Bereishit: men and women created equally and mutually

Genesis has two creation stories, each with a different structure and a different name for God. The first, with the numbered days of the first week, has Elohim create humanity in God’s image at the end of the process, and this humanity is neither singular nor male. “Vayivra Elohim et ha’adam b’tzalmo, betzelem Elohim bara oto, zachar u’nekeivah bara otam” (1:27)

The second, where humanity was created even before the Garden of Eden was made, has one human fashioned from the dust of the earth, and placed into Eden. But it is already clear that one living being is a lonely being, so God creates the animals and birds. The human names them but does not develop a mutual relationship with them, and ultimately God has to create more human beings in the world. To do this, God does not create a new thing, but takes from the existing human to form the being who will be in relationship with it.

How we translate what God takes from the first being is critical to how we understand gender politics. And how it has been translated in the past is a direct outcome of such politics. For God takes מִצַּלְעֹתָיו  – from the side of the first human, and not, as it is frequently translated, a rib from it. This root appears over forty times in bible, and is never translated as anything other than “side” except in this passage, and first found in the Septuagint. If we look more closely we see that the word always describes something that is leaned upon, or (in the case of Jacob) limped upon. So what is bible telling us with this word? When God divides the Adam into ish (man) and isha (woman), the two are equal. One might ask why this understanding disappeared when bible is so clear?

 

(written for “the bible says what?” series for the progressive Judaism page of the Jewish News)

 

Jacob Wrestles with God – and so do we

The bible says what?   Jacob wrestles with God.

Genesis 32:25

(25) Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.

בראשית ל״ב:כ״ה

(כה) וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר׃

What happened at the Ford of Jabok was critical in Jacob’s life leaving  him physically marked for life and with another name. He was alone, yet a ‘man’ wrestled with him till dawn. Who that ‘man’ was is open to interpretation but Jacob is in no doubt – he names the place P’niel because he has met God face to face.

The Bible gives a dubious etymology for Jacob’s new name, Israel, but what is important is the meaning given – one who struggles with God and with other people, and is able to do so.

We take this name for ourselves; we are Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, and our defining characteristic is that we too must wrestle with God and with our world and make something of ourselves in that struggle.

Judaism is a religion of enquiry,  questions are met with more questions, not with definitive answers. Despite the systematizing work of Saadiya Gaon and Maimonides who responded to the doctrines of Christianity and Islam, Judaism remains a religion of deed, and not of creed. We must keep on engaging with ideas, imagining possibilities, wrestling with God and with our world, in order to be truly alive.

This dynamic tradition of enquiry and analysis has kept us going over the centuries, adapting where necessary, accepting knowledge from outside sources and bringing it into our world view. It is the life-source of progressive Judaism, as we keep our minds open to the world and its knowledge while grappling with our texts and their questions.

Jacob at Jabok is a metaphor for us in so many ways – fearful of the unknown future, struggling with the temptation to run back to the familiar, yet ultimately moving forward carrying the wounds of our struggle with us. I’m proud to belong to a tradition that eschews doctrine and dogma, demands we struggle with God and with ourselves, and helps us aspire to be our best selves..

Written for and Published in Progressive Judaism Page London Jewish News November 2017

Vayishlach: we all struggle with who we are to become our best selves

 

Genesis 32:25

(25) Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.

בראשית ל״ב:כ״ה

(כה) וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר׃

What happened at the Ford of Jabok was critical in Jacob’s life leaving  him physically marked for life and with another name. He was alone, yet a ‘man’ wrestled with him till dawn. Who that ‘man’ was is open to interpretation but Jacob is in no doubt – he names the place P’niel because he has met God face to face.

The Bible gives a dubious etymology for Jacob’s new name, Israel, but what is important is the meaning given – one who struggles with God and with other people, and is able to do so.

We take this name for ourselves; we are Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, and our defining characteristic is that we too must wrestle with God and with our world and make something of ourselves in that struggle.

Judaism is a religion of enquiry; questions are met with more questions, not with definitive answers. Despite the systematizing work of Saadiya Gaon and Maimonides who responded to the doctrines of Christianity and Islam, Judaism remains a religion of deed, and not of creed. We must keep on engaging with ideas, imagining possibilities, wrestling with God and with our world, in order to be truly alive.

This dynamic tradition of enquiry and analysis has kept us going over the centuries, adapting where necessary, accepting knowledge from outside sources and bringing it into our world view. It is the life-source of progressive Judaism, as we keep our minds open to the world and its knowledge while grappling with our texts and their questions.

Jacob at Jabok is a metaphor for us in so many ways – fearful of the unknown future, struggling with the temptation to run back to the familiar, yet ultimately moving forward carrying the wounds of our struggle with us. I’m proud to belong to a tradition that eschews doctrine and dogma, demands we struggle with God and with ourselves, and helps us aspire to be our best selves.

 

 

 

Vayetzei: The Importance of Awe

Jacob awoke from his sleep and said “Surely God is in this place and I, I did not know”. He has a sense of wonder, and he expresses it:  “How full of awe is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven”

The phrase “Ma nora ha’makom ha’zeh, ein zeh ki im beit Elohim” (How full of awe is this place, this is none other than the house of God”) is part of the stonework on the exterior of the synagogue I   grew  up in, and as one walked in and looked up, that is the sentiment one felt – even though it is situated in what is now inner city Bradford, on a less than salubrious road.

The religious message I received as a child was bound up in this synagogue, in the community of people and in the building they worshipped in. It was a two-fold message- Firstly that we can encounter God wherever we are, for God is always ‘in this place’ as are we, and often we do not notice how close God can be to us.

Secondly it was made clear that awe is a necessary instinct;  God is beyond our comprehension or reason, and we must respect that reality. We have to live with not being able to control God or demand from God or expect to understand God.

When we pray, what are we really doing?

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was a scholar, theologian and social activist. He wrote “the predicament of prayer is twofold: not only do we not know how to pray, we do not know what to pray for.  We have lost the ability to be shocked.”

Heschel also suggested that we have overemphasized intellectual ideas when we think about religion, and that we also overemphasise religious belief; For Heschel religion is more like a way of being in the world, a way of facing life and dealing with it.

In Judaism, ‘Believing’ is not the most important thing for a religious Jew, but Awe, or the ability to be shocked is the fundamental requirement.  The bible talks of the religious person as one who is yirat Adonai, or yirat shamayim – in awe of God or in awe of heaven. Without a sense of awe, without the ability to be shocked or moved by what we see around us, we can never really move on to encounter God, or develop a sense of faith.

I have lost count of the number of times that I have been told in my rabbinate that someone doesn’t really believe in God;  the number of apologies that somehow come my way. I never quite know as a rabbi how to help people to believe in God if that is what they think they want, but what I am sure of is that the beginning of such a journey is Awe.

When Jacob first encounters God he notices how the place is filled with Awe, and he had not understood it. It takes time, and possibly even a certain vulnerability for us to open ourselves to noticing God.

Many of our services begin with the phrase “v’ani tefilati lecha Adonai eit ratzon” usually translated as “and as for me, let my prayer come before you God at a favourable time”, but it is more complex than that, meaning something more like and I am my prayer to you God at a favourable time”. We are in fact our own prayers – if only we would let ourselves be so. Rabbi Lionel Blue once wrote “Meeting God can be simple, but nothing can happen if we do not will it. If we seek God then God can be found. God will allow us to find God if we seek with all our will” (RSGB Machzor p 312)

 

One of the lessons from this sidra is how easy it is not to notice how close God can be to us if we do not choose to open ourselves to the possibility.  And we sometimes need help to do this. Beautiful places, whether natural or built by human beings, can help us catch the numinous. Too narrow a focus on what we are doing, our goals and aspirations, our desire not to look back – all can stop us being aware and in the moment.

The ability to be shocked, to notice and to understand the implications of what has become normalised – this is the skill we need to nurture. The ability to be moved by what we see and hear, rather than to blot it out or cover it with our own inner monologue. Jacob left his comfort zone when he left his home, and only then did he meet God. We may not need to leave our homes, but we too need to go out as he did – vayetzei – and begin to pay attention to all we have ignored.bradford interior

 

 

 

 

 

Toledot: the family ties that bind a people together

 Jewish history is told in terms of Jewish family. We chart our progress through the generations, marvelling at how we are able to adapt and to change, to move countries and to begin again, yet never having to begin at the beginning – we take with us the wisdom and the tradition of our ancestors to support and nourish us as we add our own experiences and our own lives to the chain.

We are part of an eternal covenant.  Since Abraham’s first encounter with God that set him off on his journey as an Ivri (one who passes over into a new place), and since the encounter at Sinai when the whole Jewish people – (including all who were yet to be born and all who would willingly join with us) – we have been a family with a powerful tradition that has enabled us to retain our identity despite huge shifts in geography, language, autonomy, and cultural expression.  Whenever one tries to dissect and define Jewish identity, there is immediately a problem that no absolute characterization can be agreed upon – there are secular and religious Jews, culinary and cultural Jews, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Italkit and Romaniot;  there are Jews who passionately believe in a personal God and others who are passionately agnostic. What binds us is the notion of peoplehood – specifically that of toledot – of family.

The word itself comes from the root to give birth, yet we first find it early on in the book of Genesis when God is creating the world: –  אֵלֶּה תוֹלְדוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ, בְּהִבָּרְאָם:  בְּיוֹם, עֲשׂוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים–אֶרֶץ וְשָׁמָיִם.:

“These are the generations (toledot) of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Eternal God made earth and heavens.  (Gen 2:4). 

The term is clearly much more than the physical giving birth – it has to do with developments, with outcomes, with the next stage, and virtually every time it is found in the book of Genesis it has a transitional function, introducing the new and concluding the story of the old.  In the ten passages in which the word is used in Genesis, each time there is an important liminal point –a break but at the same time a kind of continuation.   So for example we have the toledot of the creation of the world which is then left to run, the toledot of Adam whose sons bring chaos into the world, the toledot of Noah, upon whom rest the hopes of mending the world, of the three sons of Noah who are the founding ancestors of the known world, and then the specific genealogy of Shem from whom we descend and which takes us to Abraham. Then we have the generations (toledot) of Abraham, of Ishmael, of Isaac, of Esau and finally of Jacob.

I find it deeply interesting that the bible gives us the generations not only of the line from whom we ourselves descend, but also of those who are connected to us but who are no longer “of” us.  The recording of the other genealogical threads reminds us of what is truly important:- that there is family and family, connections and bonds, and some are closer and others less so, but we are ultimately all one humanity even when our stories and our lineages diverge.

The story today begins with the toledot of Isaac, but is really interested in the fate of his younger son Jacob.  And it is Jacob, shortly to be renamed Israel on account of his own encounter with God, who is the ancestor from whom we generate our own history. In this sidra Jacob is given two blessings by his father: the first is the blessing of the first-born that his father had intended for Esau, the second is given to him as he departed for Paddan Aram to find a wife for himself and to begin a new life. One blessing was about the recognition and importance of the ancestral tradition of covenant, the other was about striking out into new territory. One was concerned with material well being, the other about spiritual direction and the future of the Jewish people.

What becomes clear is the inextricable link between past and future, that to try to have one without the other is to misunderstand the nature of Jewish identity.  And what becomes clear too is that each new generation has to find their journey and their meaning for themselves, building upon what has been given to them by their parents and grandparents, but creating something new as well, to pass on to their children and grandchildren.

Our history really is about toledot – the concluding of the story of one generation and the new story of the next loosely threaded onto it.  With each new generation there is always going to be change, but at the same time we know that the fundamental blessings continue down the years, and that while some of the paths seem to disappear over the horizon and out of our sight, that is only to be expected and accommodated.

We do the best we can in our own generation, and we trust the ones who come after us to have their own encounter to add to the richness that is passed on.  Isaac cannot ever have expected the boy he named from youth as Ya’akov – the bent one, the one who clung to the heel of his brother, the one who delayed – to become Yisrael, the one who struggles with God and overcomes.

 

Bilhah and the man who mistook his wife for his bed

The last sidra in Genesis brings the denouement of the narratives of the rivalries in the founding family down the generations.  Many of the themes we have seen in earlier texts return to be developed or reworked so that a number of outstanding threads can be tied off. Both Jacob and Joseph will die in this sidra, the deaths and burials of the patriarchs and matriarchs will be recalled as Jacob requests he be buried not in Egypt but in the Cave of Machpela where all but Rachel have been laid to rest. There is a deathbed blessing where the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, are blessed in a scene resonant of the blessings of Jacob and Esau by their father Isaac.  Except here the process of the blessing is explicit, both boys are present together, as is their father who tries to correct Jacob when he offers the ‘senior’ blessing to the younger boy. Jacob, whose eyes are now as dim as his own father’s had been, knows exactly what he is doing and refuses to be corrected, instead offering a blessing that harks back to the words given to his own mother when she enquired of God why she was in such pain – “[the older] also shall become a people, and shall be great; howbeit his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations.”

Reference is made to the dream Jacob had as a young man leaving Canaan where he encountered God and received the covenantal blessing, and the struggle at the Ford of Jabok when he received the name “Israel”. And then he calls his other sons to his bedside to offer them words of – well, words that are described traditionally as blessing, but seem to me to be words of challenge and bluntly painful truth. In the text, only Joseph and his two sons are the recipients of a beracha, the verbal root is not used for any of Jacobs other sons.

I had set myself the task of writing about the women who often hide in plain sight in the weekly sidra. Sadly in Vayechi, the matriarchs are all mentioned, but only in terms of their burials. There are two other women alluded to in the text –the mother of Ephraim and Manasseh,  Osnat/Asenath the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On (see https://rabbisylviarothschild.com/2016/12/30/miketz-the-strange-case-of-the-disappearing-women-2/ to read about her) and Bilhah, the maid of Rachel who also bears sons with Jacob on behalf of Rachel and whose status seems to move around in the texts . While she is not named here, the event between Reuben and her years earlier are recalled to devastating effect on Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob, who should have been taking his place as the next link in the generational chain, but who is set aside instead, leaving the field clear for Joseph instead.

When we first meet Bilhah in Paddan Aram she is a servant maid: shifcha   השִׁפְחָ  belonging  to Laban and given by him to his younger daughter Rachel on her marriage, just as Zilpah had been given to Leah. (Gen 29:29)

When Rachel fears she will not be able to conceive a child, she gives Bilhah her שִׁפְחָה to Jacob as a wife – isha  הלְאִשָּׁ (Gen 30:3ff), and Bilhah has again been described in this passage as her maid, while  using a different word אֲמָתִי – a servant even less respected in the household than a shifcha.  The word shifcha is used again when Jacob divides his family across the ford of Jabok while fearing what Esau might do to them and her status with Zilpah and their sons is defined when they are put at the head of the procession, in the most danger. After Rachel’s death the narrative refers to her as פִּילֶגֶשׁ – pilegesh, often translated as concubine, but having real legal and social status, and therefore more correctly seen as a kind of secondary wife.

Bilhah herself never speaks. Yet as the mother of Dan and Naftali – albeit as a surrogate for Rachel – she is an ancestress. Even with the surrogacy/adoption process of her children, she and Zilpah (Leah’s maid) are still described as wives of Jacob (for eg Gen 37:2) but they are essentially only seen in relationship to their children. Her relationship with Rachel is coldly transactional from Rachel’s viewpoint. We don’t of course have any record of Bilhah’s feelings. So when Leah names the sons born to Zilpah there is at least some joy in the names and rationales she chooses (Gad= Fortune has come; Asher = happiness) but when Rachel names the sons born to Bilhah there is no such pleasure (Dan=God has judged me; Naftali=I have wrestled with my sister and won) so it seems that poor Bilhah really is only an object to those around her, her body to be used by both Jacob and by Rachel.

Bilhah is surely a candidate for being one of the saddest women in bible. And things only get worse for her after Rachel’s death. She now belongs to Jacob (she is his pilegesh) and in an almost entirely animal dynamic, Reuben his oldest son decides to stage a challenge to the older man by having sex with her.

The text in Genesis 35 is brief, but we can read into it if we look carefully:

 וַיְהִ֗י בִּשְׁכֹּ֤ן יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בָּאָ֣רֶץ הַהִ֔וא וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ רְאוּבֵ֔ן וַיִּשְׁכַּ֕ב֙ אֶת־בִּלְהָ֖ה֙ פִּילֶ֣גֶשׁ אָבִ֑֔יו וַיִּשְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵֽ֑ל   פ

  וַיִּהְי֥וּ בְנֵי־יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב שְׁנֵ֥ים עָשָֽׂר:

“And Israel dwelt in that land, and Reuven went, and he bedded Bilhah the pilegesh/secondary wife of his father, and Israel heard      [break in the text but not in the sentence]

and the sons of Jacob were twelve.”

Why is there a physical break in the written text? What is it telling us is missing in the story?

What does Israel hear – can it be the screams of pain and distress by the woman Bilhah who has been so victimised by his arrogant eldest son? There is no story of kindness between them as in the story of Dinah and Shechem that is often called rape – so just how terrible must this abuse of power been that poor Bilhah had to endure? And why is her protest erased?

Nothing is said at the time, at least insofar as the text reveals, but Jacob clearly does not forget, and so in our portion this week reference is made in his deathbed words to Reuben.

 רְאוּבֵן֙ בְּכֹ֣רִי אַ֔תָּה כֹּחִ֖י וְרֵאשִׁ֣ית אוֹנִ֑י יֶ֥תֶר שְׂאֵ֖ת וְיֶ֥תֶר עָֽז: פַּ֤חַז כַּמַּ֨יִם֙ אַל־תּוֹתַ֔ר כִּ֥י עָלִ֖יתָ מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אָבִ֑יךָ אָ֥ז חִלַּ֖לְתָּ יְצוּעִ֥י עָלָֽה:

“Reuben, you are my first-born, my might, and the first-fruits of my strength; the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power. Unstable as water, you have not the excellency; because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it–he went up to my couch!”

I don’t know what I find more appalling. The act of Reuben who mindlessly slept with/raped a woman because he wanted to challenge his father and lay claim to his wife, or the ultimate response (after a long silence) by Jacob, who does not even name the woman, but refers to her as “my couch” יצוע, . To these men she is not a person, not a human being at all, but a possession akin to a beautiful piece of furniture whose only function is to show the status of its owner.  When Jacob tells Reuben that he no longer has the status and promise of the eldest son because of this action, it is because ‘hilalta’ – you have profaned/defiled – not the woman but his bed.  And the fact that he repeats the image of his bed being misused, (almost in a staged aside of disbelief at the actions of his son), only makes it clearer to us just how they ignore and erase the act done to this woman – she is either ‘mishk’vei avicha’ the beds of your father (the place where he has sex) or y’tzui – my couch.        Again contrast with the story of Dinah when Shimon and Levi justify their own horrific violence against Shechem with the question that hangs at the end “shall they treat our sister like a prostitute?” Yet here, there is no avenging the act done to Bilhah – she may be the mother to two of their brothers, yet she is less than nothing to them.

Bad as this text is in its erasure of Bilhah and her pain and outrage, sadly there is a tradition which goes on to blame her for Reuben’s act.

In the pseudopigrapha – specifically the text “the Testament of Reuben” we find the need to besmirch and defame Bilhah is given free rein. Written possibly in the second Temple period it follows the literary conceit of a farewell address written by the sons of Jacob. The words ascribed to Reuben tell his descendants not to be sexually profligate in youth as he had been when he slept with his father’s wife, as he had been struck by an illness and only the prayers of his father had saved him. He continues:

Pay no heed to the face of a woman, nor associate with another man’s wife, nor meddle with affairs of womankind. For if I had not seen Bilhah bathing in a covered place, I would not have fallen into this great iniquity. For my mind taking in the thought of the woman’s nakedness, suffered me not to sleep until I had wrought the abominable thing. For while Jacob our father had gone to Isaac his father, when we were in Eder, near to Ephrat in Bethlehem, Bilhah became drunk and was asleep uncovered in her chamber. Having therefore gone in and beheld nakedness, I wrought the impiety without her perceiving it, and leaving her sleeping I departed.”

There are echoes here of Noah, of Lot and his daughters, of David and Batsheva. But whereas they were not held responsible for their actions, here Bilhah bathed where she could be seen, got drunk, slept in a lewd position and was not even aware of the rape – shades of what used to be called “contributory negligence”.

Rabbinic literature does not only not help Bilhah, but it seems more concerned with protecting the reputation of Reuben, even while explaining why the status that should have been his went to Judah. The Mishnah (Megillah 4:10) suggest that the verse should not be translated when read out in the synagogue, so that the people who did not know Hebrew would not learn about it.  Talmud (BT Shabbat 55b) has R.Shmuel bar Nachman quoting R. Jonathan and saying “Anyone who says that Reuben sinned is wrong, for it is said “now the sons of Jacob were twelve” so all were equal [in sin]..and when bible says he slept with Bilhah the concubine of his father, it means only that he moved his father’s bed without permission and scripture ascribes blame AS IF he had slept with her.” The rabbis are falling over themselves to find Reuben innocent of the terrible act that bible records quite bluntly. They are unaware of either the person or of the plight of Bilhah. How true it is that we don’t notice what is not important to us, but make our world only out of what we see and care about.

Bilhah is the ultimate victim – only her name and those of her two sons are known and recorded. Her life of service begins with being owned by Laban, then Rachel, then Jacob, then Reuben. What else happens to her? Who knows – no one seems to have cared.

Occasionally there is a move towards adding Bilhah and Zilpah to the matriarchs in our prayers. I have always been ambivalent about this, as neither of the women has any relationship with God or prayer that might add to ours. But I am pressingly aware that Bilhah and Zilpah bore and mothered sons to Jacob, they are the ur-ancestors of the twelve tribes just as the ancestors we name. And their story is as much part of our history. A real violence has been done to them – and in particular to Bilhah who is objectified beyond any awareness of her humanity. Her story must once again be told and the gross act of abuse condemned. It is said that the Shechinah weeps over the exile of the children of Israel. The weeping of Bilhah abused at the hands of those same children must also be heard and acknowledged.

Serach bat Asher:the woman who authenticated Moses and went alive to paradise. Parashat Vayigash

Last week’s torah portion ended on a cliff hanger. A missing cup is found in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph demands that Benjamin remain in Egypt as his slave. Judah begs Joseph to allow him to take Benjamin’s place as Jacob will not survive Benjamin’s loss. At this point Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. They are – understandably – astonished that the young frightened boy they left in the pit so many years ago has become this most powerful Egyptian official.  Meanwhile Pharaoh learns that Joseph’s brothers are in Egypt and tells Joseph to invite Jacob and the entire household to come live in Egypt in the land of Goshen. So Jacob and Joseph have an emotional reunion. The family work as shepherds, the famine continues, and Joseph manages the country, selling grain for land until by the end of the famine Pharaoh owns all of the land in the country, except for that owned by the priests. Once the famine ends, Joseph gives seed to all the people telling them that they must repay Pharaoh with one fifth of their harvest.

Joseph is at the centre of the complex threads of the narrative, but look around the stage and other figures come into view. Those who caught my attention this year are the ones who are barely sketched out, yet who are noted in the genealogical lists, and this always bears further examination. There is the Canaanite woman, unnamed, who bears a son – Saul – to Shimon, apparently a different mother than that of his other five sons. She reappears again in the list in Exodus (Ch. 6) as the mother of Shimon’s son Saul, and yet other Canaanite women who bore sons to the family are not singled out like this – we already met the unnamed wife of Judah, introduced only as the daughter of the Canaanite Shua, whose children Er and Onan so dishonoured Tamar in Gen 38, yet she is not mentioned here.

Then there are the other unnamed wives we find in verse 5:  “And Jacob rose up from Beer-Sheva; and the sons of Israel carried Jacob their father, and their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons which Pharaoh had sent to carry him.” And there is the somewhat ambiguous language of verse 7 where we are told of “[Jacob’s] sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters, and all his seed brought he with him into Egypt.”

Only two ‘daughters’ are mentioned here by name – Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah whose sad story has already been told, and Serach, the daughter of Asher, granddaughter of Jacob and Zilpah, the maid of Leah. Yet the word ‘daughters’ is in the plural – there were clearly other women who were born into the household, even though they remain unnamed and indeed uncounted in the famous statement that seventy souls went down to Egypt with Jacob.  Is the number seventy to be understood literally here, in which case there has to be some creativity with the arithmetic in the names listed here? Or is it the symbolic number it is often used as elsewhere. Seventy is the multiplication of two perfect numbers (seven and ten), it is the number of elders appointed to help Moses (Num 11:16), the number of nations and languages after the flood. Seventy symbolises a whole world, and we know that Jacob brings a whole world of his wives, his children and of his grandchildren – both sons and daughters, yet the listed names show only two female descendants – Dina, and Serach bat Asher.

So who is Serach bat Asher and why is her name remembered? No story remains extant in the narrative, but there are some tantalising intimations.

She appears here in the list of those who left Canaan to go to Egypt, and she appears also in the census at the end of the Israelites sojourn in the desert (in Numbers 26:46).  That is it as far as bible is concerned, but the aggadic literature is intrigued by this woman who apparently lives for over four hundred years and whose name bookends both the leaving of Canaan and the return to the Land.

The first function of Serach bat Asher is to hold memory. She links the generation of the ancestors to the generation of the exodus, from the “family” of Israel to the post-Sinai “people” of Israel.  She is the original “oral tradition”, and the midrash (Pirkei d’rabbi Eliezer) has her validating Moses as the man who will redeem the Israelites from Egypt, as she knew the secret sign given by Joseph to his brothers to signify that divine deliverance was imminent.

So not only does she link the generations and hold the memory of the divinity, she also provides the authority and authenticity of the leadership. The man from whom rabbinic tradition derives its whole substance is essentially given his legitimacy by the woman, Serach bat Asher. Something to think about as we hear the howls of outrage in some quarters when women scholars are finally given the respectful title that recognise their abilities.

According to the midrash Serach was a musician and a singer. When the sons of Jacob wanted to tell him that Joseph was still alive, they feared that the shock of the news might kill him, so they enlisted the talents of Serach who revealed the information to him gently. In response he blessed her, and said “the mouth that told the news that Joseph is alive will never taste death” (see Midrash hagadol on Gen 46 and Targum pseudo Yonatan)  This blessing gave Serach immortality, and like the prophet Elijah some traditions tell of her going to heaven while still living.

Serach was not only the link between the patriarchal generations and the post Sinai people. She was also the possessor of all kinds of hidden or lost knowledge that she would reveal when appropriate. So, for example, she knew the place where Joseph’s body was kept in Egypt, and when the time came for Moses to take the bones out with the people of Israel in accordance with the promise made to Joseph on his deathbed (Exodus 13) it was Serach who could lead him to the coffin. She explains biblical text, in one midrash she corrects a rabbi’s teaching about the splitting of the reed sea, saying that the waves looked like a wall rather than a lattice work. And in the story in the book of Samuel when a wise woman averts a crisis that Yoav, the captain of the army of King David, is not dealing with well – the midrash assumes that this is Serach bat Asher, and gives her the words “I am the one who completed the number of Israel; I am the one who linked the faithful to the faithful, Joseph to Moses” (Bereishit Rabbah)

Serach bat Asher is never married in the midrashic literature. Yet this does not stop Nachmanides suggesting she is named in the census because her descendants would inherit land. The aggadic tradition creates a life filled with miracles and wisdom, with courage and scholarship, a woman whose life extends for hundreds of years and who teaches about redemption. And yet at the same time she barely registers on the awareness of many students of Jewish tradition, and it is Elijah who catches our imagination, who visits every brit milah and pesach seder, whose chariot drives our stories of messianic redemption.

Serach bat Asher does not wander our world, unlike Elijah. And while there is a Sephardic tradition that she died in the twelfth century – there was even a grave site in Isfahan – she disappeared long before she was so conveniently laid to rest.  This confining of her seems to be almost deliberate – she is just too much for the medieval Jewish world to accept, she has been veiled and contained and controlled. Her name – which may well be a cognate of the verb samech reish chet – would mean to be abundant, to be excessive, to go free, to loosen the hair, to roam; yet more often dictionaries suggest that her name is just a variant of Sarah – to be a princess. And we know what happens to princesses in most fairy stories – they end up locked in the tower and hidden.

So may Serach bat Asher find her way back to her freedom to walk in the world, correcting rabbinic teachings which close things down and reminding us of the signs that show who truly speaks the words of God. Her job was to remember, to reveal, to connect us to our foundational stories, to open the world for us. We need her to cut through the thickets that have grown up since those stories were recorded. Serach bat Asher, another woman’s voice in our tradition that was quieted over time, calls to us once more.