How many times have we searched for a place to cross over, for a bridge from one place, one experience, one time to another?
My daughter and I took a walk through the woods on a recent Shabbat afternoon. We bundled up against the December chill, and delighted in watching the light filter through the branches of the nearly naked trees onto the leaf-strewn path.
When we arrived at the edge of a small stream, we looked for a place to cross so that we could continue our walk together. How many times have we searched for a place to cross over, for a bridge from one place, one experience, one time to another?
In Vayechi, the final portion of Genesis, the patriarch Jacob blesses each of his sons, preparing them to lead the tribes of Israel. After the brothers bury their father, they return to Egypt, where they express their fear that Joseph has not truly forgiven them for having sold him into slavery. Joseph weeps as he reassures them that he “will provide for you and your little ones,” speaking “straight to their hearts.” The portion, and this first book of our Torah, concludes with Joseph’s death.
Serach bat Asher (Genesis 46:17), an often overlooked biblical character, is the bridge from the book of Genesis to the book of Exodus. Serach appears again in the book of Numbers (26:40), where she is named as having come out of Egypt, and in I Chronicles (7:30). The rabbis connected these passages and imagined Serach as a meritorious woman whose deeds were rewarded with long — perhaps perpetual — life.
The midrash tells how Serach, as a young girl, was a constant companion to her grief-stricken grandfather, Jacob, who believed that his beloved Joseph had been killed by a wild beast. When the brothers, years later, discover that their brother Joseph is alive, and has become the viceroy of Egypt, they do not know how to share this news with their father. Serach sings to her elderly grandfather, revealing to him through song that Joseph lives.
Jacob blesses her with eternal life.
Another midrash presents Serach as the one who helps Moses find Joseph’s bones, without which the Israelites cannot return to the land of Israel. Additional midrashim link Serach to King David’s reign, and identify her with the “eshet chayil,” the woman of strength, valor and wisdom described in Proverbs 31.
The Zohar teaches that she continues to teach Torah and share her wisdom from a heavenly palace. Serach links the patriarchal narratives, and the book of Genesis, with the stories of our enslavement, our desert wanderings, the revelation of the Torah and the conquest of the land.
Rabbi Hara Person imagines Serach as a family historian: “the keeper of tales,/ the finder of bones,/ the weaver of loose ends.”
As this portion, and the book of Genesis come to a close, Rabbi Person’s Serach mirrors the challenges faced by each of us who serve as bridges from one time, one space, one world to another. As the world changes, so must our understanding of our pasts, and our stories.
May we, like Serach, have the wisdom to discern how and when to share hard truths. Our stories can sustain us, if we learn how to sing them, how to speak them, how to share them with those who follow us.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: [email protected]