The Torah’s female Zelig


This week’s Torah portion is Pinchas, Numbers 25:10-30:1.

This week we meet for the second and last time a very interesting woman of Jewish legend: Serach bat Asher, granddaughter of our ancestor Jacob.

Serach’s first appearance was in Genesis 46:10, in the list of the 70 Israelites who went down to Egypt with Jacob: “And the sons of Asher; Yimnah and Ishvah and Ishvi and Beriah and Serach their sister…”

Serach is the only woman listed here by name. Not even Jacob’s wives nor his daughter, Dinah, are counted in this census. Given that the Torah is not very liberal in its mention of women, especially in genealogies, why is Serach listed here?

Her other appearance is this week in Numbers 26, shortly after the Exodus has taken place. Again we have a census, this one of those who came out of Egypt — which, according to the rabbis occurs some 400 years after the Israelites first arrived in Egypt.

The parshah contains a detailed listing of families who leave Egypt and who are to inherit land in Israel. In the middle of this list is the verse, “From the sons of Asher according to their families; from Jimnah, the family of the Jimnites; from Ishvi, the family of the Ishvites…”

Two verses later (Numbers 26:46), a short sentence is set off by itself: “And the name of the daughter of Asher was Serach.”

Again, why is she the only woman in the list? But more importantly, how is she still alive after nearly 400 years?

We will never know why Serach is mentioned in these two verses or if, in fact, it really is the same woman. But over the centuries the rabbis decided to capitalize on her existence and ultimately made her the center, in fact the heroine, of a group of midrashim.

My favorite midrash is set at the time of the rabbis. Serach, now an old woman, has the deciding voice in a disagreement between the members of the beit midrash (house of study) and Rabbi Yochanan, the head teacher.

The scholars were studying the story of the exodus from Egypt. Rabbi Yochanan told them that the waters of the sea parted and became like solid walls for the Israelites to pass through. Suddenly Serach appeared and said: “I was there. The waters rising up like a wall for Israel were shining because of the radiance of such personages as Moses and Aaron, who had drunk deep of Torah’s waters” (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Beshalach, 11:13).

Serach’s words — a woman’s words — were taken as testimony because she had enough wisdom to follow the argument in the beit midrash, and because she had first-hand knowledge of what had actually happened.

I’ve always loved Serach bat Asher. She gives me hope, not only as a woman, but also as one who believes that knowing our history is the only way to create a safe and vibrant future. She reminds me that each of us has a role to play, even if that role might not be obvious.

Rabbah Arlene Berger is rabbi of the Fauquier Jewish Congregation, in Warrenton, and the Olney Kehila.

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