by rabbi Daniel Epstein
Everything you ever wanted to know about your favourite Torah characters… and the ones you’ve never heard of
THIS WEEK: Serah I’m PRIVILEGED to be inaugurating this new series of Biblical biographies, so thought I’d venture into a lesser-known but perhaps the most intriguing of all of the personalities in the Hebrew Bible. Our forefather Jacob had a grand-daughter called Serah (pronounced “Serach”); daughter of Asher.
We know of her because in the Torah’s listing of Jacob’s 54 grandchildren, 53 are male and she is the only woman. A woman of significant importance, no doubt, but who is she?
She is first mentioned in the book of Genesis 46:17, in a listing of the 70 who journeyed to Egypt with Jacob, “And the sons of Asher…and Serah their sister…”, and again in the book of Bamidbar (Numbers 26:46) as one of the family of Asher who escaped Egypt after 210 years of slavery.
That makes Serah the oldest woman in the Bible, at 210-years-old at the very least. It gets even more extraordinary… Targum Yonatan, an Aramaic translation of the Torah and Prophets, says that Serah was taken into the Garden of Eden alive, because she brought Jacob the momentous news that Joseph was still alive.
She was also entrusted with a secret code to verify the identity of the true redeemer of the Children of Israel. According to Shemot Rabbah (5:13), she dutifully transmitted: “Any redeemer who will come and tell my sons [in God’s name, the secret code] ‘Pakod Pakad’ti’ – I have indeed remembered – is the true redeemer”. There it is, in Exodus 3:16. She showed Moses where Joseph’s bones were buried. “The Egyptians made him a metal coffin,” she said, “which they sank in the Nile in this spot” (Mechilta Beshalach Pesikta).
And the most amazing of all the elements of her life is an account of her existence even in the time of Samuel. In ii Samuel 20:16, it says: “A wise woman called out from the city…” referring to Serah, daughter of Asher, according to Bereishit Rabbah 94:9.
Amazing words and descriptions of a woman whose fleeting appearances seems to appear in history as the touchstone of integrity, ensuring the faithful transmission of our faith and identity through time. Her appearances are fleeting, even shrouded in mystery, but all who encounter her believed her message and their actions further our national destiny.
I never cease to be amazed and inspired by Serah, a timeless woman who moves the very hands of history.
• Daniel Epstein is community rabbi at Cockfosters and New Southgate synagogue