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Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?

06/08/2023 03:36:42 PM


What is the most effective form of punishment? What makes a punishment fair? This week in parashat Behaalotecha we read that Miriam and Aaron engaged in gossip against their younger brother Moses, criticizing him for some aspect of his personal/family life, and declaring that they were just as close to God as Moses was. God called the three of them to the Tent of Meeting (the principal’s office had not been invented yet) and summoned Aaron and Miriam inside. It would appear, however that God gave them different punishments. Why did they receive different consequences for what were apparently the same actions? Is it ever fair that two people receive different punishments for the same offense?

God began by treating them the same.  He put them in their place by telling them that they were not on the same level as Moses. God then afflicted Miriam with tzara’at, a skin affliction which is sometimes translated as leprosy. In some ways, the punishment makes sense- leprosy was traditionally seen as a punishment for speaking ill of others. However, there was a key difference: Miriam received a physical punishment, while Aaron only got a browbeating. That seems unfair!  

Some modern readers say that indeed it was unfair. Throughout history people have often been treated differently because of their position in society, their gender, etc. Our sages assume that at the very least, God must have been fair, and come up with different approaches try to explain the discrepancy. One common answer was their offenses were at different levels. Miriam was punished more harshly because she was the ringleader. The hint to this is that she is listed first in the verse describing the offense.  In the Talmud (Shabbat 97a), Rabbi Akiva suggests that in fact Aaron also had leprosy, but his passed more quickly.

A set of interpretations that I find more interesting is that sometimes the same punishment will have a different impact on different people. So, for example, for Aaron, who had already had two of his sons killed by God, a reprimand from that God caused psychological pain greater than physical illness. Others suggest that, given that his role as a priest was to adjudicate cases of tzara’at, having to judge his sister as such created greater distress for him.

Whether in the context of families and child-rearing, in the workplace, or in the criminal justice system, we grapple with how to apply consequences fairly. Are we showing bias for or against people of a particular social class? Do we take into account differing levels of responsibility or the different impact that the same punishment might have on two different people? These conversations are the essence of justice. Much later (Deuteronomy 24:9), the Torah tells us to remember what God did to Miriam- perhaps as a reminder that justice is more complex than we might imagine.

Tue, December 5 2023 22 Kislev 5784