Parashat Mas’ei is well known as the Parashah read the second Shabbat before Tish’ah BeAv. This places it in close proximity to a date mentioned toward the end of the section detailing the Masa’ot, travels, of Bnei Yisrael through the Midbar. The Pasuk states, “VaYa’al Aharon HaKohein El Hor HaHar Al Pi Hashem VaYamot Sham BiShnat HaArba’im LeTzeit Bnei Yisrael MeiEretz Mitzrayim BaChodesh HaChamishi BeEchad LaChodesh,” “And Aharon the Kohein ascended Hor HaHar by the word of Hashem, and died there, in the fortieth year of Bnei Yisrael’s exodus from Mitzrayim, in the fifth month, on the first of the month” (BeMidbar 33:38). Rosh Chodesh Av, listed here as Aharon’s Yahrtzeit, always occurs the week preceding or following the reading of Parashat Mas’ei. However, Bnei Yisrael experienced several seminal moments during their sojourns in the Midbar, most of which are not recorded in this section. Parashat Mas’ei makes no mention of Matan Torah, Cheit HaEigel, Cheit HaMeraglim, or even the seemingly parallel Mitat Miriam. In fact, the only date outside of Rosh Chodesh Av recorded in the section is that of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim itself. What, then, makes Aharon’s death so uniquely important? Why is it imperative that we read of the Kohein Gadol’s death while discussing Bnei Yisrael’s travels through the wilderness?
Aharon HaKohein is primarily recognized based on his depiction in Pirkei Avot. The Mishnah (1:12), quoting Hillel, advises, “Hevei MiTalmidav Shel Aharon: Oheiv Shalom VeRodeif Shalom Oheiv Et HaBeriyot UMekarvan LaTorah,” “Be of the students of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people, and bringing them near to the Torah.” Aharon, it appears, had two main roles in his dealings with Bnei Yisrael outside (or, perhaps, within) his capacity as Kohein Gadol: making peace and improving the spiritual wellbeing of the Jews.
These qualities were sorely needed during Aharon’s lifetime and even more so after his death. The Pesukim that follow the Masa’ot detail Hashem’s command that Bnei Yisrael destroy the existing civilizations in Eretz Kena’an and their idols. The nations that inhabited Israel prior to the Jews’ entry are regarded as extremely immoral and as adverse influences on Klal Yisrael. The nations themselves lived lives provoking conflict, as Hashem warns Bnei Yisrael that if they do not eradicate the civilizations, they shall be “LeSikim BeEineichem VeLiTzninim BeTzideichem,” “pins in your eyes and thorns in your sides” (BeMidbar 33:55). Additionally, they worshipped idols that are banned by and stand in direct contrast to the Torah’s viewpoint. Aharon was the polar opposite of these ideals. He lived his life in an effort to make peace and bring people closer to the Torah.
This is precisely why Aharon’s death is so significant. It meant that Klal Yisrael, who previously had a “guidance counselor” to steer them away from strife and idolatry and to peace and Torah, needed to replace these capacities. It meant that their journey into Eretz Yisrael would become all the much more difficult as they tried to resist the temptations offered to them by the existing nations. It meant that Bnei Yisrael needed to take Aharon’s advice and leadership messages to heart: they had to make peace amongst themselves, or their entry to Eretz Yisrael would be sorely lacking.
Unfortunately, Bnei Yisrael never truly found a replacement for Aharon. Many of the indigenous Kena’ani people remained in the land, never to be eradicated. Eventually, the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed. The chilling Haftarah for Mas’ei details Bnei Yisrael’s pathetic state at the time of the Churban HaBayit: “Ki Mispar Arecha Hayu Elohecha,” “For as the number of your cities was the number of your gods” (Yirmiyahu 2:28). We see that the destruction of Bayit Rishon was due to the sin of Avodah Zarah. Chazal explain in numerous locations that the second Beit HaMikdash was destroyed because of Sin’at Chinam, blind hatred among members of Klal Yisrael. These two sins were the antithesis of Aharon’s entire message. While Aharon preached peace and Deveikut, Bnei Yisrael followed paths of hatred and assimilation.
With this in mind, we can fully understand the reason Aharon’s death date is given. Not only does the time of year the Parashah is read coincide with the Yahrtzeit, but everything Aharon stood for came to a crashing halt at the culmination of the Nine Days, beginning with the date of his death, and ending in the destruction of the two Batei HaMikdash. The date is listed so we can fully internalize the messages Aharon attempted to impart to Bnei Yisrael. At this time of year, all of us need to be sure to treat our fellows with dignity and come close to Hashem. We must strive to be Ohavei Shalom and Rodfei Shalom, as well as people who come close to Torah. By properly commemorating Aharon’s Yahrtzeit, we should never have to observe another Tish’ah BeAv as a day of mourning.