Moses or Aaron – justice or mercy?

The Sages themselves constantly used the title Moshe Rabbenu – Moses our teacher – yet Hillel the Elder did not choose him as the model to be emulated, but rather Aaron. Why?

November 6, 2018 18:49
Moses or Aaron – justice or mercy?

Moses or Aaron – justice or mercy?. (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)


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One of my favorite rabbinic sayings – perhaps the favorite – is Hillel’s statement: Be of the disciples of Aaron: Loving peace and pursuing peace, loving humankind and drawing them close to the Torah. (Avot 1:12). Hillel is addressing his students, future Sages, future leaders of Israel, and he is holding up for them the image of what kind of person, what kind of leader they should be. And who is it? Strangely enough, Aaron of all people. Not Moses – the obvious model – nor even any of the Patriarchs, Judges or prophets. Aaron the Priest, who facilitated Israel’s terrible act of apostasy – the building of the golden calf. Aaron whom Moses condemned, “What did this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them? (Exodus 32:21) and whom the Torah explicitly condemned, “Aaron had let them get out of control” (Exodus 32:25). While of Moses the Torah says, “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord singles out, face to face…(Deut. 34:10). He was indeed “the servant of the Lord” (Deut.34:5). The Sages themselves constantly used the title Moshe Rabbenu – Moses our teacher – yet Hillel did not choose him as the model to be emulated, but rather Aaron. Why?

Hillel’s description of Aaron seems far removed from the Aaron of the Biblical narrative. He calls him a man of peace, one who loves people and spends all his energy in bringing them to an understanding of the Torah and to following its ways. Anyone acquainted with rabbinic literature will surely know, however, that the Sages – although devoted to the text and searching every word of it – frequently departed drastically from what scholars would say is the simple, original, meaning of the Torah text. Nor do the Sages always agree with one another about the proper interpretation of Torah verses. Often they give diametrically opposed interpretations. For me, that is one of the most wonderful things about rabbinic texts – freedom of interpretation so that there is no one correct understanding that everyone must agree upon. And – although some say otherwise – there is no one rabbinical authority who has the right to say that he alone knows what the text really means. But to return to our problem – why Aaron?


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