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Parshat Chukat — Under-appreciated women

Without Miriam, there would have been no Moses, no leader, no freedom from Egypt, at least, not in the way that it occurred
Watercolour portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, circa 1840, possibly by Alfred Edward Chalon. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Watercolour portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, circa 1840, possibly by Alfred Edward Chalon. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

When I was at Hutt Intermediate School, we had four houses: Bracken (green), Brooke (blue), Burns (white) and Byron (red). Obviously, Byron was the best because they won all the sporting events (and what else matters). But also because, of the four British poets, Byron was by far the most famous.*

Lord George Gordon Byron was the “bad boy” of the 19th century, one of the leading figures in the Romantic movement. He was involved in some very juicy scandals (with both men and women) and was fond of absinthe, a green psychoactive alcoholic drink made from wormwood, anise and fennel.

He famously hung out with Percy and Mary Shelley in a villa near Lake Geneva where they all read aloud from “Fantasmagoriana” – a collection of German horror stories. Mary Shelley went away and wrote “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus” and Byron wrote the unfinished short story “Fragment of a Novel” which was one of the first English novels to feature a vampire. Byron’s personal physician, John Polidori, began an entire genre when he based his novel “The Vampyre” on Byron’s work.

Byron was fond of animals, and in addition to horses which he kept outside, he shared his various homes with numerous cats, dogs, a fox, monkeys, an eagle, a crow, a falcon, peacocks, guinea hens, an Egyptian crane, a badger, geese, a heron, and a goat.

Lord Byron in Albanian dress by Thomas Phillips, 1813. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Among his many works, Byron wrote the satiric poem, Don Juan, which contained “immoral content” – making it extremely popular. He also wrote “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” a long partially autobiographical narrative poem published between 1812 and 1818. It describes the travels of a world-weary young man disillusioned with his life of pleasure who seeks distraction in foreign lands.

At the beginning of the third canto, Byron describes his own escape from England, and a sad farewell to his daughter who he never knew.

Is thy face like thy mother’s, my fair child!
Ada! sole daughter of my house and heart?
When last I saw thy young blue eyes, they smiled,
And then we parted,—not as now we part,
But with a hope.—
Awaking with a start,
The waters heave around me; and on high
The winds lift up their voices: I depart,
Whither I know not; but the hour’s gone by,
When Albion’s lessening shores could grieve or glad mine eye.

And in this blog, I want to write about Ada.

Mrs Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, was a mathematician who wrote one of the first computer programs.

She was born on December 10, 1815. She was Byron’s only legitimate daughter (he had several illegitimate children all over Europe), born to Annabella Milbanke, better known as Lady Byron. Ada’s father left England when his daughter was only four months old and never saw his daughter again. The Byrons had been married for just over a year.

Byron planning on skipping town anyway but ran off in a hurry when his wife became suspicious that he was having an incestuous affair with his own half-sister. Lord Byron died in 1824 when Ada was only 8 years old. He was only 36 years old. Lady Byron refused to even show her daughter a portrait of her father – the first time she saw a picture of him was when she was 20 years old.

Whereas Lord Byron was amoral and agnostic, Lady Byron was highly educated and strictly religious. She wasn’t very interested in being a parent, and mainly left Ada in the care of her grandmother. Ada’s mother was very concerned that she would inherit her father’s moral depravity and had her closely watched by close friends. Ada later complained that these “Furies” (as she dubbed them) exaggerated or invented stories about her.

Ada’s mother had been educated by a private tutor and excelled at mathematics. Byron used to refer to her as his “princess of parallelograms.” He may have been referring to his ex-wife when he described Don Juan’s mother in his poem of the same name:

His mother was a learned lady, famed
For every branch of every science known
In every Christian language ever named,
With virtues equall’d by her wit alone…
Her favourite science was the mathematical.

Ada inherited her mother’s talent for science and mathematics and was an assiduous student. For example, when she was only 12 years old, Ada decide she wanted to fly. She experimented with various materials which she used to construct wings. She studied the anatomy of birds, and wrote a book, “Flyology” about her conclusions.

Ada’s mother was determined to eradicate any trace of Byron from her daughter and hired tutors to teach her with emphasis on sciences rather than the arts. Yet, though Ada was an excellent mathematician, she embraced literature and as a teenager complained to her mother:

You will not concede me philosophical poetry. Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?

Walter Isaaacson wrote about Ada in his 2014 book “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution”:

Ada had inherited her father’s romantic spirit, a trait that her mother tried to temper by having her tutored in mathematics. The combination produced in Ada a love for what she took to calling “poetical science,” which linked her rebellious imagination to her enchantment with numbers. For many, including her father, the rarefied sensibilities of the Romantic era clashed with the techno-excitement of the Industrial Revolution. But Ada was comfortable at the intersection of both eras.

Ada had an affair with one of her tutors when she was 17 and wanted to elope with him, but her mother covered up the incident to avoid a public scandal.

That same year, Ada attended a salon where Charles Babbage demonstrated his Difference Engine, the precursor of the modern calculator. She was captivated by the poetical possibilities of the machine, and saw it had a far greater potential than Babbage realized. One of her friends wrote, “Miss Byron, young as she was, understood its working, and saw the great beauty of the invention.”

The Science Museum’s Difference Engine No. 2, built from Babbage’s design. (CC BY-SA, User:geni/ WIkimedia Commons)

While Babbage went on to design his Analytical Engine, which is considered the ancestor of the modern computer, it was Ada who envisaged a general-purpose machine capable of being reprogrammed to execute a wide range of operations. With a foot firmly in both the scientific and the arts worlds, she imagined that in the future machines could not only solve mathematical problems but also process musical and artistic notation.

She convinced Babbage to become her mentor after writing him a letter in which she did not downplay her mathematical talents:

I have a peculiar way of learning, and I think it must be a peculiar man to teach me successfully… Do not reckon me conceited, … but I believe I have the power of going just as far as I like in such pursuits, and where there is so decided a taste, I should almost say a passion, as I have for them, I question if there is not always some portion of natural genius even.

Ada soon became close to Charles Babbage. However, the next few years of her life were dominated by her marriage at age 19 to William King (who later became the first Earl of Lovelace, which is why Ada is best known by that name) and raising three children (two boys, Byron and Ralph Gordon both named for her father, and a daughter Annabella).

Charles Babbage c. 1850. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

In 1839, after Annabella’s birth, Ada wanted to return to mathematics. She wrote to Babbage asking for a tutor. He recommended Augustus De Morgan, who taught at University College London. He taught her calculus, which she loved because she could see the poetry within it.

In 1840 Babbage went to Italy to give a lecture on his idea of an Analytical Engine (neither of his machines were ever built in his lifetime, though he spent a huge amount of government money working on their construction). One of the students in the audience was 30-year-old Luigi Manabrea, who would go on 27 years later to become prime minister of Italy. In 1842, Manabrea published a paper in French based on the notes he took during Babbage’s speech.

Ada translated the notes to English, and added notes of her own, which were three times longer than the original. In note G, she explains in complete detail, the method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers using the Analytical Engine (I’ll be honest, I’ve no idea what Bernoulli numbers are – the concept is way over my head). This is considered to be the first computer program ever written. Remember, this program was published in 1843. Not only did computers not yet exist, but neither the Differential Engine nor the Analytical Engine did either.

Ada Lovelace died of uterine cancer in 1852 at the age of 36. She was buried, at her request, next to Lord Byron, the father she never met, at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Nottinghamshire.

It was more than a century later, in 1953, when Ada’s notes on Babbage’s Analytical Engine were republished and she was recognized as being the first to describe a computer and its software.

This week’s Torah reading of Chukat encompasses 38 years in the Sinai desert. It jumps from the second year after leaving Egypt to the final year of their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness.

And in this Torah portion, Miriam passed away.

Miriam was the older sister of both Aharon and Moses. It was she who watched her youngest brother as he was cast on a basket into the Nile, and she who saw Pharaoh’s daughter adopt the baby (Exodus 2:4). According to the Talmud (Sota 9b), she was one of the midwives who saved the babies Pharaoh was trying to kill. And, it was Miriam who convinced her father and mother to reunite – leading to Moses’s conception and birth — after they separated due to Pharaoh’s decree (Sota 11b).

In other words, without Miriam, there would have been no Moses, no leader, no freedom from Egypt (or at least, not in the way that it occurred). When the Israelites cross the Red Sea after escaping to freedom, Miriam rightfully led the women in a song of thanksgiving.

Yet, she never received the recognition she deserved. She was unappreciated in her lifetime. The only other story the Torah tells about her is when she and Aharon spoke against Moses and she was punished with leprosy.

But after her death, the Children of Israel suddenly appreciated how important she truly was. The Torah states (Number 20:1-2):

And the Children of Israel, the entire congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin, in the first month. They dwelt there in Kadesh. And Miriam died there, and she was buried there.
But there was no water for the congregation, and the gathered around Moses and Aharon.

What is the connection between Miriam’s death and the lack of water? The Talmud (Taanit 9a) teaches that the well which provided the Israelites water in the desert came solely in the merit of Miriam. The people only appreciated her after her death, when they realized what she had given them.

Moses and Aharon were eventually able to provide water for the camp, but only after Moses hit the rock, leading to punishment for the two.

In the next chapter, the people finally appreciate the well of Miriam. They sing a song of praise (Numbers 21:17-18):

Then the Israelites sang this song: Rise up well, sing to it
The well, excavated by princes, dug by the nobles of the people…

The commentaries explain that the princes were Moses and Aharon. But the nobles of the people must surely refer to Miriam, in whose merit the Israelites were provided with water for almost 40 years.

Like Ada Lovelace, Miriam was overshadowed in her lifetime by her famous family members. Only after her death was she finally acknowledged and praised as the noblewoman she was, the under-appreciated leader who engineered the exodus from Egypt and provided for the people in the desert.

* Admittedly, had our school been in Edinburgh instead of Lower Hutt, we would all have known Robbie Burns and his poetry intimately. As for the other two, Rupert Brooke wrote sonnets during the First World War. To my knowledge I’ve never read a single poem of his. And Thomas Bracken made the list because he wrote God Defend New Zealand, the national anthem. To quote Wikipedia: “the prolific works under his own name soon became published worldwide and he became famous throughout Australia and New Zealand.” But not very famous, even in Australia and New Zealand.

I’ve started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley. You can also listen to some live or recorded Torah classes at WebYeshiva.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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