According to the Jewish tradition, there are three righteous people who never died. Or maybe it’s seven (1). Or nine (2). It depends on the source. But all the sources I know of agree on the first three. They are Enoch, who walked with God (3); the prophet Elijah, who ascended to heaven in a whirlwind (4); and Serah, blessed by God with wisdom and by her grandfather Jacob with eternal life. Jewish monster hunters should be on the lookout for Serah. Throughout her life she has been a wise protector and keeper of our forgotten knowledge. (And as I’ll write about next week, a werewolf hunter!) Wouldn’t it be something, to sit with her for an hour and learn from her stories? Or to offer her our company and aid?
Serah’s stories are high adventure! Grab some popcorn and let’s go!
Serah bat Asher & The Gift of Wisdom
Serah was the adopted daughter of Asher and the granddaughter of Jacob, the Patriarch. She was first mentioned in the Torah in the list of Jacob’s household that moved to Egypt, under the protection of Joseph (6). This mention, to careful readers such as Rabbi’s and Jewish monster hunters, is striking. While there is a long list of Jacob’s grandsons, she is the only granddaughter named. So why was she so important? Because, along with Joseph, she was one of two spiritual heirs of Jacob. Serah’s uncles (and two cousins) might have been founders of the 12 tribes, but they were mostly jerks. Eight of them sold her (ninth) uncle Joseph into slavery, right? And, as I mentioned in my previous blog post, her 10th uncle, Benjamin, was a werewolf! Nice family, right? Well, according to the Sefer Yasher, Serah was special from the start.
And after the death of Asher’s wife he went and took Hadurah for a wife, and brought her to the land of Canaan. And Serah her daughter he brought also with them, and she was three years old; and the damsel was brought up in Jacob’s house. And the damsel was of comely appearance, and she went in the holy ways of the children of Jacob, and the Lord gave her wisdom and understanding.
Sefer HaYasher, Bereshit, Vayeshev. (7)
Serah, according to the Sefer HaYasher, is a prophet blessed by God with wisdom, similar to her uncle Joseph. It was Serah who told Jacob that Joseph was still alive. This was a big deal. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son. When, years earlier, Serah’s jerk uncles claimed (falsely) that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal, it almost killed Jacob (8). Now, Serah’s uncles have gone to Egypt, humbled by drought and begging for food, and come back with incredible news. Joseph is alive, has forgiven them, is a high ranking officer under Pharaoh, and wants them to move to Egypt under his protection. But Jacob’s an old man now. How could they tell Jacob without shocking and possibly killing him? They asked Serah to do it.
Serah knew her grandfather well. She had studied with him and was devoted to him (9). She chose just the right moment. Jacob stood in prayer, strengthened by his devotion to God, and Serah joined him joyfully, playing her harp and singing (10). As the Midrash HaGadol tells it….
[The brothers said:]If we tell him right away, “Joseph is alive!” perhaps he will have a stroke [lit., his soul will fly away]. What did they do? They said to Serah, daughter of Asher, “Tell our father Jacob that Joseph is alive, and he is in Egypt.” What did she do? She waited till he was standing in prayer, and then said in a tone of wonder, “Joseph is in Egypt/ There have been born on his knees/ Menasseh and Ephraim” [three rhyming lines]. His heart failed, while he was standing in prayer. When he finished his prayer, he saw the wagons: immediately the spirit of Jacob came back to life.Midrash HaGadol on Genesis 45:26. Translated by Avivah Zornberg (11)
Imagine the power of the moment. Jacob is caught up in his prayers and hears a beloved voice telling him what he always wanted to hear but would never have believed. His broken spirit flies away and returns whole. Joseph is alive. Jacob will live and in gratitude he blesses Serah. And, as I’ve discussed before, the blessing of a patriarch is an immensely powerful thing. Jacob says….
My daughter, may death never prevail against thee forever, for thou hast revived my spirit, only repeat thou this song once more before me, for thou hast caused me gladness with thy words.Sefer HaYashar, Book of Genesis, Vayigash (10)
Serah has been blessed to live forever.
Ok. A quick digression. This first part of Serah’s story connects with how we Jews got to Egypt. In the second part, Serah’s story connects with how we leave. Then the third part connects with how we remember the Exodus.These connections, and the parallels between Serah’s immortality and that of the prophet Elijah’s, makes Serah’s story great to tell at a seder table. If that sounds like fun, you might check out “Serach at the Seder” by Yitzhak Buxbaum (12). He did a lovely job writing a haggadah supplement. Or make your own that fits your seder.
Serah bat Asher, Keeper of Secrets
Jacob’s descendants are crying out in slavery. 400 years has passed from the time that Serah accompanied her tribe to Egypt and a new pharaoh has forgotten Joseph. But Serah still lives. She still remembers the her youth, the high country side, the smells of cooking and animals, the singing at night, and the prayers, as well as Jacob and all she learned from him. Then Moses comes and demands, in the name of God, that Pharaoh release the Hebrews and, just as boldly, demands that the Hebrews be ready to follow him out of Egypt. The Hebrews were confused and scared. Had God finally remembered them? Would Moses demands be met? Or would Moses’s demands bring down additional suffering? The terrible days of Pharaoh’s army murdering newborn Hebrew boys was not that many years ago and still hung over them. Follow Moses? Or reject him? How would they decided? Again, the tribe turned Serah. The Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer tells the story….
A slightly simplified version of Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 48:17 (13)
When Moses and Aaron came to the elders of Israel and performed the signs in their sight, the elders of Israel went to Serah, the daughter of Asher, and they said to her: A certain man has come, and he has performed signs in our sight. She said to them: There is no reality in the signs. They said to her: He said “God will surely visit you.” She said to them: He is the man who will redeem Israel in the future from Egypt, for thus did I hear, “I have surely visited you” (Exodus 3:16). Forthwith the people believed in their God and in His messenger, as it is said, “And the people believed, and when they heard that the Lord had visited the children of Israel” (Exodus 4:31)
Serah had learned deep lessons of Torah from Jacob, who learned them from Isaac who learned them from Abraham and from the school Shem and Ever (9). She recognized Moses’ language for what it was, the prophesied words of God. In so doing, she connected the current generation of Hebrews to the teachings of her teachers and to their own history…and gave them courage and faith.
Finally Pharaoh gave the word that the Hebrews were free and the Hebrews scrambled to ready themselves. But there was still a major task to be done before they could follow Moses out of Egypt. The bones of Joseph had to be found. Joseph, Serah’s uncle who had brought Serah and the tribe to Egypt, had made them swear that they would not leave him behind when they would finally leave Egypt (14). And even with the chariots of Pharaoh readying themselves to give chase, the promise had to be kept.
Moses, who grew up in the home and temples of Pharaoh, did not know where Joseph had been buried. The elders of the Hebrews did not know either. The priests of Egypt, who knew of the promise, had buried Joseph in secret to keep Joseph’s holy body for themselves and to keep the Hebrews from ever leaving. But Serah knew. She’d stood and watched as her uncle’s metal casket was dropped into the same stretch of the Nile river that would later carry Moses’ wicker basket, and even later run with blood.
The Gemara asks: And from where did Moses our teacher know where Joseph was buried? The Sages said: Serah, the daughter of Asher, remained from that generation that initially descended to Egypt with Jacob. Moses went to her and said to her: Do you know anything about where Joseph is buried? She said to him: The Egyptians fashioned a metal casket for him and set it in the Nile River as an augury so that its water would be blessed. Moses went and stood on the bank of the Nile. He said to Joseph: Joseph, Joseph, the time has arrived about which the Holy One, Blessed be He, took an oath saying that I (God) will redeem you. And the time for fulfillment of the oath that you administered to the Jewish people that they will bury you in Eretz Yisrael has arrived. If you show yourself, it is good, but if not, we are clear from your oath. Immediately, the casket of Joseph floated to the top of the water.Sotah 13a (15)
Ok. There’s a lot going on here. Metal caskets (think big amulet), Egyptian magic spells, omens of the future, talking to the dead. Moses is channeling a lot of God’s power. A big part of the Jewish magic tradition centers on Moses. Too much to get into here, but I’ll write lots about it later.
Moses and Serah collected Joseph’s casket and, with the Hebrews, carried it out of Egypt and through the Red Sea. Later, describing the long journey to the promised land, the book of Numbers provides a careful accounting of the Hebrews that survived a plague. Again, the count and the names are those of men (elders and warriors). And again, Serah daughter Asher, granddaughter of Jacob, is counted and named. Even then, she stood watch over us, sharing her wisdom and teaching, joining Miriam in song.
(44) Descendants of Asher by their clans: Of Imnah, the clan of the Imnites; of Ishvi, the clan of the Ishvites; of Beriah, the clan of the Beriites. (45) Of the descendants of Beriah: Of Heber, the clan of the Heberites; of Malchiel, the clan of the Malchielites.— (46) The name of Asher’s daughter was Serah.— (47) These are the clans of Asher’s descendants; persons enrolled: 53,400.Numbers 26:44-47 (16)
MONSTER HUNTER PRO TIPS
1. Make for yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend (17). Serah studied with Jacob. We won’t be so fortunate, but maybe we can study and befriend Serah. And, if not, there are lots of teachers and sources.
2. Be on the lookout for the immortals and other long lived folks. There are many in the tradition. Honor them and support them, as we do all our elders.
2. Blessings are powerful things. While we don’t live in the days of the patriarch’s, there have been other tzadik’s (holy people) who could change the world with a blessing. Maybe there still are.
4. Be wary of other magic. Moses used God’s power to talk to Joseph and raise his bones…but it wasn’t Jewish magic that sank Joseph in the first place.
Serah bat Asher, Teacher of the Sages
Two thousand years later, Serah was still standing watch over us, still sharing her wisdom and still singing. Somewhere around 200 CE, Serah was living in the north of Roman ruled Israel, near Galilee. It was a time of persecution (as most times seem to be). The second Temple had long since fallen and the teachings of the Pharisees had not yet been written down as the Mishna. These teachings were still taught orally, from teacher to student. Serah didn’t study with the teachers, she’d been taught by well Jacob two and half millenia ago. But she did listen in, from time to time, to understand what was being taught. And, occasionally, to make corrections.
Rabbi Yohanan was once sitting and expounding about how the waters became like a wall for Israel [at the time they miraculously passed through the Sea which had split open before them to permit their Exodus from Egypt (see Exodus 14:29, “and the waters were a wall for them on their right and on their left”). Rabbi Yohanan explained that the waters looked “like a lattice.” However, just at that moment, Serah bat Asher looked in and said: “I was there and they (the waters) were not like that but rather like lighted windows”From Pesikta de-Rav Kahana (10:117), Marc Bergman translation (18)
Next week, I’ll continue the story of Serah, with The Exile of Serah and Serah bat Asher, Werewolf Hunter!
Ok. One last digression. I’m a long time music head. I used to write the blog Teruah: Jewish Music. Alicia Jo Rabins is one of my favorite Jewish songwriters and teachers. She’s recorded 3 album’s under the title Girls in Trouble that are both wonderful music and masterful feminist midrash. As Rabin’s describes it, Girls in Trouble is a “indie-folk song cycle about the complicated lives of women in Torah.” Here’s her take on Serah, called “Tell Me.”
The waters parted but it wasn’t like they said,
no iron wall came down to hold them.
Has there been a loneliness like mine,
touching all the hidden walls of time?
Notes and References
(1) According to Tractate Kallah Rabbati 3:25 “Seven people entered Gan Eden alive, namely: Serach, as it says, I am one of those who seek the welfare of the faithful in Israel. I am the one who completed the number of those who entered Gan Eden” (Hebrew). I’m borrowing this translation from Mark Solomon’s Sefaria sheet “Serach bat Asher – The Transmitter of Secrets” I’ve reached out to Solomon to see if it’s his translation and will update this when I know. https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/132068?lang=bi
(2) According to Tractate Derekh Eretz Zuta 1:18, “Nine people entered Gan Eden alive, namely: Enoch son of Jared, Elijah, the Messiah, Eliezer the servant of Abraham, Hiram king of Tyre and Eved-Melech the Ethiopian, Jabez the [grand]son of Judah (see I Chronicles 4:9-10), Batya the daughter of Pharaoh, and Serach bat Asher, and some say also Rabbi Joshua ben Levi.” I’ll write about all nine, eventually. I’m borrowing this translation from Mark Solomon’s Sefaria sheet “Serach bat Asher – The Transmitter of Secrets” https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/132068?lang=bi
(3) Enoch is described as walking with, being taken by taken, by God in Genesis 5:23 and 5:24. https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.5?lang=en&aliyot=0
(4) Elijah ascends via whirlwind in II Kings, Chapter 2, verse 1. https://www.sefaria.org/II_Kings.2?lang=en. No…he did not land on the Witch of the West. You’re thinking of Dorothy.
(5) “Song of Life” from New Art of an Ancient People: The Work of Ephraim Moses Lillian by M. S. Levussove. I’m crazy about Lillian’s work. I color adjusted it a bit from a scanned original printing available at https://archive.org/details/newartanancient00levugoog/page/n18.
(6) Serah’s first mention in Genesis 46.17 https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.46.16?lang=en&with=all&lang2=en
(7) Sefer ha-Yasher is a Hebrew Midrash on early biblical history. This english is from the Edward B.M. Browne, New York, 1876 English translation. https://www.sefaria.org/Sefer_HaYashar_(midrash)%2C_Book_of_Genesis%2C_Vayeshev?ven=Sefer_ha-Yashar,__trans._Edward_B.M._Browne,_New_York,_1876&lang=bi
(8) Genesis 37:35 says of Jacob that All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, saying, “No, I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol.” Thus his father bewailed him. https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.37?lang=en&aliyot=0
(9) According the Jewish tradition, there was already a great deal to study by the time of Jacob and Serah, including the Sefer HaMalaach Raziel (Book of the Angel of God’s Secret) written by Adam and the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation) written by Abraham, as well as pre-flood Torah and mystical teachings passed down to Jacob’s father Isaac when Isaac studied in the yeshiva (school) of Shem, son of Noah, and Ever, Shem’s grandson.
(10) Sefer HaYasher. Book of Genesis, Vayigash. Browne translation. https://www.sefaria.org/Sefer_HaYashar_(midrash)%2C_Book_of_Genesis%2C_Vayigash.9?ven=Sefer_ha-Yashar,__trans._Edward_B.M._Browne,_New_York,_1876&lang=bi
(11) Midrash HaGadol, Genesis 45:26, translated by Translated by Avivah Zornberg in her book Genesis, the Beginning of Desire. See her website http://www.avivahzornberg.com/. I found this reference and translation in Moshe Reiss’ excellent essay “Serah bat Asher in Rabbinic Literature.” https://jbqnew.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/421/JBQ_421_8_reissserach.pdf
(12) Serach at the Seder: A Haggadah Supplement. Yitzhak Buxbaum. You can get a copy from him via website. http://www.jewishspirit.com/Serach/Serach.html. Or you can build your own Serah Bat Asher haggadah supplement that works for you and your seder.
(13) The Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer tells this story in the context of a fascinating discussion on the role of the letters of the Torah in redemption. Here’s an abbreviated version of it. See Sefaria for the whole text. Rabbi Eliezer said: The five letters of the Torah, which alone of all the letters in the Torah are of double (shape), all appertain to the mystery of the Redemption…..With “Pê” “Pê” Israel was redeemed from Egypt, as it is said, “I have surely visited you, (Paḳôd Paḳadti) and (seen) that which is done to you in Egypt, and I have said, I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt” (Ex. iii. 16, 17)….These letters were delivered only 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 visit (Paḳôd yiphḳôd) you” (Gen. 1. 24). … Asher, the son of Jacob, delivered the mystery of the Redemption to Serah his daughter.
(14) Exodus 13:19. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, “God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.” https://www.sefaria.org/Exodus.13.19?lang=en&with=all&lang2=en
(15) Sotah 13. https://www.sefaria.org/Sotah.13a.14?ven=William_Davidson_Edition_-_English&lang=bi
(16) Numbers 26.46. https://www.sefaria.org/Numbers.26.46?lang=en&with=all&lang2=en
(17) “Make for yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend” is one of the most famous teachings in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers. https://www.sefaria.org/Pirkei_Avot.1.6?ven=Open_Mishnah&lang=en&with=all&lang2=en
(18) Pesikta de-Rav Kahana. Aggadic Midrash written between c.400 – c.700 CE. Translated by Marc Bergman in his outstanding essay “Serah Bat Asher:
Biblical Origins, Ancient Aggadah and Contemporary Folklore” https://judaic.arizona.edu/sites/judaic.arizona.edu/files/files-event/Bregman.pdf. Hebrew source available at https://www.sefaria.org/Pesikta_D’Rav_Kahanna?lang=en
(19) the Providence Lithograph Company [Public domain] https://commons.wikimedia.org
(20) “Tell Me” Alicia Jo Rabins. From the Girls in Trouble album Half You Half Me. https://aliciajo.com/. The Tell Me video was recorded live at the Living Room in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 2015. Alicia Jo Rabins, vocals, violin and loop pedal; Aaron Hartman, bass.