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Serach- The Torah's Forgotten Leader  #764

02/03/2023 05:11:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Beshalach
“And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph" Exodus 13:19
Serach—The Torah’s Forgotten Leader

Every now and then, my wife and I have a difficult conversation.

“Where would we like to be buried?”

Patte’s roots are in northeastern Kentucky. I was born in Montreal, where my maternal grandparents and other ancestors are buried.

And then there is Glen Cove, a half hour away from the New Montefiore Cemetery, where—over the past 17 years—I have laid many congregants to rest.

There’s also the possibility of being buried in Israel, where we intend to settle one day.

How important is it to be buried somewhere of significance to each of us—and next to whom?

As this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, opens, there exists a tendency to become distracted by big events.

Pharaoh agrees to release the Israelites, but soon changes his mind. The Jewish people, caught between the advancing Egyptian chariots and the Sea of Reeds, cry out.

Ultimately, the sea parts, and the Israelites rejoice. We know the scene from the Passover Haggadah and from Hollywood depictions.

But there is an often-ignored, interesting sidebar that deals with the kindness and loyalty or two important Biblical characters 

One you’ve heard of, and the other likely not.

As the parashah opens, Moses is nowhere to be found. Is he at the front of the line as the Israelites prepare to leave Egypt? He is not.

Rather, Moses has temporarily left his post to make good on Joseph’s deathbed request made generations earlier.

Joseph believed that one day, the Children of Israel would return to the Promised Land, and that is where—next to his ancestors—he asked to be buried.

So, while all the Israelites are packing their bags, Moses is gathering up Joseph’s bones—doing what leaders are supposed to do—honor the past, while guiding those they lead into the future.

Our Sages pose this question as they consider the many generations between Joseph and Moses. 

How did Moses know where to look for Joseph’s bones?

To answer that question, the Rabbis elevate a character, who receives only two brief mentions in the Torah.  

Her name is Serach—one of Judaism’s most respected and exalted characters, who few have heard of.

Despite her relative obscurity in the Torah, the Talmud and other oral commentaries and compilations, see her as a primary character, whose kindness and wisdom link the distant generations of Joseph and Moses.

Years earlier, when the sons of Jacob realized that Joseph had not perished in a pit, a question was raised:

“Who will tell Jacob that his favorite son is alive?”

Jacob’s sons are concerned that their father would not receive the news well. Some worried that Jacob would enter a state of shock—or worse.

All eyes turned to Serach, the young daughter of Joseph’s brother Asher. She was kind and empathetic. And through a soft voice, and soothing musical refrains, she broke the news to Jacob—who reacted with both “joy and happiness.” But that is not all.

When it came time for the Israelites to accept Moses as their new leader, Serach—still alive—assured them that God had chosen Moses to lead them to freedom.

Serach encourages the Israelites standing on the banks of the Sea of Reeds, that the forbidding waters before them are nothing more than a “pane of glass.”

And when it is time for Moses to make good on his promise to bring Joseph’s bones to Israel—Serach recalls where the sarcophagus is located. 

Serach is another example of how women—often bypassed by the biblical narrative—are recognized, upon further consideration, as being Judaism’s true sources of wisdom, integrity and continuity.

In fact, Serach is so respected by our Sages, that they say she—like Elijah the prophet—entered heaven without ever being buried.

Historically, there is much to question about Serach. For her to be alive during the times of both Joseph and Moses requires a leap of faith.

But sometimes Jewish tradition inspires us more through concepts and values than history and minutia.

Indeed, through her lengthy and miraculous life, Serach embodies the core values of kindness, patience and empathy central to Jewish existence.  

So, when it came time for the Talmud and other commentaries to identify one person who was present both when the Jews entered Egypt, and when they departed, our Sages chose Serach.

As we reflect upon this week’s parashah, Moses and Serach inspire us to consider that the place we choose to be buried is important to Jewish and family continuity.

I often reflect when conducting graveside funeral services, that mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters buried nearby provide a sense of comfort and continuity to the living.

In the end, no one really knows where and when we will breathe our final breath. It is in God’s hands. And so, it will be for Patte and me.

But in this week’s parashah, Jewish tradition reminds us through two biblical characters—one known and one not—that through our good name and our memory, we are part of something bigger.

The often-untold story of Serach reminds us that our wishes—and those we inspire—endure beyond our living years.

Moses is considered the greatest leader in our history.

But this week, I remember Serach.

She inspires us to consider how our life example, and even our final resting place, will forever link current and future generations, from past to present and beyond. 

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784