11 Tevet 5784
December 23, 2023
Rhonda F Levine
In some way, Vayigash, our parsha today is a very straightforward story: Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, lets them off the hook for what they did to him, sends them home to bring his father, Jacob, back to Egypt. The brothers are worried about what might happen to them for what they did to Joseph some 20 years earlier, but are assured all will be fine. Jacob is happy to learn that Joseph is alive, and although he is somewhat hesitant to go to Egypt, he is told by G-d that there is nothing to fear, so Jacob and his family take all their wealth and board the wagons Pharoah had sent, and went on their way to Egypt. In Egypt, father and sons and the brothers are reunited. The parsha ends with the famine still raging, Joseph amasses great wealth by selling food and grain to the Egyptians during the famine. Pharaoh gives the fertile area of Goshen to Jacob’s family where they settle and become shepherds and prosper.
A cursory look at the section we read today, seems to merely be a list of the names of Jacob’s descendants who came to Egypt, numbering 70. Yet, a bit more careful reading raises a couple of questions: The first: we know by now, that Jacob is renamed Israel, yet, unlike Abraham whom the Torah no longer refers to as Abram once his name was changed, and same for Sarah once her name is changed from Sarai, the Torah continues to refer to Jacob as both Jacob and Israel. And sometimes even in the same sentence/verse:
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמַרְאֹ֣ת הַלַּ֔יְלָה וַיֹּ֖אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֣ב ׀ יַעֲקֹ֑ב וַיֹּ֖אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי׃Genesis 46:2: “G-d called to Israel in a vision by night: ‘Jacob! Jacob!’ He answered, ‘Here.’”
Similarly, even the descendants of Jacob, are referred to by both names — Children of Israel, House of Jacob. The sages of the Talmud (Berachot 13a) held that both names may be used as written, but that Israel should be of greater significance. One view, for example, is that until he received his new name in Genesis 32, Jacob was a compliant person easily swayed by stronger characters. The man Jacob had to be superseded by a solid, determined man, one who recognized the need for strong, positive action and was ready to take it. Lubavitchers argue something a little different, maintaining that Jacob refers to being part of this physical world, with all the hardships and pleasures that go with it. Israel refers to the ability to rise above it all and be one with Gd.
I would like to suggest something a little different — perhaps the usage of both Jacob and Israel, by referring to both the man/individual on a specific level and nation/ on a more abstract general level, is an acknowledgment that the whole (or nation/Israel) is more than the sum of its parts (individual/Jacob).
The largest section of the part of the parsha we read today is the listing of the names of Jacob’s descendants who came to Egypt. Reading the list of names, I was not only reminded of the patriarchal nature of the Torah, but too reminded of second wave feminist and author Sheila Rowbotham’s book, Hidden From History. I could not help but notice that aside from Jacob’s four wives, the only two women who were named were Jacob’s daughter Dinah, and Jacob’s granddaughter Serah, or Serach bat Asher. No other granddaughters of Jacob are mentioned and women in general are scarce from this point until the end of the Torah. Second question: Why was Serah singled out? Midrashic narrative weaves together fascinating traditions to give us a rich portrait of an unusual woman, one that is hidden from history.
[ Following is according to the Jewish Women’s Archives, jwa.org]
Serah daughter of Asher is mentioned in the Torah in the count of the Israelites who went down to Egypt (Gen. 46:17) and in the enumeration of the Israelites at the steppes of Moab (Num. 26:46). Aside from this, she takes no part in any narrative, nor is anything said about her. (This is similar to Dinah, Jacob’s daughter) Unlike the case of Dinah, however, a plethora of midrashic traditions exist about Serach bat Asher. Her history is intertwined with the story of the migration to Egypt and enslavement, and with redemption and the return to Erez Israel. She lived to an extremely old age and accordingly was said to be blessed with much earthly wisdom and knowledge, which she used to help the people of Israel as needed, even during the time of the Rabbis.
The midrash speaks of Serah’s great beauty and wisdom: when Joseph was reunited with his brothers and sent them to the land of Canaan to bring his father Jacob to him in Egypt, he ordered them not to alarm their aged father. The brothers summoned Serah and asked her to sit before Jacob and play for him on the lyre, in this manner revealing to him that Joseph was still alive. Serah played well and sang gently: “Joseph my uncle did not die, he lives and rules all the
land of Egypt.”
She played this for Jacob two and three times, and he was pleased by what he heard and Jacob blessed Serah for telling him and he said to her: “My daughter, death will not conquer you forever for you brought my spirit alive. Please speak again for your words make me happy”.
The Rabbis assign to Serah an important role in identifying Moses as the redeemer who would deliver the Israelites from Egypt. The midrash relates that the secret of redemption was given over to Abraham, who conveyed it to Isaac, Isaac to Jacob, and Jacob to Joseph. Joseph transmitted the secret of redemption to his brothers, telling them (Gen. 50:25): “When G-d has taken notice of you (pakod yifkod), .…..” and Asher passed it along to his daughter Serah. When there was doubt whether Moses and Aaron were in fact the redeemers of the nation of Israel, it was Serah who convinced and told the Israelite elders that Moses and Aaron were the real deal because they knew the secret of redemption and she could verify what it was.
In the midrashic account, Serah helped Moses to fulfill the oath sworn to Joseph, to carry up his bones. When the Israelites were ready to leave Egypt, they were occupied in taking booty, and Moses was the only one who was engaged with Joseph’s bones. He searched for his coffin in all the land of Egypt but could not locate it. Serah was the only one of that generation still alive.
Moses went to her and asked: “Do you know where Joseph is buried?” She answered: “They placed him here. The Egyptians made for him a metal coffin and sunk it in the Nile, so that its waters would be blessed.” Moses then went to the Nile, stood on the bank and shouted: “-Joseph, Joseph! The time has arrived which the Holy One, blessed be He swore, -I will deliver you, and the oath which thou didst impose upon the Israelite has reached [the time of fulfillment].” Immediately Joseph’s coffin floated [on the surface of the water]. (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Masekhta Vayehi Beshalah, Petihtah; BT Sotah 13a). This led the Rabbis to state that Serah delivered “the faithful one to the faithful one,” since she gave Joseph over to Moses when they departed from Egypt (Gen. Rabbah 94:9).
According to the Rabbis, not only was Serah among those who came to Egypt and one of those who left it, she also entered Erez Israel; Num. 26:46, includes Serah among the names of those entering the land (Seder Olam Rabbah 9). An additional tradition of Serah’s longevity has her still alive in the time of King David and identifies her with the wise woman of Abel-beth-maacah.
Some traditions declare that Serah never died but was one of the people who entered the Garden of Eden while still alive, like, Elijah, , (Kallah Rabbati 3:23; Masekhet Derekh Erez, 1:18; for the various traditions, see L. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, vol. 5, chap. 18, 95–96, n. 67).
The tradition of Serah’s immortality is also reflected in a narrative set in the time of the Rabbis, in which Serah appears to resolve a disagreement in the academy ([jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:304]bet midrash[jwa_encyclopedia_glossary]). R. Johanan was sitting in the bet-midrash and discussing the splitting of the Red Sea. How could the water become as a wall? R. Johanan expounded that it was a sort of [impervious] net. Serah appeared and said: “I was there, and the water was not as a net, but as transparent windows” (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 11:13). In this midrashic vignette, Serah is an extremely old woman who can testify, in the first person, to the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea. In her wisdom, she is capable of comprehending, and participating in, the discussion conducted in the bet-midrash. Her statement is preferred to that of R. Johanan since she has first-hand knowledge of the facts.
The traditions of Serah’s extreme longevity apparently have their basis in the fact that she is mentioned both in the count of those who went to Egypt and in the list of those who entered Erez Israel. – This evolved into the tradition that Serah lived for hundreds of years, was in the presence of both Joseph and Moses and was even one of those who entered the land of Canaan. In the development of this tradition her lifetime extended to the period of King David and the later traditions claimed that she never died at all but entered the Garden of Eden while still alive. In the late midrash, Jacob is the one who blessed Serah that she would live forever, telling her: “My daughter, because you revived my spirit, death shall never rule you” (Sefer ha-Yashar,
Vayigash, chap. 14).
Although women are barely named in our parsha today, they do appear as relatives of significant fathers, husbands, and sons, or nameless relatives as in “your wives” or “their wives.” Perhaps this is just another way to say: Behind every significant/important man, is a woman.