In Parshiyot Terumah and Teztaveh, the Torah describes the instructions for the construction and inauguration of the Mishkan, alongside the installation of Aaron and his sons as kohanim. Aaron, brother of Moshe, is established as High Priest, chief functionary of the Mishkan. Speaking in contemporary terms, we could imagine that the list of core competencies for such a role might include traits such as diligence, dedication, and attention to detail and structure.
Intriguingly, though, Aaron is described in Avot 1:12 as having different qualities, as a “lover of peace and pursuer of peace; a lover of people, who brought them close to Torah.” (Cf. Sanhedrin 6b).These are noble qualities indeed, but are they the central, definitional ones of the first kohen? Additionally, what textual indication is there that Aaron is a pursuer of peace at all?
We might suggest that underlying the mishnah’s characterization is an association between kapparah (atonement) and peace. One of the primary roles of the kohen is to facilitate the expiation of Israel’s collective and individual sins. By offering specific sacrifices, burning the ketoret, performing the Yom Kippur rituals, etc.., the (high) priest helps Israel atone for its sins, and to thus be at peace with God. The priests are conduits of peace, as indicated in the final clause of the priestly blessing (Bamidbar 6:26- “May God shine God’s countenance on you and grant you peace”) and of love, as captured in the formulation of the berachah preceding the priestly blessing: “to bless His people Israel b’ahavah,” [i.e. to lovingly bless and bless Israel with love]. As such, there is no tension between the role of the kohanim as cultic officials and lovers of peace. The two roles are fundamentally identical.
The notion of priests, and especially Aaron, as peacemakers and agent of religious betterment is beautifully conveyed in a teaching of R. Meir (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 12:3). Commenting on Malachi 2:4-7, in which the prophet describes a righteous priest (“…he walked with me in peace and straightness, and returned many from iniquity…”), our sage explains:
What is the meaning of “and returned many from iniquity?” When Aaron was walking along the road and met a bad individual, Aaron would greet him (lit., extend peace to him). The next day, that same individual might desire to sin; yet he would say to himself “Oy! If I sin, how could I lift up my eyes tomorrow and see Aaron?! After all, he extended peace to me– I’d be ashamed before him!” And thus this person would prevent himself from sinning again.
According to R. Meir, Aaron is able to better this ‘bad individual’ and reconcile him with God– not by chastising or shunning him, but by being in conversation with him, by greeting him with a ‘shalom aleichem’ (again, R. Meir is referencing the end of the priestly blessing, as well as the passage in Malachi). Once Aaron has engaged this individual in the simplest way, by greeting him and wishing him peace, the latter is able to discover self-worth. He can then experience a healthy sense of shame, and avoid sinful behavior. Here too, Aaron is the agent of expiation (or repentance) and peace.
In closing, let us emphasize again that in this midrash Aaron is portrayed as one whose very presence made others want to be better versions of themselves. They wished to be worthy of meeting Aaron’s eyes in the street, and thus needed to be better people. In place of strategies and tactics, judgement and clever didactics, this midrash raises the possibility and challenge of inspiring others in a different way. Like Aaron, perhaps we might imagine becoming the type of people who inspires others and betters them simply by offering them “shalom.”