The story of the journey of the children of Israel to the Promised Land features almost as many regressions as it does advances. Amalekites interrupt with war, errant spies mislead the people, hunger and thirst fuel complaint, jealousy ignites rebellion, various enemy tribes must be skirted and avoided, and ingratitude invites plague.

In the Parshah of Chukat, we find reference to one curious and lesser known derailment that nearly undid every point of progress the nation had achieved.

It went like this: Aaron, the High Priest of Israel, died on a mountaintop. His departure caused a significant element of Israel’s entourage to disappear: the Clouds of Glory. These dense, miraculous clouds were more than a protective barrier against the desert’s caprice; they served as an honor guard for the people, gracing them with dignity, deterring the surrounding nations from attacking the fledgling people. This cloak of Divine respectability accompanied the Jews in Aaron’s merit. When he died, it departed.

Bereft of the aura of the untouchable, Israel became vulnerable to external threats. The King of Arad was emboldened by their apparent fragility and launched an offensive. The people prayed and survived, but their morale was deeply shaken. Aaron’s death and the sudden attack beset them with doubt, and they decided to return to the only land they knew: Egypt. Back they went, retracing their steps as far as Moseirot, where the strong protestations of the tribe of Levi finally stayed the retreat, and the nation regathered its wits and continued toward the Land of Israel.1

What could induce a nation of former slaves to return to the land of their nightmares? Why was this panicked decision formed in the aftermath of Aaron’s death and the departure of the Clouds of Glory?

The story of the Israelites in the desert inching toward their final destination is the story of any individual or society making its way towards its ideal state. And every detail of the story contains endless possible applications to both our private journeys and our communal ones. Perhaps we can examine this particular episode in the context of inclusion of those with disabilities.

The spectrum of inclusion and exclusion is symbolically bookended by the lands of Egypt and Israel. The Hebrew word for Egypt (Mitzrayim) means “limitations.” It is a land defined by the lines it draws between the free and the enslaved. The line is arbitrary. The enslavers decree whose freedom is to be curbed, whose ability to engage with society is to be restricted. They place limits, excluding some while privileging others.

The Land of Israel is the land “always observed by the eye of G‑d.” 2 It is a place where G‑d desires to be fully present. And that can only be a place where every individual is valued for their inherent worth, for the Divine imprint on their souls.

The desert journey, then, is the winding path from an exclusive mindset to an inclusive one. What is at the helm of this journey? What paves the path forward and declares the motives and intent of the people? The Clouds of Glory and their patron, Aaron. The clouds armed the people with dignity, it was said. And this dignity encircled them as clouds tend to do—absolutely. No individual was left outside the honor afforded by the clouds. The Divine shield broadcasted that, within these invisible walls, everyone is recognized; no one is marginalized.

And those clouds were formed by the work and life of Aaron. Aaron, we are told, was “a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves every creation.”3 There was nothing on earth, no creation, in which Aaron did not see the trace of the Divine. His love was like the cloud that blanketed a nation without distinction.4 To progress to the land of the free, we had to be led by Aaron and his cloud of dignity.

But when Aaron dies, and his cloud of love and respect evaporates with him, we are prone to regressing to Egypt, to carving out cul-de-sacs of private privilege within our communities while barring access to those we deem undeserving.

Without Aaron’s presence, the journey is disrupted, the Land of Israel becomes a frustrating dream, and we turn back to the prejudices lodged in our minds.

The narrative of the Jews’ near return to Egypt in the wake of Aaron’s loss is a powerful illustration of what happens to a nation that abandons its protective clouds of dignity. When a society loses the overarching principle of inclusion, when the Clouds of Glory depart along with their broad embrace, people regress to their worst instincts, to a land of slavery.

The Mishnah urges us all “to be students of Aaron.”5 If his values echo in our hearts, and his clouds of honor remain on our minds, we can enter the Promised Land of a just and equal society.