Moses and Aaron together made up a formidable leadership team. In our tradition, Moses is often depicted as being hard as iron. He was unflinching in his commitments and strict in his judgments. By contrast, Aaron is described as being one who “loves peace and seeks peace”—a man of gentleness. There was a distance between Moses and the public; he was austere, not easily approachable; but people felt comfortable in the presence of Aaron. While they respected Moses, they loved Aaron.
We see this in the way the people mourn for Aaron, who passes away in this week’s Parasha, Hukat. “And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they wept for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel (Bemidbar [Numbers] 20:29).” When the Torah recounts the death of Moses, it states: “And the children of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days (Devarim [Dueteronomy] 34:8).”
What is the nature of the difference in reaction? The text makes it a point to illustrate that all of Israel wept for Aaron, repeating the word “all” twice, while simply stating that the Children of Israel wept for Moses. Clearly, there is a special affinity for Aaron as the peacemaker and the outpouring of emotion is testament to that. For Moses, there is a great deal of respect and admiration, but the love shown to Aaron is not present.
The Talmud (Taanit 4a) cites the opinion of Rav Ashi that any rabbinic scholar who is not hard as iron is no rabbinic scholar! A Talmid Hakham must hold strong convictions and must not bend under pressure. Yet, a few lines later, the Talmud reports the opinion of Ravina: “even so, a person must teach himself the quality of gentleness.” Yes, commitment to principles is very important; but so is maintaining a compassionate and loving attitude. The ideal leader or religious personality strives to harmonise both of these qualities. One must be courageous in upholding Torah and mitzvot, must be hard as iron to resist improper compromises. At the same time, one needs to maintain a gentle, non-confrontational attitude; one must not be overly rigid and inflexible.
These two seemingly opposed views are actually the basis for understanding, interpreting and living a Jewish Life that is consistent with the history of our tradition. One cannot be so rigid as Moses as that risks alienating people, yet one cannot be so overly compromising as that risks alienating the tradition. That is the fundamental necessity of our values: balance.
More and more, we are seeing in certain religious communities this drive for stricter interpretations of the Law (halakha) when a perfectly acceptable and legally defensible position is available but rejected because it is perceived as too lenient. Many go so far as to not only reject the position, but then to demonise those who have offered it in the first place. That would be the Moses approach. Whereas Moses had his Aaron to moderate his strictness, these communities have lost their balance. We see these worldwide conflicts over conversion, women’s rights in Israel and many others.
In too many of those cases, legitimate “lenient” positions are rejected out of hand simply because they are lenient, no matter if they are perfectly within the bounds of halakha. It is safer and “easier” to adopt a hard-line strict interpretation and say no, rather than follow a more balanced Jewish approach, embracing the Moses and Aaron side of the tradition and finding an alternative opinion that still respects the bounds of halakha. When the strictness is allowed to expand unchecked for too long without a counterbalance, a culture of exclusion and hatred will quickly follow.
I pray that we as a People have the strength and courage to act in a way that embraces both the Aaron and Moses side of an issue, that we can counteract the entrenched culture of strictness that disavows any semblance of dialogue or connection to our rich history of debate and reasoned discussion. That we embrace the spirit of both the respect for the tradition (Moses) and the love of our fellow Jews (Aaron).