Distance Yourself From a Bad Neighbor and Do not Associate with the Wicked
It is written, “The L-RD said to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor by the border of the land of Edom, saying, ‘Aaron shall be gathered to his people…Take Aaron and Elazar his son and bring them up to Mount Hor. Strip Aaron of his vestments…and Aaron shall be gathered in and die there.’…Aaron died there on the top of the mount” (Numbers 20:23-28).
Rashi relates the teaching of the Midrash, which describes Mount Hor as a small apple on top of a large apple (Tanhuma Chukat 17). Even though the cloud leveled the mountains and made them equal in size, three of them remained: Mount Sinai for the giving of the Torah, Mount Hor for Aaron’s burial place, and Mount Nebo for Moses’ burial place. Furthermore, commenting on the phrase, “by the border of the land of Edom” (Numbers 20:23), the Midrash explains: Since they had contact with the wicked Esau, their deeds were corrupted and this Tzaddik was take away from them.
We need to clarify a certain number of issues concerning this subject:
1. Why did our Sages describe Mount Hor, where Aaron was buried, as a small apple on top of a large one? In the final analysis, it is a large mountain. What exactly is the meaning of one mountain on top of another? Finally, why does the verse state “Mount Hor” at one point and “the top of the mount” at another?
2. Concerning contact with Esau, Rashi supports his view with an incident involving King Jehoshaphat: “Because you have allied yourself with Ahaziah, the L-RD has wrecked your undertakings” (II Chronicles 20:37). Yet here the Children of Israel, whose only goal was to make it to the Holy Land, did not ally themselves with Edom. On the contrary, the king of Edom did not give them his authorization to pass through his territory.
3. Moses sent emissaries to the king of Edom to obtain his authorization. What sin is there in that? Why was it specifically Aaron who died when the Israelites were by the border of Edom?
Actually, we may say that the Children of Israel were responsible for Aaron’s death. When the king of Edom refused to allow them to pass through his land, they should have immediately proceeded to the Holy Land by another route. However they did not do this, and instead they insisted on passing through his territory, as it is written: “Let me pass through on foot” (Numbers 20:19). Moses in no way shared the same viewpoint, and it was the Children of Israel who believed that it was necessary to pass through his territory. Therefore they were the ones who sent emissaries. We may say that in the final analysis, it was the Children of Israel who wanted to associate with the wicked (G-d forbid).
It was this insistence on the part of the Children of Israel that caused Aaron’s premature death. The death of a Tzaddik like Aaron is an enormous loss, for the Tzaddik rectifies the spiritual worlds and brings abundance to the world. (Concerning this subject, the Ohr HaChaim writes, “The sentence had already been pronounced, but he could have lived for a few extra days”). Commenting on this verse in his book Pituchei Chotam, Rabbi Yaakov Abihssira writes: “ ‘When you light the lamps’ (Numbers 8:2), Aaron brought good upon all. He loved peace and continuously sought it, and he made peace reign between man and wife, and between man and his fellow (Perkei Avoth 1:12). His sudden and premature death was a tremendous loss. …The Torah stresses the fact that he died by the border of the land of Edom in order to make us understand that the Children of Israel had not distanced themselves from that wicked one. They were not careful to avoid falling into his traps, and their contact with Edom brought about the premature death of the Tzaddik.”
This verse mentions Mount Hor at one point and the top of the mount at another because, as we know, the evil inclination has seven names (Sukkah 52a). It often changes form and manages to entice a person in a different way each time. It may even appear as a Tzaddik at times. We must therefore be very careful not to fall into its traps. For example, King Jehoshaphat of Judah was a great Tzaddik, yet he associated with Ahaziah, the king of Israel, who was wicked. Jehoshaphat certainly wanted to make Ahaziah return to the right path, yet a prophet had forbid him to associative with Ahaziah. This is because he was susceptible to his harmful influence, for if Ahaziah had failed to heed his own father’s voice, why would he listen to Jehoshaphat?
Our Sages compare the evil inclination to a mountain (in the eyes of the righteous), and to an unbreakable rock (Sukkah 52a). If we break it in one way, it gets stronger in another, and if we think that we have defeated it, it appears in exactly the same place but in a different form. Concerning this subject, Kabbalah explains that if a person distances himself from sin, this in an indication that he wants to rectify it. By distancing himself from the evil inclination, which constantly changes appearance, a person will manage to eliminate it.
Listening only to Moses’ voice, the Children of Israel insisted several times on passing through the territory of Edom. They should have understood that this was the work of the Satan, which tried to persuade them to do so. The evil inclination appears as a small apple on top of a large one, yet afterwards it ascends to the top of the mountain and there tries to make people sin. Up there, it erects structures abounding in sin to entice people to sin (see Shabbat 105b). Hashem therefore commanded Moses to bring Aaron up Mount Hor, for the goal of the evil inclination was to prevent him from influencing the Children of Israel. Aaron had to be at the top of the mount in order to defeat it.
Having heard of Aaron’s death, the king of Arad came and attacked the Children of Israel. How could this king have dared to confront Moses, who could have easily defeated him? After having seen the Clouds of Glory disappear, the king of Arad heard that Moses, followed by the Children of Israel, had sent emissaries to the king of Edom to ask him for permission to pass through his territory. The king of Aram therefore concluded that they wanted to associate with the wicked, which caused Aaron’s death, for Hashem loathed their conduct. Furthermore, seeing their weakness, the king of Arad immediately decided to wage war against them.
By their death, Tzaddikim expiate the sins of the generation (Shabbat 33b). The king of Arad, a Canaanite, therefore rushed out to fight the Children of Israel before they could repent and begin to mend their ways. Being a descendant of Esau, he knew that when the voice of Jacob would not be heard, the hands of Esau would dominate them. Nevertheless, the Children of Israel strengthened their faith and made a vow, and Hashem accepted their repentance. Therefore they managed to defeat the Canaanite.
The Children of Israel thus continued on their way to the Promised Land. However the people became discouraged while on route (Numbers 21:4), frustrated by the “light bread” (v.5), meaning the manna. Now as we know, bread alludes to Torah (Yalkut Shimoni, Vayeitzei 123). Thus they denied the Torah and distanced themselves from Teshuvah. The evil inclination therefore controlled them, for the Torah is its antidote. This occurred because the wicked traits of Edom were still rooted in them, which was the cause of Aaron’s death.
The Children of Israel were punished by fiery serpents, which killed multitudes of them. This was an unusual punishment that had never been seen before. Hashem thus said to Moses, “Make yourself a fiery [serpent] and place it on a pole, and it will be that anyone who was bitten will look at it and live” (Numbers 21:8). The Talmud asks, “Is it the serpent that kills? Is it the serpent that keeps alive?” (Rosh Hashanah 29a). Why is it that a serpent brings death and causes healing?
The reason why G-d sent the Children of Israel fiery serpents is because they began to distance themselves from Him and associate with the wicked Edomites. Furthermore, instead of entering the Holy Land, they were getting farther from it and thus detaching themselves from the Torah and Judaism. The serpent embodies the evil inclination, the Satan, the forces of evil, the other side (Zohar I:114a). G-d acted strictly with the Children of Israel, as He does with all Tzaddikim (Yebamot 121b). Nevertheless, He immediately healed them. As the Talmud states (Rosh Hashanah 29b), all they needed to do was to look at the overhanging serpent, the essential thing being to raise their eyes and see beyond it to Hashem.
Mount Hor alludes to the evil inclination, which is called a mountain. A person should therefore come closer to Hashem and never distance himself from Him, and he should constantly engage in heshbon nefesh (personal accounting, introspection). Commenting on the verse, “Regarding this the poets would say: Come to Heshbon” (Numbers 21:27), the Talmud explains that this is a reference to those who control their inclination, to those who take an accounting (heshbon) of their life (Bava Batra 78b). Let us therefore not be seduced by the vile one who takes on various forms. We will thus follow the path laid out by Aaron, who knew how to draw a line between himself and the evil inclination. Let us distance ourselves from the evil inclination and come closer to the Holy One, blessed be He. We will then experience good in this world and in the World to Come.