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I have been puzzling over Parashah Va’yechi for the better part of the week. Each word seems to hold so much power- everything is important here. Not the least of which is the end of the book of Genesis. Like any good novel, there is a cliffhanger. Joseph swears on his Egyptian deathbed that his children or his children’s children will return to the Promised Land. Genesis ends with Joseph’s death and the promise of a sequel.
Exodus begins many generations later, so long after Joseph’s death that the new pharaoh of Egypt has never heard of Joseph and how he saved the Egyptian people from starvation. From Genesis to Exodus, we leap a period of 430 years in which time the tribe of Israel grows from a group of 70 into a large population, so numerous that the new Pharaoh fears their power. 430 years-it’s a long time, and yet this people somehow maintain a connection that eventually led to their willing exodus from Egypt and a return home. The Israelites kept alive Joseph’s promise in Parashah Va’yechi, “God will surely remember you and bring you up from the land.” It could not have been Moses alone who reminded the slaves of their history. After all, he did not find out about his history until he was a young man. Therefore, there must have been something innate within this people, as if kindling had already been gathered, it was just waiting for a spark of light.
The Midrash teaches that the spark of light came in the form of Serach Bat Asher, who carried the institutional memory of the Jewish people. Although many of us have never heard her name, she is among the heroes of the Torah. Serach is mentioned twice in our biblical text. The first time occurs in Genesis 46:17 where she is counted in the list of seventy who went down to Egypt with Jacob, the only daughter listed in a line of sons. It is interesting that she is the only woman mentioned here but even more interesting is that she appears again, in Numbers 26:24 among the list of those that left Egypt. Serach has a life-span of over 430 years. That type of longevity takes more than yogurt and clean living. There is something greater going on here.
The rabbis note that she is the only one on both lists, and a woman, so they create several midrashim explaining her importance.
Midrash one: Serach was a woman of unusual gifts. Her talents were recognized by her uncles, Jacob’s sons. After trapping their brother Joseph, and selling him into slavery, the brothers tell their father that Joseph has been killed. Years later, Joseph reappears in Egypt and the family must tell their father that his favored son is still alive. Worried that the news may kill Jacob, the brother’s ask Serach, Asher’s daughter, to convey the information. She waits until Jacob is enraptured in prayer, not aware of what is occurring around him, and whispers in his ear, “Joseph is in Mitzrayim and has fathered two sons Menashe and Ephraim.” (A little rhyme). Jacob thinks that the information comes from the mouth of God. And so, because of Serach, the children of Israel descend into Egypt with their father’s approval and Jacob blesses his granddaughter saying, “My child may death never rule over you as you have brought my spirit back to life.” This blessing perhaps explains her longevity.
Serach’s father considered her the heir of the family legacy, and saw her as the wise ruler who would continue the chain of tradition. In the Midrash on Exodus 3:16 we learn that Asher entrusted Serach with the secret code that Moses hears at the moment of the burning bush. This code, the Midrash tells us, was passed down from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph to Serach. Therefore, when Moses comes before the elders of Israel, sharing God’s words and Moses’ mission, Serach knows that he is the rightful leader. She convinces the other elders to follow Moses, and continues to support Moses’ decisions.
Moses depends on Serach’s memory once more: at the crucial moment before crossing the Red Sea. On his deathbed, Joseph made his brother’s swear that they would bury him in the land of Canaan where his ancestors were buried. But as Joseph was a great Egyptian, he was mummified and placed in the ground with great pomp and ceremony and his bones remained in Egypt. The Exodus thus becomes entwined with returning Joseph’s bones to the land. In Exodus 13:19 we read that Moses took the bones of Joseph with him before leaving Egypt. What it doesn’t explain is how Moses knows where to find Joseph. After all, 430 years have passed. Serach enters our story once again. The rabbis explain that Serach advises Moses, telling him that the Egyptians had put Joseph’s body into a metal coffin, which they sank into the Nile. With her great knowledge, Serach prevents the last obstacle that could have forestalled the exodus.
Serach enters the Torah like a phantom, someone we see out of the corner of our eye but never in full view. Like her sisters and mothers, she nearly disappears, yet her presence, while almost invisible, carries great weight in the historic tale. We would not be where we stand today without the knowledge of Serach. And so, this woman enters the biblical account to teach us what we have truly learned this year, to look in corners for the true heroes, and not to overlook anyone because they are quiet or isolated or elderly or young. We are all important and each and every one of us has their name inscribed on the chain of tradition.
With the moments of our lives, through memory, we all create space for another’s Exodus. One generation cannot stand alone- it must stand on the shoulders of those who came before. And although we may not know the names of our great-grandparent’s grandparents they are a part of who we continue to become. May we bless their memory by holding fast the tradition that so many gave their lives for.
In this new year, may we all serve as heros, not for the grand accolades rather for the quiet, unnoticed moments of personal satisfaction.