Hukkat, Numbers 19:1-22:1
At first glance it seems so unfair.
In this week’s parsha, Moses loses both his brother and his sister before preparing for his own death. Yet the accounts of their passing are very different. On the death of Miriam, the Torah tells us only: “The children of Israel came, the whole community, to the wilderness of Zin at the first new moon, and the people remained at Kadesh. There did Miriam die and there was she buried” (Numbers 20:1). Yet not long after, when God decrees it is time for Aaron to be “gathered to his kin,” a big deal is made. Moses ceremonially transfers the garb of the High Priest from Aaron to his son Eleazer, Aaron is taken to the top of a mountain to die and be buried, and “the entire house of Israel bewailed Aaron for thirty days.” (Numbers 20:29)
Is it priestly prerogative that dictates Aaron gets such a grand send-off? Or is it a matter of gender — that the death of a powerful man is more important than the death of a powerful woman? Or is the Torah’s message something completely different?
To be sure, the period of official mourning for Aaron establishes our tradition sheloshim, the 30-day time period following a Jew’s death when the family is to refrain from joyous activities. Yet, this seems to me to be a formal act by the people as commanded by God and coordinated by Moses. It is not a spontaneous outpouring of grief.
Just the opposite happens after the death of Miriam. The people are not given proper opportunity to mourn the loss of Miriam, and, as we well know, such grief can manifest itself in other ways. Here, in the very next verse, the Israelites rail against Miriam’s powerful brothers for the lack of water and wretched conditions in the wilderness. This is, I believe, the spontaneous outpouring of grief over a woman who — without title, without formal power or authority — nurtured the community in its wanderings with kindness and compassion. The sages see the connection between the death of Miriam in one verse and the loss of water in the next as meaningful (hence the tradition of the miraculous Miriam’s Well); but I think the significance of Miriam’s death and the way the people respond goes much deeper.
For me, it is the recognition that women’s roles are often unseen, under-appreciated, and, in our modern world, underpaid. Recently, “Planet Money” published a chart showing that, in the United States in 2012, wages for women ran only 80.9 percent of what men made. But the gender wage gap was much greater in professions that are considered respected specialties: financial advisors, education administrators, physician and surgeons, stockbrokers, operations managers, sales managers. By contrast, the wage gap narrows for women in less-respected and lower-paid jobs, such as medical technicians, social workers, office clerks and data entry clerks.
Miriam did not expect to be paid for her role in the community; she probably did not even expect the people to respect her as they did her powerful brothers. Yet, when she was gone, the people actually realized that they had lost, as it were, a precious natural resource that they took for granted. And their grief turned to rage against her brothers, who seemed to be leading them to nowhere.
Women continue to exert a powerful influence on the lives of children, spouses, parents, friends, neighbors, co-workers and employees. Indeed, according to a Pew Research Center study out this past week, “four in 10 American households with children under age 18 now include a mother who is either the sole or primary earner for her family.” That’s partly because men were laid off in such huge numbers during the recession, especially in fields such as construction and manufacturing, sending their wives scurrying into the workforce. But women are still under-represented and underpaid in areas where the economy is picking up, and they are over-represented in areas like government work, where it is not.
That’s why so many of us were astonished and angry when Tennessee Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn declared this past week that women don’t want equal-pay laws. It’s true that laws don’t automatically change peoples’ attitudes, but they do reflect a country’s commitment to equality, not just of pay, but also of opportunity and of respect.
Blackburn would do well to look to the biblical example of the daughters of Zelophechad, who in an upcoming parsha will challenge the exclusively male laws of inheritance. Like Miriam, they do not expect or demand special treatment because they are women; they only want what is right and fair, and God agrees. The ancient Israelite cult and culture remain formally dominated by men. But the peoples’ deep grief over the loss of Miriam, followed by the legal recognition of the rights of daughters, speaks to a community that at least recognizes the important — if often unseen — role that women play in society.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)