Kol Isha: Serah bat Asher

Like Elijah the prophet, she never died, but went on to play a critical role in the transition of the Jewish people.

January 24, 2010 19:17
4 minute read.
Kol Isha: Serah bat Asher

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The Talmud records a statement in the name of Rabbi Avira: "By the merit of the righteous women of that generation, the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt" (B. Sota 11b). The first two chapters of Exodus are full of heroic women. From the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to the mother of Moses and Pharaoh's daughter, there is a cohort of women who rise up in conscientious objection against the Egyptian tyranny over the Israelite people.

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Serah bat Asher, though often neglected, should be included in that cohort of "righteous women." Mentioned in the list of those who left Canaan (Genesis 46:17) and in the census at the end of the Israelites' desert sojourn (Numbers 26:46), Serah's story only appears in midrash. As a girl, she was the one to tell Jacob that Joseph was still alive and thriving in Egypt. The patriarch blessed her, saying: "The mouth that told me the news that Joseph is alive will never taste death" (Otzar Hamidrashim; cf. Tg.Ps-Jon. on Gen. 46:17). Like Elijah the prophet, she never died, but went on to play a critical role in the transition of the Jewish people, from a conglomeration of families to a mighty nation.

Because of her longevity, she embodied a living Jewish memory, becoming the sole link to the generation of the patriarchs, lost to the Israelite slaves in Egypt. According to the Zohar, the beginning of the oppression in Egypt is marked by an "exile of the word." Together, Moses and Serah bat Asher are pivotal in bringing the word back - she as the source of memory, bearer of the oral (mouth-to-mouth) tradition, and he as the messenger of divine revelation.

The critical meeting between Moses and Serah bat Asher occurs in the presence of the elders. Prior to this, at the burning bush, Moses was seized with doubt that the Israelites would not believe he had been sent by God as their redeemer. God answered the prophet's anxiety by giving him a set of signs, otot - the staff turns into a snake, Moses's hand becomes leprous and water turns to blood. But He also gave him words, embodied in letters - otiot: "Tell them, the Lord, God of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, appeared to you and said, 'I have taken note of you [pakod pakadeti et'chem] and of what is being done to you in Egypt,'" (Exodus 3:16). These words echo the promise Joseph had uttered when he made his brothers swear to take his bones out of Egypt: "God will surely take note of you [pakod yifkod et'chem] and bring you up from this land..." (Gen. 50:24-25).

After Moses performs the signs and Aaron reiterates all the words God had said: "When they heard that the Lord had taken note of the Israelites... the elders believed Moses and bowed low in homage" (Ex. 4:31). Who makes the connection between God's promise to Moses and Joseph's oath? Serah bat Asher, of course, the sole survivor of the generation that left Canaan.

The midrash Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer presents this meeting in the light of an oral tradition that revolves around the five "letters of redemption," which appear twice in significant expressions of God's providence: kaf, mem, nun, peh and tzadi. These letters differ graphically when they appear at the end of a word, pointing to the telos - the ultimate end - that they signify.

"The letters (peh-peh) were delivered to our father, Abraham. Our father Abraham delivered them to Isaac, and Isaac to Jacob, and Jacob delivered the mystery of the redemption to Joseph, as it is said, 'But God will surely take notice of you [pakod yifkod et'chem]' [Gen. 50:24]. Joseph his son delivered the secret of the redemption to his brothers. Asher, the son of Jacob, delivered the mystery of the redemption to Serah, his daughter.

"When Moses and Aaron came to the elders of Israel and performed the signs in their sight, the elders of Israel went to Serah bat Asher and said to her: 'A certain man has come, and he has performed a set of miraculous signs [otot] before our very eyes.' She said to them: 'There is no significance to these signs.' They said to her: 'He said "I have taken note of you [pakod pakadeti et'chem]'" [Ex. 3:16]. She said to them: 'He is the man who will redeem Israel from Egypt in the future, for so I heard from my father, peh-peh, 'God will surely take note of you [pakod yifkod et'chem]...' (Gen. 50:24). The people then believed in their God and in Moses, as it is said, 'And the people believed when they heard that the Lord had taken note of the Israelites'" (Ex. 4:31) (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 48, my translation).

Serah bat Asher grants Moses authority, endorses his claim to be the redeemer of Israel, not on the basis of the miraculous signs (otot), but on the basis of the letters (otiot) peh-peh, embedded in the critical words: "God has surely taken note of you [pakod pakadeti et'chem]." She uniquely presents the possibility of continuity with a lost generation as bearer of the oral tradition, mouth-to-mouth (peh-el-peh).

Moses, on the other hand, engages with God face-to-face, as the conduit of direct revelation. Both Serah bat Asher and Moses stir the return of the word after a period of exile. Serah, as her name signifies (cf. Ex. 26:12-13), does so by "overlapping" the generations, carrying over the remnants of a promise. Moses, like the bush itself, burns without being consumed; he becomes the vessel of Torah, carrying the divine words of black-fire-on-white-fire to the people.

In our generation, we appear to be missing both figures. Yet we can find models of continuity in the wizened storytellers of a lost generation and in the brilliant scholars of the beit midrash. Perhaps the likes of Serah and Moses continue to stir words, calling for a return from exile.

The writer lectures in Bible and midrash at Matan, the Sadie Rennert Institute for Women's Torah Studies in Jerusalem, as well as internationally.

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