Following forty years of Am Yisrael wandering in the desert, this week’s parsha lists all the families of the tribes as they are about to enter the land. In the genealogy of the tribe of Asher, we find a most peculiar verse (Bamidbar 26:46): “And Asher’s daughter’s name was Serah”. The Torah does not go on go list any of her descendants, nor does it mention any special deed that she performed. A whole verse in the Torah is devoted just to telling us the name of Asher’s daughter! What makes this even more puzzling is that we met Serah already long ago – in Sefer Bereishit, in the list of the seventy descendants of Yaakov who went down to Egypt. What has she got to do with the list of families that inherit the land 450 years later?
In the Midrash, Hazal “lengthen” the lives of two personalities in our parsha, awarding them starring roles in multi-generational narratives. Pinhas is identified by the Sages as Eliyahu, and Serah – as the wise woman of Tekoa mentioned in Shmuel II chapter 20. Pinhas and Eliyahu are familiar, well-known characters. But who is Serah?
If we look at some of the roles that Hazal give to Serah, we may try to understand their perception of who she was.
The first role (Midrash Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 47): When Moshe returns to Egypt, after many years in Midian, and performs his signs before the elders of Israel, the elders consult with Serah as to whether Moshe is a genuine redeemer or a charlatan. Serah asks which exact words Moshe used to define his mission, and tells them that her father (Asher) taught her the formula that would represent their redeemer and their redemption: “pakod pakadeti”. Moshe’s prophecy matches this formula. Thus, Serah holds the key to authenticating the true redeemer; she validates his role.
The second role attributed to Serah involves the time of the Exodus, when Moshe is looking for Yosef’s coffin, so as to be able to carry his remains back to Canaan, as Yosef made his sons promise: “God will surely remember you (“pakod yifkod”) and you shall take up my bones from here”. But no-one knows where Yosef is buried. Moshe appeals to Serah, and she shows him the place (Tosefta Sotah 4, 7).
Serah’s third role is played out in the context of the civil war that Sheva ben Bikhri brings about when he rebels against King David. There, Serah is identified by Hazal as the woman of Tekoa who saves the city with her wisdom, and brings the war to an end (Bereishit Rabba 94, 9).
In both of the first two roles, the Torah makes use of the Hebrew root “p-k-d”. This verb is used in two senses: it is used in the context of mercy that brings redemption, and also in the context of mercy that brings childbirth. God had mercy (pakad) on Sara and Hanna, granting them children; God also “had mercy” (pakad) on His nation to take them out of Egypt. The significance of this merciful “pekidah” is also related to counting days or remembrance; it connotes something of the modern expression “to consult one’s diary” – i.e., to check which tasks are waiting to be addressed, to organize the details within the bigger picture.
Hence, at times of turbulent crisis, at the point that lies in between terrible slavery and the hope of redemption, the nation seeks advice from Grandma – the great-Grandma of Am Yisrael, who has lived through the ups and downs of the nation’s history and is not frightened or anxious in the face of present difficulties.
The third role involves a different sort of crisis. The men are waging a cruel civil war that is tearing apart David’s kingdom. The wise woman of Tekoa succeeds in causing Sheva ben Bikhri to be killed, bringing the war to an end. Why do Hazal associate her with Serah? According to the Midrash, the verse “I am among those who faithfully seek the welfare of Israel (shelumei emunei yisrael)” (Shmuel II 20:19) points to Serah. As Rashi explains: “Serah was the daughter of Asher. [She says, as it were,] “I have faithfully carried out (hishlamti ne’eman) the promise to the faithful one”. By revealing to Moshe the burial place of Yosef, I demonstrated to Yaakov that Yosef [in the form of his descendants, who carry out his wishes] lives on”. With perfect faith, she sees the larger picture; in between the clouds of hatred and civil war she manages to perceive the solution that has been hidden from everyone else.
Pinhas represents zealousness for God – the refusal to compromise in the face of the foreign cultures and the foreign women surrounding Am Yisrael. Serah represents the Jewish Grandma of all of us; the life’s wisdom and the broader perspective of generations that have fallen and arisen, mourned and returned to life. Her voice is the deep, elderly voice of the nation-family and its rich experience. Hazal teach us that at the very beginning of his historical mission, Moshe receives Serah’s stamp of approval.
The verse in our parsha tells us nothing of Serah’s deeds. What is important is that she exists; that she is there for us, and always has been – the national grandma.
Two narratives play themselves out over the course of the generations. Pinhas is more famous; he is more active on the national stage and he reacts quickly to what is happening. Serah lives in the wings, waiting; she advises and intervenes only when she needs to. Her veteran perspective, capable of analyzing the problems of the present within the wider context of the generations, helps us to remember the grave of Grandpa, to be able to distinguish between false hopes and true redemption, and to solve the problems that day-to-day events cause within a family.
In these days of tension and anxiety over the decree of exile from parts of our land, with all parties readying themselves for battle, we should ask “Grandma Serah – where are you? Please, we really need you!”