I opened my last post saying, “We grow, love, and die in the flash of a firefly on a summer evening. But not Serah bat Asher. She lives forever.” But maybe that’s not right. Let’s try again….
We grow, love, and die in the time it takes for a snowflake to fall. But not Serah bat Asher. She’s still falling …. with no soft snowbank to catch her.
Serah in Exile
What did Jacob mean when he blessed her saying “may death never prevail against thee forever?” Did that mean that she would live an immortal, physical, life on Earth, as I suggested in my two prior posts? Maybe. But that isn’t what happened to either Enoch or Elijah, the other two most noteworthy immortal humans in the Jewish tradition. Both of them ascended from a mortal life on Earth to become part of the heavenly court (1). There is a tradition, in the Mizrahi Jewish community, that says Serah ascended as well. Falling up, to the heavenly court to again study with Joseph and Jacob (2).
For Serah, though, there was no miraculous whirlwind to carry her away (1), there was just a fire. She burned, trapped with other Jews of Esfahan, as the old synagogue collapsed. It was the 12th century CE and she had been living Esfahan, Persia (now Iran), since the the 9th century CE (3). She’d been moving back and forth between Israel and Persia since Israel was the Kingdom of Judah, before the Babylonian exile (in the 500’s BCE). When the smoke cleared and the stones cooled other bodies remained to be mourned but Serah was gone. She had been taken, alive, to paradise.
When the synagogue was rebuilt it became known as the Synagogue of Serah bat Asher. According to Mark Bergman, “In the Jewish cemetery of Isfahan, there was to be found, at least until the end of the 19th century, a gravestone marking the final resting place of “Serah the daughter of Asher the son of our Patriarch Jacob” who died in the year equivalent to 1133 CE. The gravesite of Serah bat Asher marked by a small mausoleum known as heder Serah, “Serah’s Room,” remained for centuries one of the most well known pilgrimage sites for the Jews of Persia (4).”
Serah the Healer
Serah’s ascension was just a transition. She was still the same immortal protector she’d been. The same daughter of Asher and granddaughter of Jacob she had always been. She just now had a balcony view and new roles and powers. In particular, she would become known as a healer and as a teacher of mystical knowledge to women (2). Her shrine was a place of healing, similar to the matriarch Rachel’s Tomb, near Bethlehem. (7) In its collection, the Israel Folktale Archives (IFA) that was recorded in 1978 by the Darshan (“Preacher”) Mulah Shmuel Shammai from Yazd, Persia (Iran) (4). While the story is probably more poetic than ethnographic, it shows how Serah was revered and the role she played. I’ve abridged the story a bit.
Once there was in Esfahan a boy name named Hayyim who lost his sight. When the physicians gave up hope of curing him, Hayyim was told by his neighbors to go and prostrate himself at the gravestone of Serah bat Asher and there to lift up his hands in supplication to the Heavenly Healer.
Here the storyteller explains as follows:
In the Iranian Exile the Jews are accustomed to prostrate themselves at the gravestone of Serah, as the custom here in Israel is to prostrate oneself at the tomb of our Matriarch Rachel in Bet Lehem. Like the tomb of Rachel, so too the tomb of Serah is located in a “room” (i.e., a mausoleum). This room has wondrous doorposts. It is well-known that only people who are of good character and deeds may enter; but anyone else—the entrance to the room shrinks before him and prevents him from entering.
Young Hayyim prayed and fasted so that he would be found worthy to enter the room and in the evening he went to the room of Serah in Esfahan and the doorposts of the entrance open wide before him. He entered and spread out his hands before the Heavenly Healer. He cried with a broken heart and offered his petition: “O Heavenly Healer, return to me by the merit of this righteous woman the light of my eyes. But if you say: I have promulgated an irrevocable decision and I cannot repeal it, then be it known to you that my soul longs for Torah. Give me, then, my father and my king, the light of Torah. Give me wisdom to understand Your teaching.”
When Hayyim had finished his prayer, he fell asleep. At midnight, while dreaming, there appeared to him a woman, whose face was like the face of an angel of God. She said to him: I am Serah bat Asher. I have joined in your prayer. Behold I bring you good tidings that God has had mercy on you and has granted your second petition.
Hayyim was happy that his prayer had been answered and awoke from his dream much encouraged. As time went on, Hayyim learned Torah. He knew it and the Siddur and the Mahzor by heart. As Hayyim grew, his dream was fulfilled. He immersed himself in the depths of Torah. He became a much sought after Hazan (“Cantor”), a well-known preacher and a famous Mulah. Behold, he is none other than the Mulah, Hayyim Rushan (“the Blind” in Iranian) from Isfahan. May his merit protect us!”
Israel Folktale Archives (IFA) number 11999. Marc Bergman, translation. (e)
So did Jacob’s blessing of immortality include spiritual ascension or is it strictly physical and Serah still walks the Earth? The answer, as is often the case in Judaism, is both…depending on which sources you’re focusing on. The two different traditions of Serah’s immortality mirror, I think, two different ideas in Judaism about what happens after we die. Judaism is very clear that something happens to us after we die. But the details are fuzzy, there are traditions that talk specifically about restoration of the body in Israel and other traditions that talk of spiritual rebirth at the side of God. I’ll get to them in later blog posts, because a Jewish monster hunter needs to be ready to deal with ghosts, both tethered and wandering, dybbuk possession, both ghost and demon), and other ways the after-death experience can come back and interfere the living we protect.
MONSTER HUNTER PRO TIPS
1. Be ready to ask for help. Healing, and other kinds of power, come from God, but we have a history of asking angels, sages, prophets, and ancestors for a little support. Hey…Moses and Abraham both talked God out of scary decrees in the past. It’s worth a try.
Notes and References (1) I will write about Enoch and Elijah’s ascensions in later blog posts. Each have a large volume of lore around them, far too much to get into here. (2) According to the Zohar, after her ascension Serah took up a new role as the teacher of Torah and mystical wisdom to women. From Zohar,“(I)n another chamber, there is Serah bat Asher, and many myriads and thousands of women with her. Three times a day, the announcement comes: The likeness of Yosef the tzadik is coming! With joy she goes out, to that curtained area which is dedicated to her, and observes the light of the likeness of Yosef. With joy she bows before it, saying, “Happy was that day, when I gave the tidings before my grandfather [that you were still alive]!” Then she returns to the rest of the women, and they delve into the praises of the Ruler of the world, and praise the Name. How many places and joys each and every one of them has! Then they return and delve into the precepts of Torah, along with their meanings.”Zohar 3:167a:5 (3) http://archive.diarna.org/site/detail/public/774/ and Schwartz Tree of Souls (4) Marc Bergman’s “Serah Bat Asher: Biblical Origins, Ancient Aggadah and Contemporary Folklore” (5) Image by Kipala.Wikimedia Commons. The image is licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. (6) The shrine for Serah bat Asher at the Jewish cemetery in Pir Bakrah, in the province of Isfahan, Iran. The picture is from the “Salmiya: Glimpses of the Middle East” blog post titled “Pir Bakran” and is reused on the website “Diarna: The Geo-Museum of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Life” page about the Serah bat Asher shrine. The blog post has lots of other pictures and a description of the author, Muller’s, visit to the Pir Bakran Jewish and Sufi cemetery’s and the Serah bat Asher shrine. (7) Rachels Tomb is one of the holiest sites in Judaism has a long tradition of being a place of healing. Wikepedia has a nice write up on the Tomb.
We grow, love, and die in the flash of a firefly on a summer evening. But not Serah bat Asher. She lives forever. As I described in my last post, “Serah bat Asher: Immortal Secret Keeper,” Serah had lived for two thousand years by the time she leaned into Rabbi Yohannan’s window to tell him that the Red Sea looked like lighted glass. By 2020, she’s nearing 4000. That’s about 130 generations of Jews for whom she’s looked out. Give or take. While the Jewish tradition doesn’t chronicle all of her adventures, there are a few more to share. Which is great, because each one has something deep to teach us.
Serah bat Asher, Werewolf Hunter!
The Tanach, in II Samuel, tells of Serah saving a city during the reign of King David and of her hunting werewolves! Sheba ben Bichri, a “scoundrel” of the tribe of Benjamin, was leading a rebellion against King David. David sends his army, lead by Joab, to smack down the rebellion. First, Joab applies some pre-game stabbiness to another of David’s generals (1). Then he and his troops catch up with Sheba, who’s hiding with his troops in city of Abel of Beth-maacah. Which is a great hideout for a scoundrel. It’s up on a hill, strong walls, lots of locals to use as human shields. Perfect! To support the kingdom of Israel, and to stop the conflict before Joab tears down the city walls and applies more stabbiness to the city’s inhabitants, an unnamed “clever woman” comes out of city and demands to speak to Joab. First she convinces him that attacking is a bad move (why destroy one of David’s cities? David might want it later). Then she convinces the people of the city to decapitate Sheba and throw his head over the wall (2). While the Tanach doesn’t identify the woman, Rashi does. The clever woman was, of course, Serah who “completed the faithful of Israel. (3).”
A scoundrel named Sheba son of Bichri, a Benjaminite, happened to be there. He sounded the horn and proclaimed: “We have no portion in David, No share in Jesse’s son! Every man to his tent, O Israel!” … And David (the king) said to Abishai, “Now Sheba son of Bichri will cause us more trouble than Absalom. So take your lord’s servants and pursue him, before he finds fortified towns and eludes us.”….
[E]verybody continued to follow Joab in pursuit of Sheba son of Bichri. [Sheba] had passed through all the tribes of Israel up to Abel of Beth-maacah; and all the Beerites assembled and followed him inside. [Joab’s men] came and besieged him in Abel of Beth-maacah; they threw up a siegemound against the city and it stood against the rampart. All the troops with Joab were engaged in battering the wall, when a clever woman shouted from the city, “Listen! Listen! Tell Joab to come over here so I can talk to him.”
He approached her, and the woman asked, “Are you Joab?” “Yes,” he answered; and she said to him, “Listen to what your handmaid has to say.” “I’m listening,” he replied.
And she continued, “In olden times people used to say, ‘Let them inquire of Abel,’ and that was the end of the matter. I am one of those who seek the welfare of the faithful in Israel. But you seek to bring death upon a mother city in Israel! Why should you destroy the LORD’s possession?”
Joab replied, “Far be it, far be it from me to destroy or to ruin! Not at all! But a certain man from the hill country of Ephraim, named Sheba son of Bichri, has rebelled against King David. Just hand him alone over to us, and I will withdraw from the city.”
The woman assured Joab, “His head shall be thrown over the wall to you.”
The woman came to all the people with her clever plan; and they cut off the head of Sheba son of Bichri and threw it down to Joab. He then sounded the horn; all the men dispersed to their homes, and Joab returned to the king in Jerusalem.
II Samuel 20:1 to 20:23 (4)
So, using her wisdom and long memory to save a city of thousands from being destroyed is pretty great. But I promised werewolves…where are the werewolves‽ As I keep saying in my posts, Jewish monster hunters have to read the texts carefully. And remember that reading Torah is about making associations. This story already has Rashi associating an unnamed person, the clever woman, with Serah, a well known woman. So I’m adding my own midrash to the Serah story that fills in the family drama and generational associations. Here goes…
Sheba ben Bichri wasn’t just any rebel. He was a Benjaminite. In my prior post, Benjamin is a Predatory Wolf, I talked about Serah’s grandfather Jacob blessing her uncle Benjamin as being a “predatory wolf” e.g. a werewolf. The Jewish tradition has always understood Jacob’s blessing to be as much focused on Benjamin’s descendants as on Benjamin himself. So if Benjamin was a werewolf, then some of Benjamin’s descendants are too. And Serah would know that. She was there when Benjamin was blessed. She would have recognized Sheba for what he was as soon as he entered the city. And she rallied the town to hunt him down and throw his head over the wall.
Monster Hunter Pro Tips
1. Werewolves are vulnerable to decapitation. Particularly when in human form. 2. Stay vigilant. While we have no shortage of external foes, the enemy is also us. 3. Be a leader. Serah didn’t save her city by picking up a sword and going it alone. She rallied her town and taught them how to fight.
I love the idea of Serah as an eternal counterbalance to Benjamin’s curse. Monster hunter counterbalancing threat, all within the family. And it is a family thing. Serah is an Asherite, the daughter of Benjamin’s brother Asher. Asher had the opposite blessing from Benjamin, to receive royal rewards (6), and was known for his single-minded virtue (7). This single-mindedness for good, inherited from her father, is Serah’s third blessing, after God blessing her with wisdom and Jacob blessing her with immortality.
So Serah, as I see it, is a perfect example of a Jewish monster hunter, using deep Torah and mystical knowledge to protect Jews from the werewolves, and other threats, in our own communities. She’s not a warrior, the way Abraham was. She’s not a combat mage, the way Moses was (8). None of her blessings gave her that kind of fire power. She’s more Willow than Buffy (9). As a vigilant keeper of our memory, though, she’s what we need.
It’s worth noting that not everyone in the Jewish tradition agrees with my applause for Serah’s handling of the Sheba situation. As early as the 2nd Century CE, the rabbi’s who wrote the Tosefta debated the ethics of sacrificing a single person to save a group. In Tosefta Terumot 7.23, the rabbi’s are split (11). They seem to decide that in this case it was justified because Sheba was a criminal who was endangering in the city, that handing him over (or handing over his head) avoided the group being punished for his crime, and that Joab was a Jew. In other cases, particularly when the threat comes from outside, however it’s better to let the group die as a group, before sacrificing the individual. We’re not to be complicit in the crime.
Stay tuned for next post, when we hear about “Serah in Exile or The Death of Serah?“
Notes and References (1) David gave his generals Joab and Amasa a set amount of time to gather their troops. Amasa was late…so Joab stabbed him to death on the street and commandeered his troops. As one does. II Samuel 20 @ Sefaria. (2) According to the midrash (Genesis Rabba 94:9), Serah convinces the people of the city using the following strategy. “The woman immediately came to all the people with her clever plan. ‘Do you not know David’s reputation?’ she urged them, ‘Which kingdom has successfully resisted him?’ ‘What does he demand?’ they asked her. ‘A thousand men,’ she replied, ‘and is it not better [to sacrifice] a thousand men than to have your city destroyed?’ ‘Let everyone give according to his means,’ they proposed. ‘Perhaps he would be willing to compromise,’ she suggested. She then pretended to go and appease him, and returned with the number reduced from a thousand to five hundred, then to one hundred, to ten, and finally to one, a stranger there, and who was he? – Sheba the son of Bichri. They promptly cut off his head [and threw it down to Joab]” The translation comes from Moshe Reiss’ essay “Serah bat Asher in Rabbinic Literature.” (3) Rashi’s full commentary on this passage was “I am [from the people of the city] that are loyal and trustworthy to Yisroel. I am from the people of the city that are loyal and trustworthy to Yisroel and to the king. An Aggadic Midrash [states:] this was Serah, the daughter of Asher. I faithfully rewarded those who faithful [to God]: Through me, the location of Yosef’s coffin was revealed to Moshe. I told Yakov that Yosef was alive.” (4) A slightly trimmed version of II Samuel 20 (Sefaria.org). (5) Ok, Jan Cossiers painting Júpiter y Licaón is a scene from Greek mythology…. but you get the idea. Public Domain Image from Wikipedia Commons. I really need an art budget. (6) See Genesis 49:20 (Sefaria.org) (7) In The Testament of Asher the Tenth Son of Jacob and Zilpah, one of the Apocryphal books, Asher is quoted as saying. “All these things, therefore, I proved in my life, and I wandered not from the truth of the Lord, and I searched out the commandments of the Most High, walking according to all my strength with singleness of face unto that which is good.” Testament of Asher @ Sefaria.org. The Testaments of Asher comes from The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, which is a bit of a muddy text. The text we have took its final form around the 2nd century CE and mixes Jewish and Christian thoughts. I’m citing this text because it’s a good example, but the sentiment shows up elsewhere. (8) Yes. Abraham was a warrior and Moses was a mage. The tradition is pretty specific on both points. Abraham being a warrior is straight Tanach. See Genesis 14 (Sefaria.org) Not even Talmud. Same with Moses’s magic. Remember the whole rods to serpents and 12 plagues incidents? Oh, and his brass serpent? Yeah, that’s all at God’s direction so if we’re being Dungeons and Dragons technical, that makes him a cleric, not a mage. But my previous post about Serah, where Moses raised Joseph’s coffin from the Nile, is a good example of mage power. Abraham and Moses’s being badasses will come up over and over again. I’ll write both soon when I write about Og the giant. (9) In case you don’t get the reference, I’m talking about characters from the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Which is a fantastic contemporary monster hunting TV show (and a meditation on what it’s like to be a teenager in America). It is absolutely not based on Jewish lore, but it does have Jewish characters including Willow, one of Buffy’s “Scooby gang” sidekicks. Willow is often the brains of the team. Buffy has the punch and the willpower, but Willow has the smarts and the lore. The show also happens to have a Jewish werewolf named Daniel “Oz” Osborne. Oz isn’t a Benjamite, though, he became a werewolf the ouch way.
(10) Tel Abel beth Maachah. Near Metula, Israel. The picture is a view of the tower, with its northeastern corner of large boulders and the layers of small stones, looking southwest. Photo by Tel Abel Beth Maacah Excavations. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons license. CC-BY-SA-4.0 (11) Tosefta Terumot 7.23 (Sefaria.org). Sefaria community translation. “A group of [Jews] to whom gentiles say, “Give us one of you and we shall kill him, and if not, behold, we will kill all of them”; they should let themselves be killed and not deliver them one soul from Israel. But if they designated [the person] to them – for example, Sheva ben Bichri – they should give him to them and not let themselves be killed. Rabbi Yehuda said, “When do these words apply? In a case when he is [inside and they are] outside [a fortified city]; but in a case when he is inside and they are inside, since he will be killed and the [other Jews] will be killed, they should give him to them and not let themselves all be killed. And so did it state (II Samuel 20:22), ‘And the woman come to all of the people in her wisdom, etc.’ – she said to them, ‘Since he will be killed and you will be killed, give him to them and do not kill all of you.’” Rabbi Shimon says, “So did she say [to them], ‘Anyone who rebels against the monarchy [of the House of David] is liable to [receive] the death penalty.’”
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….
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)
A slightly simplified version of Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 48:17 (13)
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 thefuture, 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 songwritersand teachers. She’s recorded 3 album’s under the title Girls in Troublethat are both wonderful musicand 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?