January 16, 2019

Serah’s Legend

For many of us, this season is marked by being with families and sharing our family stories. In the Torah cycle it is the time of the year that we read the powerful story of a family of brothers, a story about forgiveness and reconciliation. Buried in this story about brothers is a one-line mystery about a sister.

After Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, he sends wagons to bring his father, Jacob, to Egypt so Joseph can take care of him. The text tells us: "Then Jacob and all his offspring came to Egypt. He brought with him his sons and his grandsons, his daughters and his granddaughters — all his offspring. And these are the names of the children of Israel, Jacob and his descendants, who came to Egypt" (Genesis 46:6-7). What follows is a very long list of men mostly, except for Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, and one granddaughter: "And the sons of Asher: Imnah, Ishvah, Ishvi and Beriah, and their sister Serah" (Genesis 46:17).

What do we know about Serah bat Asher? The Etz Hayim commentary indicates: "It is inconceivable that Jacob’s 12 sons should have had 53 sons and only one daughter. In light of the general tendency to omit women from the genealogies, there must be some extraordinary reason for her mention here, although no hint is given in the text." Her name appears only one other time in the Torah, Numbers 26:46, in the census taken by Moses in the desert.

Since the same name appears in both these lists, the rabbis assume that she must be same person. But how is it possible for the same person to have gone into Egypt with Jacob and his family and then be counted in the census after the Exodus from Egypt several hundred years later?

The Torah tells us that after Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers, he told them to bring their father to him in Egypt. Imagine the brothers’ dilemma. How could they tell their father that Joseph was still alive? They needed a way to break the news to him gently. So one of them came up with the idea of letting his young granddaughter, Serah, play the harp for him and sing a song with the words "Joseph is alive."

As Serah sang, Jacob realized what she was saying: "Is it true?" he demanded. When she told him it was, he blessed her with such a great blessing that her reward was to live a very long time. Another version says that Jacob thought Serah was mocking him, so he cursed her with the words: "It should only be true! May you live so long!" Blessing or curse, the tradition is that Serah lived longer than anyone else.

It was Serah who told Moses where Joseph’s coffin was buried. On Joseph’s deathbed, he made his family promise that when they eventually left Egypt they would carry his bones with them. The Midrash notes that so many years had passed since Joseph’s death that no one remembered where he was buried. On the day before the Israelites were to leave Egypt, Moses was brokenhearted when he was unable to locate Joseph’s coffin.

"Why are you so gloomy?" an old woman asked.

Moses explained his desire to fulfill the ancient promise. "I can lead you to his burial place," she responded.

"But how do you know?" Moses demanded.

"Because I am Serah bat Asher. I was present at Joseph’s funeral; his coffin was sunk into the Nile."

Serah led Moses to the very spot in the Nile, and Moses cried out: "Joseph, Joseph, we are leaving now." Suddenly, Joseph’s coffin floated to the surface and Moses took it with them as they left.

The legendary story of Serah bat Asher doesn’t end there. The Midrash identifies her as the one Israelite who saw the angels gather to watch the children of Israel cross the Sea of Reeds. She saw God commanding the waters to part. She saw the divine presence among the Israelites when Miriam played the tambourine. Other than Moses, Serah bat Asher was the only one of her generation who could look upon God and live.

Serah bat Asher also turns up in the first century beit midrash of Yochanan ben Zak-kai. He was describing to his students that when the waters of the Sea of Reeds parted, the walls of water looked like a wall of sprouting bushes. Suddenly, a voice came through an open window in the back of the beit midrash: "No. That’s not right." All the students turned around and saw an old lady peering through the window. "I am Serah bat Asher. I know what the walls looked like because I was there! They looked like mirrors, mirrors in which every man, woman and child was reflected so it seemed as though even more people crossed there, not only those who were present, but their descendants and the descendants of their descendants!"

How did Serah bat Asher eventually die? One legend reports that she died in a fire in a synagogue in Persia in the ninth century. Another legend is that she never actually died. Instead, she is like Elijah, wandering around the world, setting the record straight. A third legend is that a fiery chariot took her to heaven where she presides over a palace in which thousands of women who tended the old and sick in their lifetimes, as she cared for her grandfather Jacob, are privileged to study Torah with her as their teacher.

So who is Serah bat Asher? Is she, as biblical scholar Ilana Pardes might say, a hint of a "counter tradition" in the Bible? Is she, as biblical scholar Adriane Leveen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion has argued, a repository of female memory, linking generations by remembering the stories that others have forgotten and teaching a torah that celebrates the connection and caring between people of all ages? She is all that and more. She is a reminder that we can be enriched when we remember the stories of sisters as well as brothers.

Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.