Although Serach bas Asher’s name appears only twice in the Chumash, Chazal tribute her with contributing to a number of seminal events in the history of Klal Yisroel. Indeed, the two verses that mention her hint that she was no normal personage.
Her name first appears in the count of Yaakov’s children as they go down to Egypt (Bereishis 46:17), “Asher’s children were Yimnah, Yishvi, Veria, and Serach their sister. Beriah’s children were Chever and Malkiel.” She is next mentioned when the Jews were counted to see how many had survived the plague in Shittim (Bamidbar 26:46), “The name of Asher’s daughter was Serach.” From this, it seems clear that Serach lived throughout the hundreds of years in Egypt.
As the Braisa deSeder Olam Rabah (chapter 9) says, “Serach bas Asher was among those who entered Egypt and among those who left it. From those who entered Egypt as it says, ‘And Serach their sister.’ And she was among those who entered the Land as it says, ‘The name of Asher’s daughter was Serach.’”
In a similar vein the Medrash (Batei Midrashos 2, Medrash Eishes Chayil) says, “’She opens her mouth with wisdom’ (Mishlei 31:26), this is Serach bas Asher who never tasted the taste of death.”
What did Serach do to deserve this enormous privilege? Discussing those people who never died, the Medrash Hagadol (Bereishis 46:25) states, “Serach bas Asher [is among them] because she said to Yaakov, ‘Yosef is alive.’ Yaakov said to her, ‘This mouth that related to me the news that he is alive, will never taste the taste of death!’”
Why does the above Medrash describe her as wise? As discussed in last week’s article, the brothers approached her to reveal to Yaakov that Yosef was still alive without him dying from shock. She broke the news to him subtly, either by hinting it to him in an intonation of surprise as he was davening (Can Yosef indeed be alive!), or by singing the words, “Yosef is alive,” as a song.
It is worth noting that other Midrashim (such as Masseches Kalla Rabasi 3:23) describe her and others not as never tasting the taste of death, but as entering the Garden of Eden during their lifetimes. These two concepts may boil down to the same thing, since when Chazal speak of someone living forever, it does not necessarily mean in their normal earthly form. As an example, the Zohar devotes much discussion to Eliyahu Hanavi’s exact whereabouts and his interaction with people over the centuries.
Role in the Redemption
The Yalkut Shimoni (Bereishis 12:64) records how, thanks to her longevity, Serach played a key role in the redemption from Egypt:
“Rabbi Eliezer says, ‘Five letters were doubled, and all of them are an expression of redemption. [First is] kaf, kaf, through which Avrohom was redeemed from Ur Kasdim as it says, ‘Go you (lech lecha) from your land.’ Mem, mem, though which Yitzchok was redeemed from the Plishtim as it says, ‘Go from among us, for you have become far wealthier than us (mimenu meod).’ Nun, nun, through which Yaakov was redeemed from Eisav as it says, ‘Please save me (hatzileini nah).’ Pei, pei, through which Yisroel were redeemed from Egypt as it says, ‘I will surely redeem you (pakod pakadti). Ztadi, ztadi, through which the Holy One will redeem Yisroel at the end of the fourth kingdom as it says (Zechariah 6:12), ‘[Behold] a man, Tzemach is his name, and from his place will sprout (yitzmach) [the Moshiach].’
“Avrohom passed these [signs] to Yitzchok, Yitzchok to Yaakov, Yaakov to Yosef, and Yosef to his brothers when he said to them, ‘When G-d surely redeems you, etc.’ (Bereishis 50:24). Asher ben Yaakov passed the secret of the redemption to Serach his daughter. When Moshe and Aharon came to the elders of Yisroel and did the signs before them, the elders of Yisroel went to Serach bas Asher and said to her, ‘A certain man has come and made such and such signs before us.’ She said, ‘These signs are immaterial.’ They said, ‘But did he not say, ‘I will surely redeem’ (pakod pakadti)?’ She said, ‘He is the man! He has come to redeem Yisroel, because so I heard from my father, pei, pei. Immediately, ‘And the people believed, etc.’ (Shemos 4:31).”
In addition to this, the Yalkut (Devorim 34:965) reports how she played a crucial part in the fulfillment of the oath to take Yosef’s bones up to Eretz Yisroel, without which it would have been impossible to leave Egypt:
“’He buried him [Moshe] in the valley’ (Devorim 34:6). Why did Moshe merit that the Holy One dealt with him? Because at the time Yisroel were busy with the spoil, he wandered around the city for three days and three nights to find Yosef’s coffin, and he could not find it. After, he was very exhausted, and he met Serach bas Asher. She said to him, ‘Our master, Moshe, why are you so exhausted? He told her, etc. She said to him, ‘Come with me,’ and she took him to the Nile River.
“She said to him, ‘At this place they made a lead coffin of five hundred kikars, and placed him inside, sealed it, and threw it into the river. Because the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘Do you want this nation never leave your jurisdiction? Arrange that they cannot find Yosef’s bones and they will never leave here, because so he made them swear.’ Immediately, Moshe stood by the river, etc.”
Savior of a City
After being included in the count of parshas Pinchos, Serach bas Asher disappears from history for hundreds of years, only to reappear in one of the rebellions that erupted during King Dovid’s reign:
“A wicked man happened to arrive there, Sheva ben Bichri of Binyomin was his name. He blew a shofar and said, ‘We have no portion in Dovid and we have no inheritance in Ben Yishai. Let each man of Yisroel [separate from him] and go to his tents… The men of Yoav, the Urim and Tumim, and all the warriors went out… to pursue Sheva ben Bichri… They came and besieged him in Aveilah… A wise woman called out from the town… and said, ‘I am among those of Yisroel who are peaceful and faithful [to Dovid]. Do you seek to kill the great town of Yisroel…?’
“Yoav replied, ‘Not so is the matter. Rather… Sheva ben Bichri has rebelled against King Dovid. Give only him and I will leave the town…’ The woman came to all the people with her wisdom, and they cut off Sheva ben Bichri’s head and threw it to Yoav…”
The Medrash (Medrash Mishlei 31) identifies this old woman as none other than Serach bas Asher:
“’She opens her mouth with wisdom and the Torah of chesed is on her tongue.’ This was the woman who spoke to Yoav and saved the town with her wisdom, and this was Serach bas Asher.”
The obvious question is – what was so wise about suggesting to her townspeople that they hand over the main culprit instead of all being killed? Isn’t this something anyone could have thought of?
The Tosefta (Terumos 7) explains that the people were concerned about the halachah that a group of people are sometimes forbidden to hand over one of them to be killed even if this leads to them all being killed:
“She said to them, ‘because he will be killed [in any case] and you too will be killed, give him to them. If he could escape, for example, if he was inside [in a more secure place] and you were outside, and you were in danger and he could escape, we would not push aside a life for a life to kill him so you should be saved. But now that he too will be killed with you, since the walls have been destroyed and there is no possibility of escape, it is better that he alone dies and you do not die with him.’
“Rabbi Shimon says, ‘This is what she said to them – someone who rebels against the Dovidic Kingdom is liable for the death penalty.’”
As mentioned in an earlier article, this halachic discussion is relevant to many similar situations over the centuries, such as when the Nazis demanded that Jews hand over quotas of Jews who were taken to their deaths.
The Malbim explains their argument as follows. When Serach claimed that the town was faithful to Dovid, Yoav countered that their sheltering of Sheva ben Bichri was itself an act of rebellion. According to this approach, her wisdom was in persuading her townspeople that Yoav’s rationale was correct.
The last time Serach appears in Chazal is over a thousand years later when she appeared in order to testify to a historical event:
“Rabbi Yochanan was sitting and teaching how the waters [of Yam Suf] were made into a wall for Yisroel. Rabbi Yochanan taught, ‘How were the waters? Like a woven network.’ Serach bas Asher looked in and said, ‘I was there, and they were like [the glass of] a shining lamp.’”
The Zayis Raanan on Yalkut Shimoni writes that she looked out from Gan Eden to give Rabbi Yochanan this information.
Why was it so vital for her to correct Rabbi Yochanan’s understanding of what happened? It was so crucial because if the partitions were like a woven network, the tribes would not have seen each other passing through different tunnels. With the wisdom of centuries, Serach felt it vital to emphasize that the walls were like shining glass. Even when the tribes were separate, they remained united.