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B'Midbar/Numbers 20:29 And all the assembly saw that Aharon had died; and the whole house of Israel wept [for] Aharon thirty days.
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How did people see that Aharon was dead? What had happened that everyone knew? Midrash Tanchuma presents an elaboration to the biblical text: "When they saw Moshe and Elazar descending and Aharon did not descend, they said, 'Where is Aharon?' Moshe said to them, 'He is dead.' They said, 'Is it possible that he who stood opposite the Angel of Death and stopped the plague could fall under the dominion of death?'"
Chapter 20 moves so quickly that if you blink you'll miss what is going on. First, Miriam - the sister of Aharon and Moshe - dies and is buried; then there is no water and Aharon and Moshe overstepHaShem's instructions about bringing water from the rock, thus losing their place to enter the Land. Moshe tries to negotiate passage for Israel through the land of Edom; then, once they arrive at Mt. Hor, HaShem announces that Aharon is to be "gathered to his kin" (B'Midbar 20:24) and immediately Moshe takes Aharon and his son Elazar up Mt. Hor. Only Moshe and Elazar return. Rabbi Hirsch reports that "the death of Aharon was manifested to all Israel because ..." and quotes from the Talmud where "Rabbi Jose the son of Rabbi Judah says: when Aharon died, the pillar of cloud was removed" (b. Ta'anit 9a). The Baal HaTurim helpfully tells us that "the gematria of , 'and they saw' is equivalent to that of , 'in the clouds.'"
Perhaps more realistically, Jacob Milgrom suggests that the whole congregation saw that Aharon was dead, "not because Aharon was missing but because Elazar was wearing Aharon's garments." When you ascend Mt. Hor, HaShem had told Moshe, "Strip Aaron of his vestments and put them on his son Elazar" (B'Midbar 20:26, NJPS) and although Elazar had not been anointed into the role, he came down wearing the official garments of the high priest's office. This could not have happened without Aharon's death. Dennis Cole comments, "When only Moshe and Elazar descended from the mountain, the assembled congregation knew that their beloved high priest was dead. They had not actually observed his death and burial, but they fully realised it when they saw Elazar wearing the complete array of priestly garments and vestments."1
Dennis Olson points to something important that we might otherwise miss as we too join Israel in mourning the death of Aharon: "Aharon's death and Elazar's succession to the position of high priest signal the approaching end of the first generation and the beginning of a new generation of hope and promise. The continuing of the priesthood through Elazar demonstrates G-d's continuing commitment to Israel and the institutions through which G-d works for the well-being of G-d's people."2 Did you catch that? The death of Aharon does not signal a change of attitude on HaShem's part towards Israel. On the contrary, He continues to have the same relationship with His people, mediated through the office of the high priest. Provided that the rituals and procedures are still carried out correctly, the fact that the vestments are being worn by another priest is not material to the relationship. The Torah tells us that "The whole house of Israel mourned Israel for thirty days" (v. 29) and then life went on; the daily morning and evening sacrifices, the Shabbat offerings, the incense and the shewbread were brought and offered as before and the golden menorah was lit each day as usual.
Although the narrative moves at some speed, we should be aware that, as Thomas Dozeman observes, "the death of Aharon also provides occasion for the priestly writers to model succession of leadership in the office of high priest. The office is inherited; thus it is a non-charismatic form of leadership. There is no transfer of a prophetic spirit or laying on of hands. Instead, Elazar is invested with the signs of the office. Aharon is stripped of his priestly vestments and they are placed on Elazar. The Israelites know that Aharon has died, because they see the priestly vestments upon Elazar."3 A little more abruptly than some in Israel might have preferred, there has been a changing of the guard. Aharon's leadership of the nation's spiritual ritual has ended and has been succeeded by Elazar, his oldest remaining son. As far as we can tell, after the thirty days of mourning - in which, incidentally, Elazar as High Priest could not participate, "He shall not go in where there is any dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father or mother (Vayikra 21:11, NJPS) - succession was both complete and successful. No-one contested the high priesthood.
When faced with the same situation - his imminent death - Moshe called out to the HaShem to provide a new and suitable leader: "Let the L-RD, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the L-RD's community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd" (B'Midbar 27:16-17, NJPS). I can't choose someone, he says, only HaShem has the knowledge of man's characters to appoint the man to lead His community. The narrator tells us that HaShem answered immediately - "Single out Joshua son of Nun, an inspired man, and lay your hand upon him" (v. 18, NJPS) - selecting the man who had been shadowing Moshe for the past forty-odd years. He then gives transition instructions: Joshua is to be publicly commissioned, "before the whole community" (v. 19); he is to be given Moshe's authority, "so that the whole Israelite community may obey" (v. 20); and he is to be subject to the L-rd's decisions via the urim and thumim, mediated by Elazar the High Priest, so that he is seen to be submitted to other community leadership.
Elijah the prophet was directly instructed by God at Mt. Horeb to set the succession process in hand: "Go back by the way you came, and on to the wilderness of Damascus. When you get there ... anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah to succeed you as prophet" (1 Kings 19:15-16, NJPS). We are not told whether Elijah felt ready for retirement, but he did as he was told, starting with Elisha: "He set out from there and came upon Elisha son of Shaphat as he was plowing. There were twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah came over to him and threw his mantle over him" (v. 19, NJPS). Elisha instantly recognised the calling and responded to Elijah: "he arose and followed Elijah and became his attendant" (v. 20, NJPS). He didn't step straight into the role and replace Elijah; there was training to be done: a process of discipleship, experience and accreditation. This lasted over ten years, from 1 Kings 19 to 2 Kings 2, when Elijah was taken into heaven in a fiery chariot. By that time, Elisha was ready both to be recognised by the disciples of the prophets at Bethel and Jericho, and to wear the mantle of his master and show the signs that Elijah showed. In due course, he carried out the same miracles that Elijah had done: healing, raising from the dead and other works of power. He rebuked kings and leaders, speaking with the authority of G-d.
We see Yeshua doing four essential steps in succession planning. First, He knew from the very beginning that He was here on earth on a temporary basis. In business terms, His exit strategy was in place before He started the job. His path to the cross, to the resurrection and to His ascension was laid out in the Scriptures; He knew exactly what He was doing and, day by day, the Ruach kept Him on track and in step with the plan. Second, He started training early; He selected twelve disciples, took them everywhere with Him, taught them both in public and private, delegated authority and sent them out to do ministry on their own. Third, as soon as they started to see the bigger picture and had a revelation of exactly who He was, He communicated the fact of succession to them so that they were not surprised. Although the disciples didn't understand what He was really saying for some time, He persisted with a consistent message until the last moment. Lastly, in the same way that the Ruach had guided Him, He promised the same guidance to the disciples; He would send the Ruach to guide them and they would inherit His relationship with the Father. We see this working when, after teaching in the Temple, Peter and John are arrested by the Sanhedrin. When the latter "perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Yeshua" (Acts 4:13, ESV).
Rav Sha'ul adds another important piece to the process when he lays out the qualifications for elders and deacons in his letters to Timothy and Titus, both leaders that he personally has trained and discipled for succession, to take over the reigns of the Gentile mission when he is taken from them. These lists provide the basic criteria of characteristics, behaviour and life-style that should be present in leadership candidates - often only developed by a time of discipleship and training alongside existing leaders. Central to the process is that new leaders are already known and respected members of their community, tried and tested among the people they are called to lead, "men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom" (Acts 6:3, ESV), exercising recognised and proven authority reflecting not the arbitrary vote of a selection panel, but the assent and cooperation of their peers and working jointly with other leaders in the community. Only in that way do you get the essential blend of continuity and innovation, staying consistent with settled values while allowing for change and new vision, bringing in fresh ideas and enthusiasm without frightening everyone away, setting a subtly different and Spirit-led new course without rocking the boat!
1. - R. Dennis Cole, Numbers The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), page 342.
2. - Dennis T. Olson, Numbers, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 132.
3. - Thomas B. Dozeman, "Numbers" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 773.
Further Study: Proverbs 28:2; John 14:12; John 20:21-22
Application: How is the matter of succession handled in your congregation? Do you see the biblical patterns in use with leaders growing and being developed over time, or are strangers parachuted in, recruited or appointed from outside with no local knowledge or community relationships? Ask the L-rd how you can influence the process to restore the biblical model in the Body of Messiah today.
Comment - 14:10 03Jul22 Joshua VanTine: Baruch HaShem, another great drash with much to mediate on, thank you. I particularly liked how you brought forth the vital importance of succession and the various pieces to the process. May we be a faithful link in the chain for the glory of the Faithful One, it is our reasonable duty.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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