Excerpted from Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Numbers, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern
The death of Aaron, recorded in this morning’s sidra, is described in stirring and dramatic detail in the midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 787). The people mourned for Aaron even more than they later did for Moses, for Aaron was a man who loved peace and pursued peace. It was an eternal tribute to the first high priest of Israel that Hillel bade us regard ourselves as the disciples of Aaron by emulating his noble qualities – “oheiv shalom, rodeif shalom, oheiv et habriyot, umekarvan laTorah” (Avot 1:12). These are four in number and deserve to be spelled out clearly for all of us who earnestly desire the ideals that Aaron cherished.
Oheiv shalom: To the person who is ambitious and opportunistic, peace is only a truce, a poor second-best to total victory for his own ruthless pursuits. In order to be a disciple of Aaron, you must not seek peace merely for its utilitarian value, not merely because it is the best arrangement under the conditions that prevail, but because you love peace, because peace is the normal, most desirable state of the world. One of God’s names is Shalom. Shalom is a positive virtue in its own right, not merely the absence of strife. Hence, one must not only hate war but love peace. Peace is the kind of harmony that leads to perfection. Shalom leads to shalem.
Rodeif shalom: To pursue peace means not to be satisfied with finding it, but actively to engage in seeking it out, in creating it where it is lacking. Aaron was a pursuer of peace. The Rabbis (Avot DeRabbi Natan 12:4) tell of Aaron going first to one antagonist and then to the other and telling each how the other regrets the state of enmity and
wishes that bygones be bygones. As a result of his active efforts, peace would reign.
There is yet another explanation of this felicitous phrase given by a hasidic teacher. Peace, he says, is a virtue only when it unites decent people with each other. But peace amongst people of evil design can only lead to greater harm to the world. Therefore one must “pursue” peace in the sense of chasing it away, when it concerns corrupt and malicious people. If we fail to “pursue” peace in this sense, then the Arab League might prove a more serious threat to Israel, the Chinese and Russians too powerful for the survival of democracy, and the gangsters of the country more influential than the forces of righteousness.
Oheiv et habriyot: The love of fellow man can come from many sources. I may love my fellow human because he is human. In a deeper sense, that means I love another because I love myself; I see myself in him. There is nothing wrong with that kind of humanistic approach. “Love thy neighbor as thyself ” (Leviticus 19:18) implies we must first
love ourselves. But there is the danger that this kind of love exists only where I feel a kinship of some kind between myself and another person. But where there are pronounced differences in color or belief or background or opinion, this kind of love breaks down. Hence, Hillel tells us, we must be disciples of Aaron who loved “et habriyot,” creatures.” He loved other people because they were created by God. In loving mankind he loved God, for the love of created and Creator were intimately bound up with each other in his eyes. And when we love a person because that individual is God’s creature, then no differences between us can affect that love adversely. Thus, the verse states, “Love thy neighbor as thyself, I am the Lord.”
Umekarvan laTorah: The love of fellow creatures may be expressed in many ways. Charity, respect, consideration, economic assistance, appreciation all are signs of such love. But greatest of all is helping your fellow creature find meaning in life, assisting others in appreciating why they are alive and helping them spend their lives in a manner that is worthy and dignified. The highest form of oheiv et habriyot is therefore mekarvan laTorah. The Netziv used to say that this mishna urges us to love not only those who are devout and scholars, benei Torah, but also – perhaps especially – those who are distant from Torah. For the Tanna pleads with us to love people and bring them close to Torah – which means that they originally were distant from Torah and only through our love were brought close!
By directing our energies towards embodying these noble ideals, we can truly honor the memory of Israel’s first high priest, who was mourned by the Children of Israel to an even greater extent than Moses.
*RCA Manual, 1960