Ask a mountaineer why they climb mountains and the clichéd response is “because it’s there.” Not so in the bible where there is always a significant purpose to ascending mountains. Why are mountains important?
In his book, Seek My Face, Arthur Green explains that the three great monotheistic faiths developed from a culture that worshipped sky gods who lived in the heavens or on great mountains. This idea persisted when polytheism was abandoned by the tribe that went on to become the Children of Israel and it remains an image that is hardwired into us all even though our concept of God is as an unseeable omnipresence.
Mountains, therefore, are sacred places and it’s not surprising that in the landscape of the Middle East they filled people with a sense of awe, foreboding and attraction just as they do for us today. It’s easy to understand why mountains are the scene of some of the most significant events in the bible including the binding of Isaac, the receiving of the Torah, and the death of Aaron.
What about the death of Aaron? It’s curious that Aaron accepts God’s decision with humility. In spite of the pain he has endured, Aaron’s faith seems unshakeable. One midrash says that when Aaron, Moses and Eleazar reached the very top of Mount Hor a cave opened up with a burning lamp and a couch inside. Aaron undressed and gave his clothes to Eleazar before being enveloped by a mist. Aaron lay down on the couch, closed his eyes and mouth at which point the holy presence kissed him and his soul departed. This was clearly a passing suffused with God’s grace.
It is said that Moses needed to take Aaron away from the children of Israel to die as they would not knowingly have allowed him to go, so loved was he. Aaron was an arbitrator who pursued peace. He listened to and understood people and was able to bring disputes to an end. According to another midrash, far from helping to perpetrate the sin of the golden calf, Aaron’s tactic was to delay the act of idolatry at each step of the way until Moses had descended from Mount Sinai. As a Priest he was a servant rather than a master of the people, wise enough to recognise that he was not a strong authority figure, but able to read the emotions of people. He knew he could not stop the revolution; only Moses could do that with God’s might to back him up.
Perhaps society is overly obsessed with Moses figures? Like Aaron, not everyone is born to lead. Some are born to support. Aaron’s strengths are very much overshadowed by those of Moses, yet could Moses have managed without his wise brother at his side?
In the world of mountaineering, Sherpas are often misunderstood as mere porters when in fact they are knowledgeable guides who understand the terrain better than anyone. The recent earthquake in Nepal has highlighted the dignity of these noble people in the face of the terrible tragedy that has befallen them. In the context of our tradition, Aaron was Moses’ Sherpa. He understood the children of Israel and was Moses’ guide when it came to handling them just as Sherpas guide explorers across mountains, ensuring they take the best route to reach their destination.
If there was any person for whom a mountain is a natural place to be gathered unto his people, surely it’s the dignified, wise and much loved Aaron.
Nick Gendler is a member of NNLS and a former Co-chair of Masorti Judaism.