Moses is true and his Torah is true (Talmud, Bava Batra 74a)

Be of the disciples of Aaron: one who loves peace, pursues peace, loves G‑d’s creatures and draws them close to Torah (Ethics of the Fathers 1:12)

The story of the formative generation of Jewish nationhood portrays Moses as the epitomical leader of Israel. It is he who takes the children of Israel out of Egypt. It is he who receives the Torah from G‑d and teaches it to the people. It is to Moses that G‑d addresses His instructions regarding the making of the Tabernacle which is to house the Divine presence in the Israelite camp, and Moses is also described as the one who “made” it (although the actual construction was done by others). It is Moses who feeds, nurtures and guides the people of Israel (and bears the brunt of their complaints and rebelliousness) as he leads them in their volatile 40-year journey from Sinai to the Promised Land.

But a closer reading of the Torah’s account reveals the leadership of Israel to have been a team effort: ever present at Moses’ side is his older brother, Aaron. At times Aaron’s role is strongly pronounced, at times it is scarcely discernible, but he is always there.

When Moses confronts Pharaoh, it is together with Aaron, who plays a major role in performing the miracles and bringing on the plagues that force the release of the Israelites. When G‑d commands His first mitzvah to the Jewish people, it is addressed “to Moses and to Aaron”—a phrase that often appears in the Torah amidst the many “G‑d spoke to Moses” introductions to its laws. When the people complain, it is “to Moses and to Aaron” that they address their grievances; when Korach challenged Moses’ leadership, it was a rebellion also (indeed, primarily) against Aaron’s place in the leadership.

What is striking about the Moses/Aaron dyad is that Aaron does not fit the familiar molds of the “right-hand man” or “second in command.” Nor is there a clearcut division of tasks between the two brothers. While Moses is certainly the more dominant figure in the narrative, Aaron is always a full and integral partner in the events and undertakings that forge a clan of liberated slaves into G‑d’s people. It is as if Moses cannot accomplish anything without Aaron, and Aaron in turn is likewise dependent upon Moses in the fulfillment of his role.

[Indeed, there is a midrash that reveals that originally Moses was destined to be the Kohen and Aaron the Levite, and that G‑d reversed their roles when Moses refused his commission at the burning bush. According to this, the brothers’ roles are not only interdependent, but also interchangeable!]

The construction of the Tabernacle and the service in it is a case in point. In the Parshah of Tetzaveh we read how G‑d assigns to Aaron and his sons the responsibility of conducting the service in the Tabernacle: they are to represent the people in the endeavor to approach and interact with G‑d by offering sacrifices to Him and performing the other services in the Sanctuary. This would seem to designate the Tabernacle as Aaron’s “domain.” Yet, as mentioned above, it is Moses who must construct the Tabernacle. And it is Moses who must initiate Aaron into the priesthood. For seven days, Moses is to serve as a Kohen (in effect assuming Aaron’s role), offering the sacrifices brought by Aaron and his sons. The Tabernacle is indeed Aaron’s domain—after the seven-day initiation period, only he and his sons can perform the service there—but it is a domain he can attain only in conjunction with Moses.

The Kiss

The opening verses of Tetzaveh offer a striking example of the interwovenness of Moses’ and Aaron’s roles:

You, [says G‑d to Moses,] shall command the children of Israel that they bring you to pure olive oil crushed for the light, to raise the ever-burning lamp.

In the Tent of Meeting, outside the parochet (curtain) which is before the Testimony, Aaron and his sons shall arrange it from evening to morning before G‑d.

Aaron and his sons are entrusted with the task of lighting the menorah; yet the oil for this lighting must be brought to Moses.

Indeed, in these two verses lies the key to understanding the partnership of Moses and Aaron in the leadership of Israel.

In Exodus 4:27, the Torah describes a dramatic reunion between the two brothers at the foot of Mount Sinai. Sixty years earlier, as a young man of twenty, Moses had fled Egypt; now the 80-year old shepherd is on the way back to Egypt, having been commissioned by G‑d to redeem His people from slavery:

G‑d said to Aaron: “Go to the wilderness to meet Moses.” He went and met him at the mountain of G‑d, and kissed him.

The Midrash describes the brothers’ kiss in cosmic terms:

This is what the verse (Psalms 85:11) refers to when it says, “Benevolence and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed.” “Benevolence”—this is Aaron; “truth”—this is Moses. “Righteousness” is Moses; “peace” is Aaron.

Moses and Aaron were commissioned to create a people who would serve as G‑d’s “light unto the nations”—as the disseminators of G‑d’s wisdom and will to His creation. This is a task that is, by definition, impossible: G‑d is infinite, perfect and absolute; the world He created is finite, ever wanting, and notoriously unstable. Yet the Jew must, can and does straddle this paradox, his daily life a paradigm of Divine absolutes acted upon a temporal world.

The two sides of this paradox are expressed in the above-quoted verses from the beginning of Tetzaveh: the people of Israel are called upon to “raise an ever-burning lamp”—a lamp that is eternal and unvarying; yet this lamp must burn and shed its light “from evening to morning”—within the ever-changing conditions of a temporal world, in which darkness and light alternate, intermix and supplant each other.

Here are delineated the respective functions of Moses and Aaron: Moses is the source of the “pure oil” that fuels the “everlasting lamp”; Aaron is the one who introduces this light into the “from evening to morning” reality.

To forge the nation that will straddle this paradox required representatives of the different Divine forces at play: on the one hand, the Divine attributes of “truth” and “righteousness,” from which stem the absolutism and immutability of G‑d’s Torah; on the other, the equally Divine attributes of “peace” and “benevolence,” from which stem the diversity and subjectivity of G‑d’s creation.

Moses—teacher of the Torah and conveyor of the Divine wisdom and will—is the very embodiment of perfection and truth. Aaron, who spearheads the human effort to serve G‑d by uplifting to Him the materials of His creation, is the vehicle of benevolence and peace. Together they make and lead Israel—the bridge between Creator and creation.