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In Search of National Peacemakers

The Life & Legacy of Aharon HaKohen 

We are in desperate need today of students of Aharon Hakohein. People who see the unity of the Jewish people as no less important, arguably significantly more important, than partisan political party power. 

Aharon Hakohein’s yarzheit is mentioned in this week’s parasha of Masei – the only yartzheit explicitly mentioned in the Torah. The Torah recounts that Aharon ascended Hor HaHar and died there in the fortieth year… in the fifth month on the first of the month” (Bamidbar 33:38). The fifth month in the Torah starting from Nissan is, of course, Av. The Torah makes a point of telling us that Aharon passed away on Rosh Chodesh Av and remarkably, this week’s Torah reading of Masei is read every year around the time of Rosh Chodesh Av – at the very beginning of the most challenging and calamitous time on the Jewish calendar and in Jewish history – the first 9 days of Av culminating in the tragic Tisha B’Av.

None of this, of course, is coincidence. 

The Torah is charging us to recall the life and legacy of Aharon HaKohen as we begin observing the Nine Days of mourning for the Temple. According to the principle of the Sages that Hashem’s spiritual strategy is להקדים תרופה למכה – to ensure that the cure precedes the calamity. At this time of year when commemorating the churban – destruction – we should begin by reflecting on the spiritual cause of the churban. We begin with Aharon’s yahrzeit since he is the antidote to the demonizing cancel culture and causeless hatred that we experience today. 

Never-ending elections 

We are deeply blessed to be living in a renewed and independent Jewish state. At the same time, our people are struggling with many internal and external challenges – extremely divisive issues that touch on the very essence of Jewish life and destiny. This is particularly true today as we prepare for a fifth election in under four years. For the last four years, the electorate has been split down the middle, unable to form a stable ruling majority.

This troubling reality has eroded our sense of unity. The ongoing elections not only cost billions of shekels and make sustainable governance impossible but they are also having a damaging and corrosive effect on the country’s societal cohesion. When parties are in constant “election mode”, they remain forever focused on the shortcomings of political opponents and seek to sharpen their differences in order to differentiate themselves and attract votes. This is true during the internal party primaries and then again in the national elections, leading to a continuous culture of criticism and condemnation. 

At the same time, differences of opinion have become so intense that debates quickly descend into delegitimization, demonization and sometimes even blatant hatred. There is little respectful and democratic discourse anymore; we have lost even a basic sense of derech eretz and civility in our political interactions.

When there is a void of elementary civility and derech eretz; when strong opinions are so fundamental that there is no ideological room for anyone else, we skirt dangerously close to the gorge of sinat chinam – causeless hatred.

It throws us back to the very period of the time of the destruction of the Second Temple and the fundamental spiritual causes as articulated by our Sages and explained so poignantly by the great Rosh Yeshivah of Volozhin, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin – the Netziv. 

The Netziv on sinat chinam

How is it possible to be genuinely kind to someone and to hate them at the same time? How is it possible to learn Torah and fulfill mitzvot, yet somehow harbor feelings of hatred for others? Remarkably, the Talmud discusses this very point regarding the generation of the destruction of the Second Temple:

“During the Second Temple period the people occupied themselves with Torah, mitzvot and loving kindness. Why, then, was the Temple destroyed? Because they acted with sinat chinam – senseless hatred” (Yoma 9b).

Indeed, the generation of the churban (destruction) is described by the Sages as one occupied with Torah learning, mitzvot and loving kindness. How could such a lofty generation also be guilty of causeless hatred?

The Netziv explains: “As a result of the senseless hatred in their hearts that one harbored for the other, they suspected all those who did not follow their path as a G-d-fearing Jew of being a Sadducee and a heretic” (HaAmek Davar, Introduction to Bereishit).

The Netziv suggests that the generation of the churban showed loving kindness to their own communities, but not to other communities. They believed that only their community’s way of serving G-d was authentic, while all the others were suspected of perverting the Torah and G-d’s will. They loved and cared for those who shared their philosophy and traditions, but rejected those who did not. 

Prior to the destruction, sectarianism reigned supreme. The nation divided itself into many distinct sects – the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots and Sicarii – and even more sub-factions within these sects. The people showed endless kindness to members of their own factions, but scorned and hated those whose values and beliefs threatened their own. They saw the world in black and white; there was no middle road. It was a zero-sum game of ideological intolerance. The hatred and infighting in Jerusalem was so disastrous on the eve of destruction that Josephus described the society as “a great body torn in pieces” (The Jewish War, Book 5:1).

This was the causeless hatred that led to destruction.

Sons of light and sons of darkness

How do disagreements deteriorate into such deep hatred?

The Second Temple era War Scroll, found near the Dead Sea in the caves of Qumran, suggests an answer. The text, likely written by the Essenes, describes its followers as “the sons of light” and all others – including fellow Jews – as “the sons of darkness”. 

Language like this changes the rules of discourse. When we use words like these, we are no longer debating views or ideas, but rather delegitimizing the other as a person. These phrases cause a debate of ideas to devolve into vicious ad hominem attacks against other people. It’s no longer about right and wrong, but about you and me. All who think and act like me are “good” and bring spiritual light and morality to the world, while all who disagree with me are “bad” and immoral, the cause of spiritual darkness. When I am absolutely right and you are absolutely wrong, when the other is totally disqualified and considered part of “the dark side”, we are treading too close to the abyss of senseless hatred. 

Cause and cure 

The cause of divisiveness is clear. Reflecting on Aharon’s life and legacy at the dawn of the Nine Days is the cure. More than anyone in Jewish history, it is Aharon’s personal example, qualities and expertise that are needed most in our time. At the very birth of our national history, he was the “national peacemaker”, doing everything in his power to encourage peace and harmony among his fellow Jews regardless of their prior differences and painful disagreements. 

As Hillel taught in Pirkei Avot – “Strive to be amongst the students of Aharon – love peace and pursue peace, love all people and bring them closer to Torah” (Avot 1:12). The Avot of Rabbi Nathan, the oldest commentary on Avot, famously elaborates on this Mishnah the extreme ways Aharon would go in order to turn grievances into goodwill and foes into friends. 

Today, we are in desperate need of national peacemakers in the spirit of Aharon – bridge builders and unifiers who can overcome divisions and polarizing politics. Unity does not require uniformity and differences need not lead to disqualification. We need leaders who passionately but respectfully argue for their own views without vilifying others. We must reject the language of “sons of light” and “sons of darkness” and remember that objective truth can include diverse views and beliefs. Rabbinic teachings are replete with such famous principles as “70 facets of the Torah” and “both opinions are those of the living G-d”. The Torah has multiple facets, interpretations and opinions, all of which can contain truth. 

Ahavat chinam

It is our hope and prayer to encourage a discourse concerning our ideological disagreements in a spirit of profound ahavat yisrael, for our bonds of love and camaraderie far outweigh our disagreements. We must never forget that we share a common destiny.

“If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love, with ahavat chinam” (Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Orot HaKodesh III, 324).

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This article appears in the Masei Edition of HaMizrachi Parsha Weekly, published by World Mizrachi in Jerusalem and distributed around the world.

About the Author
Rabbi Doron Perez is the Executive Chairman of the Mizrachi World Movement, a global Religious Zionist movement based in Jerusalem with many active branches around the world. He is an organizational leader, sought after international speaker and author.
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