This week's Torah portion is an exciting one as the Children of Israel finally cross the Sea of Reeds and leave slavery for peoplehood. Moses and Miriam lead the people in song and dance and thus this week is also called Shabbat Shirah. But for me this story focuses on a character from our tradition who gives us much to think about. Serach bat Asher, a woman who's name is mentioned as having gone into to Egypt with Jacob and also who came out of Egypt with Moses. Now you could easily think that it was two women with the same names but the Torah tends not to have a whole lot of coincidences. In fact of 54 grandchildren of Jacob mentioned as entering Mitzraim, she is the only daughter. This is a pointer in the Torah to pay attention to her. And so she has a special place for the rabbis as her first mention and her second mention are 210 years apart. That is some longevity.
The Midrash truly illuminate Serach's role in the life of the Jewish people. The most well known of the midrashim about her tells of how she was the first to inform Jacob that his son Joseph was still alive. Fearing that the news will be too much of a shock for the old man, however, she informs Jacob by playing a harp for him, gently mixing in the words that Joseph is “alive and the ruler of all Egypt.” In return, Jacob blesses her, saying “May you live forever and never die.” So she seems to live out her life without death taking her. One of the stories tells that when Moses and the Children of Israel are ready to leave Mitzraim she remembers the promise to Joseph that his bones will go back to the land of his ancestors. Serach shows Moses where the coffin of Joseph was put in the Nile and is with him as he brings it out and collects the bones. Later, in the time of King David in the Second book of Samuel, Serach was "the wise woman" who caused the death of Sheba ben Bichri who had rebelled against King David. She saved her city by convincing the people to throw his head over the wall to appease those seeking to end the rebellion.
Serach appears even later in the history of the people. In the Talmudic period, it Serach who is walking past the house of study and hearing the debate of what the Sea of Reeds looked like when it split settles the matter. It is said she is one of the few people who lived her life without death and entered heaven alive.
Serach fascinates me because she is a wonderful repository of our memories. She serves as a person who remembers where we came from when we have forgotten ourselves. Her piety and compassion to Jacob makes her the perfect person to help those along the journey understand who we are and what we stand for in this world. She symbolizes the importance of the past, even as we look to the future. Serach lived through change, she was there in the time of the patriarchs, sitting at Jacob’s knee, likely knowing the stories told by her grandfather Isaac and even great-grandparents Abraham and Sarah. She lived through the good times in Mitzraim and survived to the dark periods of slavery and death. She communed with Moses, helping him when he led the people to freedom. She was a voice for King David in a time of need. She lived through The Temple period and the Roman occupation. Every major event in ancient Jewish history she was in the center of and some even say she was with the people of Central Europe at the time of the Shoah. Leading her into our own time period and maybe, just maybe she is still with us.
She would be by far the oldest person to ever live. But her long life was not just one of existence. Her stories teach us that reaching back into our past is as important as striving to find the future.
Life is constant motion, every day there is a new break through that allows us to do more, see more, and learn more. We are always looking for the next big thing. Judaism itself is struggling with our future, what will we look like in the next generation? I believe that we are at the water’s edge of our own Sea of Reeds. It is easier to be Jewish, at least in North America, than in any time in history. We now have so many ways to be Jewish in the world and connect with God or a Godness that doesn’t have to be defined by a single understanding of Torah. But those would be meaningless if we don’t remember the history of where we came. Serach’s roles seemed to be to keep everyone honest to their past, not simply the tradition and not simply to follow the voice of their ancestors but to add to it. When Kaplan said that the past has a vote but not a veto he seemed to me to evoke the power of Serach who can remind us where the bones are and what the children of Israel looked like when the erev rav left slavery, not sure of a future and following a sort of stranger into a wilderness.
Today we don’t see Amalikites, Hittites and Assyrians coming over the walls of our cities. While anti-Semitism exists it is still mostly socially unacceptable. We can be fully in the world around us and fully Jewish. We are at a place where young Jews are redefining Judaism for ourselves and Rabbis are writing eulogies for whole movements and the synagogue as an institution as well. Serach is not coming to the rescue, it is up to us to remember for ourselves and to help wonder about what the future can hold. This change is not as dramatic as many in the past, in part because unlike the slavery of Mitzraim, Exile into Babylon, the destruction of the Temple, the Crusades, repressions, and the Shoah, we own this change more than any other. Maybe that is why we don’t need Serach because we are not being forced out of our comfort zone we are walking with our eyes open. I don’t know. What I do know is that there are many things we can take from Serach as the times are changing around us. And maybe that is enough for her to offer.