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    What the people saw – Chukkat

    Moses & Aaron, by Hans Sebald Beham, 16th century

    Moses & Aaron, by Hans Sebald Beham, 16th century

    The end of Chapter 20 of the Book of B’midbar tells us that Aaron the high priest died on a mountain top.

    Then the text goes on to say that the people saw that Aaron was dead.

    The immediate question we ask is how anyone was able to see what happened on top of a mountain which was not only some distance away but probably covered in so much cloud that no-one could see clearly what was taking place there.

    The key has to be in the word “saw”.

    “Seeing” has two main aspects – physical sight and metaphorical perception, i.e. mental insight.

    In Aaron’s case the second sense explains the word. The people woke up (another metaphor) to the fact that Aaron was no longer there.

    This explanation was behind the approach of Rashi, who said in his commentary that once Aaron was no longer physically present the community realised their deprivation.

    In his lifetime Aaron had protected the people, says Rashi; now they perceived how much they had lost with his going.

    In what way did Aaron protect them?

    One explanation is that he was the great peace-maker. If arguments broke out in the camp, Aaron’s careful shuttle diplomacy reduced the scale of the conflict and encouraged the contestants to forgive each other in advance of their next personal meeting.

    His protection of the people showed them how to live in harmony.

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