Parshat Chukkat is one of the most wrenching in the entire Torah. After describing the purification rite through the ashes of the Red Heifer, we’re hit with three successive tragedies: Miriam dies; Moses is banned from the Promised Land for disobeying God’s direct order; then, Aaron dies, too. The storytelling is intense, emotional and rich in detail.
Except we are given virtually nothing regarding the death of Miriam. Our tradition says she was a prophet in her own right, that she was the one who ensured Moses’ survival after he was set in a basket in the Nile. The Midrash gives her standing and power as she is the source of the life-giving water that sustains our community in the desert.
But the Torah text dispenses with her in just five words, the last third of the first verse of Numbers, Chapter 20: Va-ta-mot sham Mir’yam v’ti-ka-veir sham — “And Miriam died there and was buried there.” Five Hebrew words. No wailing. No mourning. No muss or fuss.
By contrast, the Torah describes Aaron’s death in great detail, from the preparation for it through the 30 days of mourning for him. Later, at the end of Deuteronomy, Moses gets similar treatment. Each man dies al pi HaShem — by the word of God, interpreted by the Rabbis as by God’s kiss (pi = mouth). The Talmud, in tractate Bava Batra 17a, claims that God kissed life from Miriam as well, but the Torah could not state it plainly because she was a woman and it was not fit to do so. A weak explanation at best, in my view.
Didn’t Miriam deserve the kind of public mourning and recognition given to her brothers? Of course she did.
Throughout much of human history, deaths of great men have been marked with public honors. It is simply wrong that, even today, the lives of remarkable women are not recognized with the same level of acclaim. Women’s achievements, both public and private, are worthy of being hailed, cheered, praised and celebrated. Their deaths are worth more note than the five words accorded to Miriam’s passing.
There are plenty of monuments honoring men. We need to build more — many more — for the women who have lead our families and our communities. We need to recognize that heroism comes in many forms, and certainly not all on the field of battle.
During Pride Month, I nominate for public honors the pop singer Lesley Gore, who was famous for her song, “It’s My Party (And I’ll Cry If I Want To),” released in 1963. But that same year she also sang “You Don’t Own Me.” The true meaning of that song for her was finally revealed in 2005 when she came out.
You might not know, however, that Lesley Gore was born Leslie Sue Goldstein and was part of our tribe, born in Brooklyn. She lived quietly but with fierce integrity about who she was, and she stood up to a male-dominated industry with a courage I can barely fathom.
The song’s lyrics are:
You don’t own me
Don’t try to change me in any way
You don’t own me
Don’t tie me down ‘cause I’d never stay
I don’t tell you what to say
I don’t tell you what to do
So just let me be myself
That’s all I ask of you
Those words should be on her monument. It’s not a sufficient tribute, but it’s more than five words. And she’s just one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of women who should be venerated in Jewish history and culture.
Let Miriam’s brief death notice provoke us into raising up for honor Jewish women of all ages and places as they certainly deserve. Then we will see it as fitting for God to kiss Miriam as God kissed her brothers in the Torah. PJC
Rabbi James A. Gibson is rabbi emeritus at Temple Sinai. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.