Friday, December 28, 2007

"And These are the Names...." A Cup for Serach Daughter of Asher

(from a piece to appear in print before Passover, heaven willing)

“And to Asher he said, ‘Blessed above sons be Asher....’” (Deuteronomy 33:24)

What is the extra measure of blessing, entailed in the line of Asher, that surpasses even sons?

“And these are the names of the children of Israel who came into Egypt, Jacob and his sons…” (Genesis 46:8) “And the sons of Asher, Yimnah and Yishvah and Yishvi and Beri’ah, and Serach their sister.” (Genesis 46:17)

And when Moses counts the children of Israel in the wilderness, we read: “…and the name of the daughter of Asher was Serach.” (Numbers 26:46)

On this basis, our rabbis teach that Serach the daughter of Asher both went down into Egypt with Jacob and came up out of Egypt with Moses, hundreds of years later, and remained alive in the wilderness. (e.g. Mekhilta Beshalach; Shemot Rabbah 5:13)

And not only this, but also: “Then a wise woman called out from the city....” (2Samuel 20:16) In the days of King David, when Sheva ben Bichri cursed the king and fled to the hills country of Efrayim, to the town of Avel Bet Ma’achah, and Yo’av, David’s general set out after him with an army, and besieged the city, and threatened to destroy it on account of Sheva ben Bichri, and a wise woman called out from the city – this, too, say our rabbis, was Serach, the daughter of Asher. (cf. Kohelet Rabbah 9:18) who was still living and protecting the children of Israel in the time of King David.

And she said to Yo’av “Anochi shelumei emunei Yisra’el” (2Samuel 20:19, often translated, “I am of the peaceable faithful of Israel”) and our sages interpret: “Ani hi she-hishlamti minyanan shel Yisra’el be-Mitzrayim” “I am she who completed the minyan, the number, of the children of Israel in Egypt” – as it is said, “All the souls of the house of of Jacob who came into Egypt were seventy” (Genesis 46:27) – “Ani hi she-hishlamti ne’eman Yosef le-ne’eman Moshe” “I am she who connected the faithful Joseph with the faithful Moses.” (Kohelet Rabbah 9:18) How so?

How did Moses know where Joseph’s bones were buried? Our rabbis teach, Serach the daughter of Asher remained alive from that first generation, and she told Moses, ‘Joseph is hidden in the river Nile. The Egyptians made him a sarcophagus of metal and sank it in the river.’ Moses went and stood by the Nile, took a twig and threw it into the water and said, ‘Joseph, Joseph, the time has come for the oath to be fulfilled that the Holy Blessed One swore to Abraham our father, that He would redeem his children. Give honor to the God of Israel, and do not delay our redemption, for we are waiting on your account!’ Immediately Joseph’s sarcophagus rose to the surface, and Moses took it out of Egypt. (Mekhilta Beshalach)

And not only this, but also, “I have surely remembered you” “Pakod-pakad’ti etchem” (Exodus 3:17) How did Israel know to believe in Moses? When Moses first came before the elders of Israel, and performed his signs, the elders went to Serach, the daughter of Asher, and they said, “A certain man has come, and he has performed signs in our sight, thus and so.” She answered, “There is no substance in his signs.” Then they said to her, “But he has also said, in God’s name, “Pakod pakad’ti – I have surely remembered!” Then Serach said to them, “Then this is the man who is destined to redeem Israel from Egypt, for thus I have heard it from my father.” Immediately, the elders of Israel trusted Serach daughter of Asher and accepted Moses. (Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer 48).

For the first human being received the Secret of Redemption (sod ha-ge’ulah) from the Holy Blessed One. Our rabbis say that Abraham received the secret in turn and passed it on to his son Jacob, and Jacob passed it on to his son Asher, and Asher passed the Secret of Redemption to his daughter Serach, who waited through Israel’s captivity until she heard the promised words from Moses. (Shemot Rabbah 5:13)

Moreover, there are those who say that certain souls entered from this life into the Garden of Eden, without tasting the taste of death – Elijah the Prophet, and Enoch son of Yared, and rare others, some say seven, some say ten; and some say that Serach the Daughter of Asher completes this number, this minyan as well. How did she merit this reward?

Serach was a prophetess, and she knew that Joseph was not dead when his brothers betrayed him into Egypt, and to soothe her grandfather Jacob’s spirit, she hinted to him in a song, as she played the harp before him, that Joseph still lived, so that Jacob’s soul would not fly out his body with shock when he later heard the news. Jacob blessed her and said, “This mouth that has told me that Joseph still lives will never taste the taste of death.” (Alpha Beta de-Ben Sira, in Otzar ha-Midrashim)

And the holy Zohar says, “In another heavenly chamber are Serach the daughter of Asher and all the righteous women,” suggesting that Serach watches over the souls of righteous women beyond this life, just as she has watched over our people from Egypt until this time, linking generation to generation, ensuring continuity, safeguarding the Secret of Redemption.

And this is why it is fitting, at our Passover Seders, to place an extra cup of wine on the table, for Serach the daughter of Asher. For, like Elijah (and unlike even the great Miriam, who may dance with us when the dead are revived), Serach the daughter of Asher never tasted the taste of death, so that she is still present to complete our number, to connect us one to another in times of need, to visit our tables and to bless us with the Secret of Redemption.

And these are the names of the children of Israel who came into Egypt… and the name of the daughter of Asher was Serach.


Another thing. Where was Joshua the son of Nun finally buried, at the end of the one hundred and ten years of his life? “They buried him in the border of his inheritance, in Timnat Serach, which was in the hill country of Efrayim.” (Joshua 24:30) Where else would Joshua have chosen to retire, in his old age? With whom else would he have wanted to keep company and look back over the years? He alone, with Kalev, survived from the generation of the wilderness to enter into the Land. Only those two? No, there was another – someone else with whom Joshua could look back, toward the end of his life, who could remember with him the long journey they both had experienced with Israel, from Egypt to the Land, and all the signs and the wonders. That one was Serach, the daughter of Asher. So it was, when Joshua sent the people to their homes, after his triumphs, "every man to his inheritance," (Joshua 24:28) that Joshua himself went to the hill country of Efraim, to the town of Serach the daughter of Asher – although I do not know of any rabbis elder than us who have observed this.

Note: The name “Serach” is spelled in most of the biblical passages in which it appears with the letter sin and in rabbinic literature with the letter samech.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


So Israel set out with all that was his, and he came to Beer-sheba, where he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. God called to Israel in a vision by night: "Jacob! Jacob!" He answered, "Here." And he said, "I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back, and Joseph's hand shall close your eyes. (Gen. 46:1-4, JPS translation)

Ya’akov was packing to see his son again—he was called Yisrael then, I always forget. And his eyes droop closed, and again, he’s standing on the side of that river bank.

Ya’akov! Ya’akov, he hears! And he says: hineini.

And when a name is repeated, Rashi says that it’s “derech hiba,” touch in a caring way, those boundaries of intimacy, the last time they spoke. Don’t touch, smile, say anything that might be construed as “I love you.”

God loves Ya’akov—had he ever told him before? Does thigh-ripping pain count as love? Did he feel that pain for what it was?

This doubling-up, doubling back nickname. God loves you most when you’re tearing yourself apart.
Avraham gets it once—by the angel, when he’s about to sacrifice his less-loved son.
Moshe gets it once—when he’s about to singe his skin for the incomprehensible miracle.
And Yisrael, I mean Ya’akov, gets it here. He hasn’t seen Yosef in too many years, and he’s ready to die. And behind it all, the story of his fathers: you will be slaves, you will be exiled, you will die in a foreign land.

Are you ready to play your part in the grand game?

Yisrael nods off during his packing. He’s old now, blind like his father, but in his dreams he’s young again. He sees the man on the hillside, ready to fight, but when he’s called by the old-time name, he hesitates. They look at each other like long-time lovers. And instead of wrestling, the angel picks him up, cradles hin lightly. Yosef will shut your eyes, he whispers.

(Was this what it’s like to be a baby held? He weighs almost nothing; his bones have nearly collapsed into dust.)

And he wakes, and everything is green for just a second, and he’s once again Ya’akov, setting out on a grand adventure. Rachel young and beautiful and not yet in his sights. And then he feels his back ache, and tasts old lentils in his mouth. Tomorrow I will see Yosef, he thinks, and then I can sleep.

--Sara Meirowitz

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Vayigash - Out Loud (LimmudLA Podcast)

The Dinah-Episode, three weeks ago, seems to have stunned us all into silence. In hopes of our raising our voices again, here is a link to a podcast on Parashat Vayigash that I recorded this time last year (ba-yamim ha-hem ba-zeman ha-zeh) for LimmudLA while I was at Limmud in England . Chag Urim Sameach, everyone!