Treatment of Miriam persists for women today

Mira Davis is a cantorial student at Jewish Theological Seminary who is serving as a cantorial intern at Congregation B’nai Amoona this summer. She is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Light.

By Mira Davis

In this week’s Parasha, Chukat, the Israelites are faced with two major blows to their community: the deaths of Miriam and Aaron. 

When Miriam dies, the Torah tells us “there was no water for the congregation; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron” (Num 20:2). However, when Aaron dies, the people all mourn for a full 30 days. As it is written:

“And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they wept for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel” (Num 20:29). 

When Aaron died, he was mourned for 30 days, the entirety of the Israelites wept, and he was appointed a successor. When Miriam died, there was no mention of mourning or weeping, no mention of a successor, and the Israelites immediately went to Moses and Aaron and returned to their regularly scheduled complaining time. 

Why is this? Was Miriam not as important as Aaron? I would argue that this is not the case. Rashi, a famous 11th-century Torah commentator, teaches that her mere presence was the foundation of water for the Israelites. Why, then, is Miriam not mourned in the same way as Aaron or given a successor?

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I believe that this omission is symptomatic of a larger issue that women still face today. All too often, women are relegated to behind-the-scenes work in many fields simply because men are thought to be better doers and speakers. Miriam was an incredible prophetess who defied societal norms by achieving a leadership role as a woman. However, her role paled in comparison to those of her brothers: Aaron as the first high priest, and Moses as God’s “right-hand man.” 

Miriam’s quiet leadership style earned her the honor of being the source of water. Her purity, piety and selflessness merited her this status. It was a thankless job and continued to be thankless even after she died. 

I am sure many women can relate to Miriam’s position. How many stay-at-home mothers are told they took the easy way out? On the other hand, how many women who try to speak out at work and at home are told they are bossy and domineering?  Miriam had to be quiet in order to keep the Israelites from hating her and ousting her from her leadership role. 

There is still a double standard for women who try to take on leadership roles in politics, business and even in family life. When a man speaks out, he is considered assertive and a go-getter. But when a woman does the same, she often is seen as shrill, bossy or unapproachable.

I have experienced this double standard when I have lead services. Many people, some in jest and some not, have told me my instructions (such as “please stand up” or “please be seated”) came off as too bossy. I have also been told that the keys in which I pick to sing are too high, when they are actually quite low, because I have a feminine voice. 

We as Jewish people must do better than this and catch ourselves when we make these assumptions about women in leadership. Only then can we change our culture to be one in which Miriam would have thrived as a Jewish leader and received the recognition she so deserved.