Parshat Pinchas: The encore of Serach bat Asher

Rabbi James Michaels
Rabbi James Michaels (Courtesy of Charles E. Smith Life Communities)

By Rabbi James Michaels

There are some people whom you might meet only once or twice, yet you never forget them. Serach bat Asher is one such person.

We meet her only twice in the Torah. In Genesis, she’s listed as one of the members of Jacob’s family who went down to Egypt under the protection of Joseph. We read nothing more about her until this week’s parshah, which contains a list of people who were going to enter the land of Israel. In other words, Serach bat Asher’s name appears again more than 300 years later.

The rabbis who created the midrash — the rabbinic legends of our people — could have simply said, “Hmmm! Two different people with the same name,” and left it at that. Instead, they used this woman as a vehicle for several lessons.

The first legend says that when Joseph’s brothers learned that he was still alive, and had risen to great power in Egypt, they wondered how they would inform Jacob, their aging father, without causing him harm. So they asked Serach to sing to Jacob and reveal the news in a pleasant manner. And so she did. In response, Jacob blessed Serach saying, “May you live to a ripe old age, yet only see good things happen to your family.” This legend tells us that longevity is a blessing.

When I served at the Charles E Smith Life Communities, I often encountered elderly people, or their family members, who felt that advanced age was not a blessing. While I understood their feelings, I felt that they were missing out on the blessings that they could still enjoy.

If we see each day as an opportunity, perhaps we can recognize that our extra days are a blessing. Let’s look at second legend.

When it was time to leave Egypt, Moses needed to find the burial place of Joseph. He wanted to honor the promise to return Joseph’s remains to the land of Israel. Serach bat Asher was the only person who had been alive when Joseph was buried, so Moses asked her for help. She took Moses to the burial place. Serach’s longevity allowed her to be useful when nobody else could help. The lesson here is that we’re never too old to be useful.

One way we can be useful in old age is to tell our stories. We may feel that our personal history is not interesting, but there are many people who want to listen. This is especially true of grandchildren.

A third lesson involves our right to dream. When I think of Serach bat Asher, I envision a woman who lived her dreams and ultimately saw them fulfilled.

Let us take inspiration from Serach bat Asher. Whenever we encounter an elderly person, let’s remember that he or she isn’t just a senior citizen. There’s a past, there’s a history of accomplishment, there’s an assurance that what he or she has done doesn’t fade away. That person helped make the world what it is today. What a blessing.

Rabbi James Michaels is rabbi emeritus of the Charles E Smith Life Communities.

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