Searching for Serach

Searching for Serach

Barnert Temple, Franklin Lakes, Reform

I am searching for Serach.

Serach, daughter of Asher, is the only granddaughter of Jacob listed by name among the 70 souls who traveled from Canaan to Egypt in this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash. It is unlikely that she was Israel’s only granddaughter, yet she alone is named. That demands that we ask the obvious question, “Who is Serach?” and leaves us grasping for clues that will help us know and understand this mysterious ancestral matriarch.

Through mostly post-Torah narrative, our tradition recounts that Serach bat Asher was a calming deliverer of messages, the keeper of the key to redemption, a traveler through time and place, a weaver of meaning, and perhaps one of the few to have entered Eden full of life.

When it was time to tell her grief-stricken, fragile grandfather, Jacob, that his son Joseph was still alive, the rabbis imagine the musically gifted Serach, with word and harp-plucked melody, informing her grandfather that he soon would see his favorite son, for whom he had grieved deeply for so many years. She alone knew how to talk with her precious grandfather, whose grief still had a grasp on his life. This is no small task for a grandchild. Serach, the comforter.

Hundreds of years later, when Moses comes to free Serach’s ancestors in Egypt, Serach bat Asher magically is there, listed again among those who make the journey from slavery in Egypt toward the Promised Land. She has become the keeper of the secret code that has been passed from Abraham to Isaac, Isaac to Jacob, and Jacob to Asher, Serach’s father. It is she, inexplicably still among the living, who affirms Moses’s role as leader and helps him locate the bones of her uncle, Joseph, making good on the promise to bury Joseph with his family of origin when their people left Egypt. She alone knew where he was buried because she was there when he died — generations before. Serach, who comforts the living and who accompanies the dead.

Serach seems to transcend time as we understand it and appears when she is needed, defying our worldly understanding of human lifespan. Serach bat Asher, who left Canaan with her family for Egypt, who lived through the enslavement of the Israelites, who accompanied Moses as he led his people to freedom, and who was ultimately among those returning to Eretz Yisrael, appears again — lifetimes later — in conversation with our sages.

Her insight and voice come to resolve a dispute over the appearance of the Reed Sea’s walls of water as they split to enable the Exodus. In her timeless wisdom, she resolves a rabbinic disagreement by describing what she saw with her own eyes — walls of water that looked like transparent windows. If we look carefully through these imagined windowpanes, can we see her? Serach, the woman who helps us internalize difficult news, who is the courage we need on our journeys, who upholds our ability to keep our promises, who helps us find our way home, and who enables us to see ourselves as timeless keepers of our sacred stories.

Today I find myself searching for Serach, listening for her delicate harp, longing to feel her presence and her reassurance. Serach in her youth with her grandfather. Serach in the middle of her life with Moses and the Israelites. Serach with a long, white braid, teaching her Torah at the table with our great sages. Serach is timeless. Or, perhaps, that’s not quite right. In fact, Serach lives in all times. She is always here with us, wherever and whenever we need her.

Each time we sit with family and friends, preparing to begin a conversation that may be difficult or hurtful, we might notice Serach beside us, reminding us to pause before we begin, to consider the person before us, and to be thoughtful about how we speak and how we acknowledge the pain of others, so our messages can be heard and our stories can continue.

Each time we are trusted with the deep truths and sacred secrets, we can remember to guard them with the care Serach showed for that which was passed from Abraham through the generations to Asher, her father, and ultimately to her. We continue our chain of tradition as we care for the stories entrusted to us, ensuring they inspire the way we show up in the world that is aching to become more whole and holy.

And when we pass through narrow passages from hardship to possibility, like those transparent windowpanes she recalled with clarity, may we feel the support of Serach bat Asher as she walks beside us. Our tradition imagines she never left her people, and she is always here, reminding us that we are her children and grandchildren. In every age and stage, we can be calming deliverers of messages, keepers of the keys to redemption, travelers through time and place, and weavers of meaning. May we continue her legacy.

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