Author's note: The following is excerpted from a longer essay, "'With Every Goodbye You Learn': Reflections on Leave-Taking and the Passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe," published in Torah of the Mothers: Contemporary Jewish Women Read Classical Jewish Texts (eds. Ora Elper and Susan Handelman, Jerusalem, Urim Press, 2000). It is one of the ways in which I take leave of the Rebbe— and continue, nevertheless, always to be his student. I dedicate it to his memory.

Art by Rivka Korf Studio
Art by Rivka Korf Studio

The passing of the Rebbe occurred at the end of the Shabbat on which the biblical portion Chukat (Numbers 19-22) was read, a section which is all about the death of our great leaders. These passages relate the famous incident of Moses' striking the rock, and being told that he and Aaron will not enter the Promised Land; and also describe the passing of Miriam and of Aaron.

The Rebbe always cited the famous Chabad teaching that "one should live with the times," meaning — live with the Torah portion of the week, and see how every external event comes to us by Divine Providence and is connected to Torah. Our role is to seek out its inner meaning and personal connection to our lives. So I would like to explore the link between the date of the Rebbe's passing and this Torah portion, and find how the Torah portion can help comfort us, and illumine the meaning of Gimmel Tammuz, his yahrtzeit.

There is a remarkable midrash that reflects the pain of loss on the verses which deal with the death of Aaron. The specific biblical passage, Numbers 20:22-29, reads as follows:

And they journeyed from Kadesh. And the children of Israel, the whole congregation, came to Mount Hor.

And G‑d spoke to Moses and Aaron in Mount Hor, by the border of the land of Edom, saying:

"Aaron shall be gathered to his people. For he shall not enter the land which I have given to the children of Israel, because you rebelled against my word at the water of Meriva.

"Take Aaron and Elazar his son and bring them up to Mount Hor; and strip Aaron of his garments, and put them on Elazar his son.

"And Aaron shall be gathered to his people and die there."

And Moses did as the Lord commanded. And they went up to Mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation.

And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments, and put them on Elazar his son.

And Aaron died there at the top of the mount.

And Moses and Elazar descended from the mount.

And all the congregation saw that Aaron had died. And they wept for Aaron thirty days, all the House of Israel.

What, one wonders, might Moses and Aaron be thinking and feeling at this point? A trained reader of the Bible would also pick up right away the problem of repetition of the announcement of Aaron's death from first being to both Aaron and Moses, and then just to Moses. How, indeed is Moses supposed to "take" Aaron? How is he to tell him such news; how is a brother to "take" another brother to his death? And why is Moses being given the role of mediator between G‑d and Aaron here? How does anyone, in fact, tell another such news?

The midrash (from Yalkut Shimoni [Tanchuma]) on this verse has a striking interpretation of the verse, "Take Aaron and Elazar his son and bring them up to Mount Hor":

The Holy One blessed be He said to Moses: "Do me a kindness and tell Aaron of the death of which I am embarrassed to tell him."

R. Chuna said in the name of R. Tanhum bar Chiya: What did Moses do? He rose very early in the morning and went to Aaron's dwelling, and began to call out "Aaron, my brother!" Aaron came down to him.

Aaron said to him: "What did you see to make you rise so early and come here today?"

Moses replied: "I was pondering a matter in the Torah last night and it was very difficult for me. So I rose early and came to you."

Aaron said: "And what is this word of Torah?"

Moses said:" I don't know what the text is, but I do know that it was in the Book of Genesis. Come, let's read it."

They took the Book of Genesis and read through it, section by section, and about each one, Aaron said: "How wonderfully and how beautifully G‑d created!"

And when they reached the story of the creation of Adam, Moses said: "What will I say about Adam who brought death to the world?"

Said Aaron: "Moses, my brother, don't speak that way about this matter. Mustn't we accept the decree of G‑d... how Adam and Eve were created, how they merited marriage and joy in the Garden of Eden, how they ate from the tree, and then as it is said to him, 'For dust you are and to dust you shall return'? After all that praise, to such did they come."

Said Moses to him: "And I, who ruled over the ministering angels, and you who stopped death [the plague, as described in Numbers 17:13], isn't our end going to be like this?! How many more years do we have to live. Twenty?"

Said Aaron: "They are very few."

Moses subtracted and subtracted, until he mentioned to him the day of his [Aaron's] death.

Immediately, Aaron's bones felt it, and he languished.

Said Aaron : "Perhaps this word is intended for me?"

Said Moses: "Yes."

Immediately, Israel saw that his stature shrank, as it is said: "And all the congregation saw."

Said Aaron: "My heart is void within me, and the terrors of death have fallen upon me." [Psalms 55:5]

Said Moses: "Do you accept to die?"

Said Aaron: "Yes."

Said Moses: "Let us ascend Mount Hor."

This is an extraordinarily moving interpretation. I also think of this midrash as a paradigm of teaching. Moses seems to be consciously enacting the pedagogical strategy of the kabbalistic metaphor of tzimtzum "creation by contraction of the self"-- the teacher always has to undergo a tzimtzum, a contraction and concealment of his or her knowledge, in order to be able to pass it over, and to have it received by the student. It seems that all the great teachers knew that one cannot really teach anything directly, which is why they so often resorted to parables and stories.

I see the literary and pedagogical nature of biblical and midrashic narratives doing precisely that. Or as Adam Philips once said about child development, and about psychoanalysis itself: "The child's freedom, the child's self-fashioning project, depends on her being able to treat orders and instructions as though they were also hints and suggestions: an education through hinting about hinting that hints, points, invites, but does not compel."

And indeed, the very deepest things we can only say indirectly. Especially at moments of leave-taking, even when we often attempt to pour out and reveal all that is in our hearts, we cannot ever fully capture all we want to say. And so often, we take the opposite course, simply evading trying to say it at all, or do so in a very hasty, improvised way. But why, I still wonder, is G‑d embarrassed to tell Aaron? Why should it be difficult even for Him?

My colleagues and friends suggested some possible answers:

Rav Kook, the famous first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, once said that death is a herpah — "disgrace" or "shame" — for man. That is, we really should not have to die at all, despite Adam's sin. And G‑d, so to speak, is sensitive to this. It "embarrasses" Him. Especially in regard to Moses and Aaron, such great souls. What, indeed, did they do that could possibly justify this? The prophet Elijah, for example, merits an entirely different kind of departure: he does not die but ascends to heaven in a chariot of fire (II Kings 11). So how can G‑d say this to Aaron — especially after Aaron was the one who in the previous story, the rebellion of Korach, stopped the massive lethal plague that had broken out among the Israelites and "stood between the living and the dead"? (Numbers 17:13).

Another suggestion: sometimes one has to tell difficult things to people one loves. One has to give criticism or convey hard truths and this is embarrassing. G‑d loved Aaron and did not want to have to tell him he would die; it was embarrassing knowledge.1

In a recent lecture, in a discussion of the midrash on the way Moshe so indirectly "took" Aaron, and conveyed to him the day of his death, the well-known Jerusalem teacher and author on the Bible, Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, explored the possibility that Moses was not just manipulating Aaron: perhaps Moses indeed forgot or repressed the terrible knowledge G‑d gave him. He knows, however, that he has to tell Aaron something, and that the truth will emerge as he speaks, and as they read together, and try to apply the text to their own lives. They will find the "lost" word of Torah in the process. On a broader level, she continued, one doesn't "possess one's own truth"; rather one has to bear witness to it through one's reading, through an alert reading. One reaches it obliquely, one begets it, as Moses joins Aaron to beget the truth together with him, to bring out the hidden dimension of the text through use of one's own life situation. Interpretation and finding of truth are not, then, the saying of what one already knows. Instead, it is a dark, oblique process. In the obscurities and dark spaces, one finds an unpredictable truth. And that indeed is the way of Torah.2

Dark spaces and unpredictable truths. We all continue to search the Torah, to try to beget our truth and our consolation. The key line for me in that midrash is Aaron's shema bishvili hu ha-davar? "Perhaps this word/thing is meant for me?" Aaron first learns it as theoretical knowledge, a nice lecture, a theme in Genesis about everyone having to die. But he doesn't realize, bishvili hu ha davar. The word of Torah is indeed for us on our deepest level in all our pain as well as all our joy, in our life and in our death.

The classic medieval Jewish commentator Rashi, in his comment on the words "take Aaron," cites a midrash and interprets the directive to Moses as follows: "With words of comfort: 'How fortunate are you that you will see your crown given to your son, unlike me who has not merited that.'" For Moses was succeeded not by his son, but by his student and follower, Joshua, and went to his death alone.

The midrash continues to describe the scene of a very gentle, loving passing, one which Moses yearns for himself as he witnesses it. Aaron takes off the special garments of the High Priesthood, and they are put on his son Elazar. Then:

Moses said to Aaron: "Enter the cave." And he entered.

"Ascend the couch." And he ascended.

"Extend your arms," And he extended them.

"Close your mouth." And he closed it.

"Shut your eyes." And he shut them.

At that moment, Moses said, "Fortunate is the one who dies such a death."

Thus it is written [Deut. 32:50] "like Aaron your brother died"-- the death that you desired.

Another midrash expands the dialogue:

Said Moses to him: "Aaron my brother, what do you see. Miriam died, and I and you both took care of her. You are dying, and you see me and Elazar taking care of you. And myself — when I die, who will take care of me?"

Answered the Holy One blessed be He: "I will take care of you," as it is written [Deut. 34:6] "And he buried him there." Immediately, the Shechinah descended and kissed him [Aaron].

The last line comes from the moving and painful description of Moses' own passing at the end of the Book of Deuteronomy (Deut.34:5-6):

And Moses died there, the servant of G‑d, in the land of Moab — according to the word of G‑d.

And he buried him there in the valley, in the land of Moab, opposite Beit Peor,

And no one knows his grave unto this day.

The midrash above is trying to explain the ambiguous pronoun "he" in the phrase "and he buried him there." Who in fact, buried Moses? For after Moses finishes speaking his final words to the people in Deuteronomy 32:44-52, G‑d tells him to ascend mount Nebo in the land of Moab facing Jericho, and to view the promised land he will not be able to enter: "And die on the mountain which you ascend, and be gathered to your people, like Aaron your brother died, and was gathered to his people in Mount Hor." But unlike Aaron, no one was to accompany Moses. He went alone. G‑d took care of his lonely passing.

And from that summit, he sees a glimpse of his dream from afar (Deut. 34:1-5). According to the midrash, G‑d showed him from there the entire Promised Land, in its times of peace and in its times of destruction, and all that would happen in the future history of the Jews until the Last Day and resurrection of the dead. Perhaps that was G‑d's way of comforting and assuring Moses that all would continue on without him, that ultimately all he gave his life for would be realized.

Aaron saw his son succeed him, but Moshe's life moved far beyond the personal. His true children were the entire people of Israel, whom he led and with whom he suffered for so many years in the desert. To see the Promised Land and a vision of his children entering, settling, and building it until the Last Day, was perhaps a way of indeed seeing his "son" succeed him.

I can't help but again think of the passing of the Rebbe as I read these texts. Of the way in which he died in a hospital room, surrounded not by family, nor with the consolation of a seeing a child able to take up his mantle. Of a man who also never was able to set foot in the Land of Israel, but also of a leader who saw it all so clearly from afar, gave his life over entirely to the people, suffered with them, and who also strained to see that final End, that time of Moshiach which would bring an end to all the tribulations of Exile.

How hard it is to accept the passing of such a man. On the words, "and they went up to Mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation" ( Numbers 20:27), the midrash interprets that all the people saw Moses, Aaron, and Elazar ascend the mountain, but "if they had known that he was ascending to die, they would not have permitted him to go, but would have prayed for mercy for him. They thought, however, that perhaps G‑d was calling those three." Afterwards, when "all the congregation saw that Aaron had died" (Numbers 20:29), another midrash relates:

When Moses and Elazar descended from the mount, all the congregation gathered together and asked, "Where is Aaron?"

Moses said: "He is dead."

They said: "How could the angel of death strike a man who has stood up to the angel of death and stopped him? ... If you bring him, good; but if not, we will stone you!"

At that moment, Moses stood in prayer and said "Master of the Universe! Help clear me of this suspicion!"

G‑d opened the burial cave and showed them, as it is said, "And all the congregation saw that Aaron had died."

It is now many years since the Rebbe has passed on. His grave, however, is well known and visited by many. His chassidim continue his life's work all over the world. His teachings continue to radiate from the hundreds of books of his Torah and the letters he left behind. The personal comfort, advice, and inspiration he gave to tens of thousands is inscribed in their hearts. And he gave us all, too, a glimpse of his great vision of redemption.

Postscript: I had a special relation to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994). I would not be the Jewish woman I am today were it not for him. He was my "teacher" in many ways. The Talmud relates (Sanhedrin 58a) that when R. Eliezer became critically ill and close to death, he took his two arms, folded them across his heart, and said to his disciples: "Woe are you. My two arms are like two scrolls of the Torah that are rolled and closed up. Much Torah I learned and much Torah I taught: much Torah I learned, and I did not absorb from my teachers even as much as a dog could lick from the sea. Much Torah I taught, and what my students absorbed from me was but as the drop of ink the quill takes from the ink well." All I managed to learn from the Lubavitcher Rebbe's teachings and life are but like those few small drops compared to the vastness of the ocean. It is not possible for me to convey even them in their fullness, let alone who and what he was.

As a woman engaged in intellectual and academic work, I also received the greatest encouragement from the Rebbe — blessings to continue my Ph.D. in English, advice about possible dissertation topics, advice about how to negotiate politics within the university. The Rebbe also edited and corrected some manuscripts I wrote in English dealing with talks he had given on various topics. I always sensed he wanted me to employ to the full my intellectual capacities, and all the secular knowledge I had attained from my Ivy League education — to elevate this all in the service of G‑d and Torah. He was indeed a vigorous supporter of Jewish women, spoke often of their greatness, held special gatherings specifically for women. He initiated several campaigns to encourage Jewish women to perform the special mitzvot pertaining to them, and advocated depth and breadth in their Torah study (see my essay "Women and the Study of the Torah in the Thought of the Lubavitcher Rebbe: A Halakhic Analysis" in Jewish Legal Writings By Women (eds. Micah Halperin and Channah Safrai; Jerusalem, Urim Press, 1998, pp. 142-177)).

I once wrote an article based on one of his talks, comparing the truths found in secular fields to those of Torah. I wrote of the ways in which secular forms of knowledge are limited; yet these very limitations can give one a sense of satisfaction, a feeling that she or he has mastered a field. The Torah, however, is unlimited and infinite, and I wrote, "Thus one can never contain Torah, master it." In editing this manuscript, the Rebbe amended the sentence to read: "Thus one can never contain all the content of even one d'var (sentence of) Torah, master it."

The Rebbe gave me, among so many other things, this sense of humility and awe before the greatness of Torah.