have the full smile, the innocent belief in life’s fairness, the care-free way that at times the one who has not yet sustained loss can experience. For those who have lost, life is no longer a game. They evidence a seriousness, a certain heaviness absent in the one who has been spared. It’s not a bad thing . It’s simply different. The one’s who have lost see the world and life very much out of a different lense. Some might call it maturity.
And I thought that in that truth, in the realization that loss changes us in some profound way, we may find the secret to unravel the mystery of why the Torah this one time tells us a date, the date of Aharon’s yahrzeit. After all, what we are being given in the text is the sequence of Israel’s travels, encampment after encampment. We are told of forty two places of camp over the forty years in the wilderness. The Torah may be interrupting the list with the record of Aharon’s passing to mark a distinction. True many more significant events happened in various places, like the giving of the Torah. Yet those events represent what happened to the Israelites. The death of Aharon is not a story of what happened to the People . Nor, in this context, is it a story about Aharon. Rather it is a story about the transformation of the nation from a people who have not known national loss to a nation which has. Israel is not the same nation after Aharon died that it was prior. Yes, there were many many personal losses in the wilderness. A whole generation died. But here we are talking of something different. Here we are talking of the nation’s loss. Miriam died earlier, but she had not the prominence in every-day life Aharon had. Aharon was the kohain gadol, the high priest. His death was to the nation as the death of a parent is to an individual. While Moshe died later, the people had already known the loss of a spiritual parent in Aharon. In Aharon’s death the nation gained a new sobriety and sense of life’s temporality. They were changed and forever.
It is for this reason, I suggest, the Torah tells us of Aharon’s death, and only of Aharon’s death in the list of encampments. The nation’s character was altered through the experience of his passing. The People that arrived at Hor Hahor were not the same People that left. It is because Israel was different before and after and because we are speaking in some profound way of a new national reality, that the Torah must record the passing of Aharon even as it lists the travels themselves. Who is travelling changed at Hor Hahor.
What of the date? Why does the Torah in this case provide the yahrzeit ? Here we come to another important and related idea. When we mark the anniversary of the passing of a parent whose occasion is it, ours or theirs ? Typically we assume that the yahrzeit marks a day of significance for the departed, the culmination of their life. I suggest that the yahrzeit marks a day of equal or perhaps even greater significancance for us, we who survive. The yahrzeit marks a day that changed our lives. We are not the same after our parent passes. We mature. We become more conscious of life’s fragility. We know the finiteness of existence in a way we never knew before. And while the transformation for us happens most dramatically on the passing of the first parent, each loss deepens our insights and makes us more wise and aware.
I suggest that it is for this reason the date of Aharon’s yahrzeit is made known to us. If it were a personal loss, or the loss that occurred in the context of a family the date would not be made known to us in the Torah. The Torah does not give us data in the life of individuals no matter how great. But Aharon’s yahrzeit was a date of national consequence. We, the People of Israel, were changed forever through the event. Aharon was to the nation what a parent is to the family. He was a spiritual mentor and protector. He was a healer. If Moshe was the teacher of the nation Aharon was its care-giver. His death marked an important occasion in Israel’s story. It signified the nations struggle with mortality, even as does the death of an individual does for a family. It is in the context of its meaning for the nation that Aharon’s yahrzeit becomes worthy of being known. No other yahrzeit or day in the life of an individual was as consequential to the formation of the People.
So what’s the message for us. We each sustain losses in our lives, losses that can never be retrieved. Sometimes it’s the death of someone near and dear to us. Or it may be the death of a marriage, or the permanent loss of certain capacities through the aging process or disease. These losses mark points of demarcation in our lives. We become different on the other side of the loss. We have the dynamics of survivors. It is important that we honor those date and times, not only for the person or potency lost, but for the power the loss has to shape and form us, we who grieve, and to help us mature. Loss typically engenders tears and grief. Yet in the aftermath of those tears and the grieving process we become more real and more beautiful. We become more authentic. Is it any wonder then that a yahrzeit gives us occasion to share a l’chayim and a tasty delight with the minyan after davening. We would not be who we are without it!