Where are all the women?
This week’s parsha lists everyone who goes down to Egypt. It is remarkable that of Jacob’s 54 grandchildren, only one is a woman: Serach bat Asher. Nachum Sarna notes in his commentary on Genesis “the general tendency to omit women from the genealogies”. The question, then, should be reversed. Why is there a woman in the list? What is special about Serach bat Asher?
In the Torah, all we have are three mentions of her name. Midrashic literature, however, adds much depth. Let’s look at three stories about Serach.
The first story sees Serach chosen to tell Jacob that his son Joseph is alive. In the midrash (Midrash ha-Gadol 45:26), Jacobs’ sons are fearful how their father will take the news. Joseph has been assumed dead for 22 years. Would Jacob go into shock, would he survive? Serach, playing a harp, sings to Jacob poetically of Joseph alive in Egyptwith children at his knees. Not only does Jacob survive but according to our sages, Ruach ha-kodesh, the spirit of prophecy, returns to him. Through her gentle and wise way of poetry and song, Serach breathes life back into her grandfather and is rewarded. Jacob promises her that she will never die, that she will enter Paradisealive.
Many years later, Serach again plays a crucial role in Jewish history, identifying Moshe as the real redeemer of the Jewish people. Moshe, commanded by G-d to save his people, worries how he will convince the people that he is sent by G-d. G-d teaches him the words pakod pakadti etchem; I have taken note of you. Moshe does not see how that will work. He requests and receives miraculous signs to show the people. In the midrash (Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 48), the elders go to Serach and ask her about Moshe’s miraculous signs. She says that signs do not prove anything. Then they relate how he said pakod yifkod. She says that this is indeed a proof. Joseph said these words to his brothers (Genesis 50:24) when he prophesied that G-d would redeem us from Egypt. Serach, the only person alive who heard those words then, relates them now. She serves as a link in a time when the connection to the forefathers is weakened. Moshe himself is disconnected from his people. He is raised in Pharaoh’s palace and then lives with the Midianites. He needs to earn the people’s trust. The person who grants him this is Serach, the embodiment of continuity.
One final story of Serach is told. In the midrash (Genesis Rabbah 94:9), many generations later, she is also the wise woman who stops David’s military commander, Yoav, from destroying a whole city for one man who rebelled against the king. She mediates between the people and Yoav, preventing the massacre of a whole city. Although it is not so plausible for Serach to still be alive in the time of David, this story fits in with the same theme.
Serach bat Asher has a greatness for which she deserves a special mention in the Torah. She knows how to use words to save life and to give life. She uses her long lifespan to preserve those life-giving words.