Over the course of the next few shabbatot, we will be reading about the Exodus from Egypt – the transformation of the Israelites from a motley family of twelve brothers to a nation six-hundred-thousand strong (two million if one counts the women and children). Yet, according to Rabbi Avira, it was only “by the merit of the righteous women of that generation that the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt” (b. Sota 11b). The first two chapters of Exodus are full of heroic women — some named, some anonymous; some Jewish, some gentile. From the midwives, Shifra and Puah, to the daughter of Levi and the daughter of Pharaoh (Moses’ birth mother and the princess who raised him), there is a cohort of women who rise up in conscientious objection against the Egyptian tyranny over the Israelite people. Serah bat Asher, though often neglected, should be included in that cohort of “righteous women.” Mentioned by name in the list of those who left Canaan (Gen. 46:17) and in the census at the end of the Israelites’ desert sojourn (Num. 26:46), the narrative about Serah 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 then blessed her, saying: “The mouth that told me the news that Joseph is alive will never taste death.” So Serah bat Asher entered Paradise alive (Otzar ha-Midrashim; 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 embodies a living Jewish memory, becoming the sole link to the generation of the patriarchs, lost to the Israelite slaves in Egypt. The beginning of Exodus (the book of Shemot, lit. names), ironically, is marked by a radical discontinuity, represented by the nation’s descent into anonymity, as they became “fertile and prolific, and multiplied and increased very, very greatly” (Exod. 1:7). With the exception of the midwives, there is a distinct absence of names after the twelve brothers pass away – symptomatic of the dehumanization of the enslavement. According to the Zohar, the oppression is also marked by an “exile of the word” [galut ha-dibur]. At the end of chapter two, the people can only groan under their slavery, moan and cry for help (there are four different Hebrew expressions of their wordless anguish – va-ye’anhu, va-yiza‘aqu, shav‘atam, na’akatam – appear in Exod. 2:23-24), while God hears their inarticulate cries. Language itself goes into quiescence, into exile. Both Moses and Serah bat Asher are pivotal in bringing the word back – she as the agent of living 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’ 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 [paqod paqadeti etkhem] and of what is being done to you in Egypt…’” (Exod. 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 [paqod yiphqod etkhem] 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” (Exod. 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, Pirqe 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-kaf, mem-mem, nun-nun, peh-peh, and tzadi-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 [delivered them] to Jacob, and Jacob delivered the mystery of the redemption to Joseph, as it is said, “But God will surely take notice of you (paqod yiphqod etkhem)” (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 take note of you [paqod paqadeti etkhem]” (Exod. 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 [paqod yiphqod etkhem]…’” (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” (Exod. 4:31). [Pirqe 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 [paqod paqadeti etkhem].” Significantly, the term paqad, to take note or remember, first occurs in the Bible in the context of Isaac’s conception: “And the Lord took note of Sarah [paqad et Sarah] as He had promised…” (Gen. 21:1). Paqad does not imply God had forgotten but, rather, the time had now come to fulfill the divine promise – in Genesis, the birth of Abraham and Sarah’s son, Isaac, as heir to the covenant, and in Exodus, in the birth of the nation, Israel. God’s act of remembering, paqad, is like the focus of dispersed light into a beam, the focal point being Sarah, and later her descendants.
Like the matriarch, Serah bat Asher becomes the bearer of a promise. While Sarah carries the promise in her body, Serah carries it through her lucidity. 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 (panim-el-panim), as the conduit of direct revelation. Both Serah bat Asher and Moses revive the possibility of language, stir the return of the word after a period of exile. Serah, as her name signifies (cf. Exod. 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 at a loss for both figures. Yet we can find models of continuity in the wizened story tellers 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.
A version of this article was published in the “Kol Isha” column of the Jerusalem Post, Jan. 22nd 2010, and on the website of Matan as the Rosh Hodesh Shvat essay in memory of Edythe Benjamin: http://www.matan.org.il/eng/show.asp?id=36471. A longer version of this essay appears as “Serah bat Asher: Songstress, Poet, Woman of Wisdom” in Torah of the Mothers, ed. Susan Handelman and Ora Wiskind-Elper (Jerusalem: Urim 2000), 218-243.