Serah Bat Asher: The one who remembers

It is truly remarkable that two short references in the biblical text could generate such a multifaceted woman in midrashic literature.

SERAH SERVES as a bridge connecting past promises to present and future events. (photo credit: Courtesy)
SERAH SERVES as a bridge connecting past promises to present and future events.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There is a curious reference toward the end of the Book of Genesis to a woman who appears twice in the Torah for no apparent reason. While no other daughters are mentioned (and Dinah actually disappears), Serah, the daughter of Asher, is referenced both in Vayigash (Genesis 46:17) and more surprisingly, again in the Book of Numbers (26:46) as one of Jacob’s family members who went down to Egypt. Almost no other women are mentioned in this census-taking, and the 600,000 enumerated are only men over the age of 21.
These two allusions to Serah create a tantalizing gap into which midrashic interpretation enters, weaving together different narratives that flesh out her singular identity. Three distinct yet parallel story lines emerge with regard to her character that help fill in missing details in other story lines at the end of Genesis and beginning of Exodus.
One interpretive arc depicts Serah as the one chosen to tell Jacob that Joseph is alive when the brothers return with the shocking but joyous tidings from Egypt. It is assumed that the young innocent girl will be the most adept at informing Jacob in a gentle, compassionate and feminine way, bracing the shock and ultimately bringing him happiness. She is described as playing a violin as she softly sings the news to her grandfather, reminiscent of the young David soothing Saul with his harp. In return, Jacob blesses her with eternal life in gratitude for resurrecting his spirit. In some traditions, as a result of this blessing, she remains alive for hundreds of years, ultimately going straight up to heaven like Elijah and others who bypass death and directly enter the Garden of Eden.
In another series of midrashim, Serah is a wise woman who remembers the past, serving as a repository of memory. In these narratives, she reveals a secret word that was handed down from Jacob to Joseph to Asher, to identify the savior chosen to bring the children of Israel out of Egypt.
It is Serah who was given this “code” by her father, to connect the words said by Joseph in Genesis 50:24: “But God will surely take notice of you” (pakod yifkod etchem) with words given directly by God to Moses in Exodus 3:16: “I have taken notice of you and of what is being done to you in Egypt,” (pakod pakadeti etchem).
She is the lone survivor from the generation that went down to Egypt, serving as a bridge connecting past promises to present and future events. Only she can absolutely identify Moses as redeemer. It is even more fitting that as a woman she was bequeathed the secret word, pakad, used to describe God opening the wombs of barren women in Genesis, which now, in Exodus, alludes to God’s birthing the children of Israel into nationhood. In this way, Serah joins with the tradition of the women who contribute to the birthing and survival of Moses at the beginning of the Book of Exodus and help facilitate the redemption.
AN ADDITIONAL, poignant narrative that emerges around Serah involves the promise Joseph imposes on his brothers in this week’s portion of Vayehi (Genesis 50: 25-26): “And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying: ‘God will surely notice you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.’ So Joseph died, being a hundred and ten years old. And they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.”
When the time came to leave Egypt, the biblical text (Exodus 13:19) tells us that Moses took Joseph’s bones with him. Rabbinic interpretation wonders how and where he found these bones amid the presumed chaos of exiting Egypt. Several midrashim further explain that the Egyptians did not want to give up Joseph’s body so they sunk it in a metal casket in the Nile. Here too, Serah serves as the bridge between the generation that went down to Egypt and the generation that came out of Egypt, imparting to Moses forgotten and hidden information about the burial of Joseph’s bones and allowing him to fulfil the oath taken by the children of Israel to bring Joseph with them out of Egypt.
The tradition of Serah’s immortality is also reflected in a narrative set in the Talmudic period, in which she appears in order to resolve a disagreement about events that occurred when the Red Sea was parted.
“R. Johanan was sitting in the beit midrash [study hall] and expounding the verse (Ex. 14:22): ‘... the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.’ How could the water become as a wall? R. Johanan expounded that it was a sort of [impervious] net. Serah appeared and said: ‘I was there, and the water was not as a net, but as transparent windows’ (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 11:13).
Serah, who at this point would be over 1,500 years old, is the only one who can testify, in the first person, to the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea. In her wisdom, she is capable of comprehending, and participating in, the aggadic discussion conducted in the beit midrash. Her statement is preferred to that of leading sage R. Johanan, since she has first-hand knowledge of the event.
It is truly remarkable that two short references in the biblical text could generate such a multifaceted woman in midrashic literature. Serah bat Asher uniquely represents the continuity from her grandfather in the patriarchal age to Moses and the events of the Exodus all the way into the Talmudic era. She is the bearer of an oral tradition and of secret knowledge of life and redemption. In this capacity she seems to function as an eternal figure, rather like a female counterpart to Elijah, who will reveal the hidden time of the final redemption when he heralds the coming of the Messiah. ■
The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at Pardes along with courses on Sexuality and Sanctity in the Jewish tradition.