Sermon: Vaera – Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 9 January 2016

There’s been quite a lot of discussion in the political realm this week about leadership and organising ones support systems in power. How do we choose our leaders? And how can we learn to trust them? Indeed should we trust them? And what does it mean for such leadership to be supported from within. Now far be it from me, especially as a visiting Rabbi, to even vaguely attempt to wade in on political discussions, but it struck me as a fascinating parallel to our Torah reading this week, where we hear about the enormous mission of leadership that Moses and Aaron are tasked with, while also being reminded that Moses has what he personally considered a serious impediment to leadership, namely his self perceived in-ability to communicate.

The Torah tells us that Aaron will help Moses in his approach to Pharoah. But the story telling Rabbis and darshanim of the midrashic tradition were also concerned about how Moses was going to convince those pesky Israelites who we know will go on to cause Moeses no end of headaches, that they should trust him. Never mind speaking truth to power, Moses needed to win the hearts and minds of the thoroughly disempowered rabble of slaves if the story was to really get started. The Exodus would look pretty flat with just Moses, Aaron and Miriam and a bit of Pita bread on their backs.

So Midrash uses an old trick, of taking a Biblical figure about whom we know virtually nothing from the text itself, and using them as a tool to fix a problem or a gap that they have identified. In this case they pick a woman, identified twice in torah, called Serach, the daughter of Asher. She is such a remarkable figure that I’d like to see us celebrate her at seder! Now why on earth would I want to add to the already overly long seder?

At the end of Genesis we are told the names of all the sons that go down to Egypt, and their sons who went with them. It must have been an impressive caravan. But what is most curious, is that in the midst of this long list, Serach is listed along with the sons of Asher[1].

It didn’t escape the beady eye of the rabbis’ that this mention of a sister was strange.  Generational lines in the Bible do occasionally mention women, but not often, and in these lists she is the only female other than the matriarchs[2]  and Dinah (Jacob’s only daughter), so there must have been some significance to Serach. We only hear about her once more in Torah: In Numbers 26 when a census is taken of the Israelites in the desert, to see who would be able to fight and aid in conquering Canaan. In this census important names in the tribes are recorded, including Serach again. This mention of Serach in Numbers suggested to the Rabbis and writers of Midrash, that not only did she go down to Egypt with Jacob, but, she also left Egypt with the Exodus, some 400 years later.

For the Rabbis, these 2 mentions were all that they needed to develop the most fantastic stories around Serach. She joins a small group of men and women who are considered to have never died, and she becomes a tool of the Rabbis, who used her in Midrashim to fill in various gaps in stories. In this way, a rich life tapestry is drawn out for Serach. The first question the Rabbis needed to answer is what on earth she did to merit such a long life? Well it begins when the Rabbis ascribe Serach the task of informing Jacob that Joseph is still alive. The Rabbis developed the story by explaining that the brothers feared the news might shock Jacob to death, and so Serach delicately delivers the news in song[3], and enables him to take it on board gently. Jacob blesses her saying ‘if this is true, the bearer of the news shall live forever’. Quite the promise.

Serach also helps to solve a different riddle left to us. In Exodus, when we learn that Joseph’s bones were taken out of Egypt with the Israelites, the rabbis wonder how they knew where to find them? Serach showed Moses of course[4]! As she was there when Joseph would have been buried, and when his coffin left Egypt with the Exodus, she begins to provide a generational link between those who came down to Egypt, and those who left.

And it is in a similar vein that we come to our parashsah. Serach, according to our creative midrashic story tellers, is said to have provided the prophetic proof that Moses was the leader that the slaves had been awaiting[5] and so was able to convince them to follow this unknown, palace raised upstart.

When he speaks to the Israelites, and assures them that God has remembered them[6], he is using a code that Jacob had given to Joseph, and Joseph to his brothers, including Asher, who of course gave the secret to his daughter, Serach, and as she was still alive, 400 or so years later, she was able to assure the Hebrews that this was the promised redeemer. In all of these tales Serach Bat Asher is the key bearer of information, and a link from one generation to another. She can guide the community because she has key information from the past.

Serach’s presence through Jewish time does not end in the Tanakh, however, and she even pops up in the Rabbinic period itself, where we read in a collection of Rabbinic sermons from sometime around the 6th century[7]:

Rabbi Yochanan was sitting and expounding, how the waters  [of the Reed sea] were made into a wall for Israel. Rabbi Yochanan explained they were like opaque walls. Serach the daughter of Asher grew angry and said, I was there and they were like nets.

So not only is Serach a key transmitter of inter-generational information, she is permitted to contradict a Rabbi in her transmission of how it really was when they crossed the Red Sea! Few women are given such privilege in Rabbinic Literature, and those that do, such as Beruriah, have been known to meet rather nasty ends!

But what was Serach’s end, having seen both the descent to Egypt and the Exodus out again? There is a synagogue in Istfahan, Iran, that is named in her honour and claims to have her grave located in their midst[8]. In the Rabbinic tradition, however, no burial place was needed for her, because she is one of only 10 or 11 people who is said to have not died, but to have entered paradise (or the Garden of Eden) alive[9]. This was the result of Jacob’s blessing, and allows her to be present throughout Jewish time. This meritorious woman, who has appeared at crucial moments in Jewish History to perform righteous and important deeds, and who has been the holder and giver of oral tradition, doesn’t die, but continues indefinitely, and could, potentially be called upon to tell us how things really were again.

We will not live forever. But, like Serach, we are all important as links in the chain of Tradition. We all have Serach’s power to pass something meaningful onto the next generation, as gently as Serach did with Jacob, or as forcefully as she did with Rabbi Yochanan. Many of us also have the ability to teach the lessons of generations past, as Serach did, even if we aren’t able to help advise on who the best leaders might be.

Serach represents an oral tradition, one which we all experience when we revisit these parts of the Torah in a few months time at Pesach. But telling our stories is core to much of Jewish life and experience, and Serach perhaps demands that we ask ourselves what it is in our Judaism that we wish to be dedicated to, and what we are compelled by, so that we might pass something meaningful on when we tell our stories to future generations. Stories that draw on our rich past, but create a positive future for whoever and whatever is to come. Stories can mould leadership and correct mis-information. Perhaps Serach will appear to help us, but in case she doesn’t, all of us will have to ensure that the next generation have something they also feel able to hand on.

May each of us be a part of the story in ways that add meaning and colour. May this be God’s will. Venomar Amen

[1] Genesis 46:17

[2] Milgrom, Jacob Numbers Commentary The Jewish Publication Society, (2004 (1989) Varda Books; Illinois p.178

[3] Midrash HaGadol Bereishit 46:25

[4] Sotah 13a, Mechilta De Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai 13:19, and Devarim Rabbah 11:7

[5] Shemot Rabbah 5:13

[6] Exodus 3:16

[7] Pesikta de Rav Kahana 11:13 (5th-7th Century)

[8] (Bacher, W. 1925 (1905); p.201)

[9] Targum Yonatan Ben Uzziel translates Genesis 46:17 as “Serach their sister who was led to the Garden of Eden as she was capable of living there”. This Targum from around the eighth century seems to be incorporating into its translation a Midrashic tradition found in Ozer HaMidrashim in two different forms (in chapters nine and ten), and in Derech Eretz Zuta 1.