If Moses could come back and review his life for us, he might say that this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (Num. 19:1 – 22:1) recounts the hardest times he ever had. The opening verse of chapter 20 brings news of the death of his sister Miriam and verses 25 through 28 of that same chapter tell about the death of his brother Aaron, high priest of the Israelite people.
It is heart-rending to lose a brother or sister, but Moses has lost more than that. He has lost the members of his team in the leadership of the Israelites. Miriam has been looking out for Moses from his babyhood, following his progress down the river in the basket of bulrushes to be sure that he lands safely in the arms of Pharaoh’s daughter, and she is with him as he brings the people out of Egypt through the sea of Reeds. Aaron took care of the spiritual needs of the people as Moses tended to their strategic and political needs. Now Moses must look to the next generation for his partners. In the final verses of the chapter, God commands Moses to take Aaron and Aaron’s eldest son Eleazar up Mount Hor, strip Aaron of his priestly vestments and place them on Eleazar. Aaron dies on the mountain and Moses and Eleazar descend together. How must it have felt to Moses to see his nephew in the holy garments that he had always seen Aaron wearing? And how must it have felt to Eleazar to wear them, knowing that the responsibility was now on him?