When I was a student in the HUC-JIR School of Education, I went on a b'nei mitzvah weekend family retreat. On Shabbat morning, the Rabbi at Kehilat Israel in Pacific Palisades, California shared a story with the families. The story was a, a story about the Torah portion Vayechi and a woman named Serach Bat Asher. The Rabbi told the families that on the night the Jews were about to leave Egypt, hurried and scared, they realized they could not leave without one precious thing: the bones of Joseph. The Israelites, already overcome with panic and fear, didn't know what to do. An elderly woman, Serach Bat Asher, whispered that she knew where the bones of Joseph were. The woman led Moses to the Nile where he could exhume the bones. Those bones, we read in Exodus 12:19, were carried out of Egypt in Exodus 13:19 and later buried in Shechem.
What was it about this story that made it the perfect story for b'nei mitzvah families? And what was it about the telling of the midrash to families that etched it into my memory almost 25 years later?
Serach Bat Asher's name appears in this week's Torah portion amongst the Israelites who went down to Egypt, and it also appears in the Book of Numbers (Chapter 46) amongst the Israelites who will enter the Promised Land. She is notable because women were not often part of the lists of individuals whom the Torah enumerates. Serach Bat Asher is the only link between the generations of Israelites who were separated from their land for hundreds of years. It is not her age, but rather her story, that teaches us the importance of this link. Serach knew the history of her people, the wishes of her uncle Joseph, and believed in her family's destiny and God's promise. When it was time, she took her place in the story of her people, standing up and providing the necessary information. For a family about to participate in b'nei mitzvah, the key ritual in our own chain of tradition, what better story could illustrate that we never know when our part in the story of the Jewish people might emerge? Serach Bat Asher is the penultimate link in the generations of our people, living to see them coming into and leaving Egypt.
In the past 12 weeks, I have shared with you my reflections on the book of Genesis. The topics ranged from hope, courage, and individual inspiration to mental health, abuse prevention, and communal responsibility. In Genesis, we find the seeds of important stories, lessons, conversations, and questions, offering windows into the past and doorways for our future. Each time I immerse myself in words of Torah, I am in awe of the relevance of this ancient text and the way it has been passed from generation to generation to reach me here today. The story of Serach Bat Asher captivates me because it is a story that answers the question "Why keep Judaism alive?" A story that declares every person in the Jewish community has value and purpose.
I hope that this journey into the book of Genesis has reminded you of the importance of learning, the value of teachers and educators, parents, and peers and answered some of your questions. While we never know when the lessons we learn might be needed, we can be certain that the process of learning is powerful and transformative. Judaism must be nurtured because the lessons and sacred texts are relevant to our current lives and give meaning to future paths. Each one of you who has taken the time to read these commentaries has a purpose in our communal story and brings value to our shared tradition. The future of our shared Jewish community depends on your commitment to learning and leadership. As the Executive Director of the Assocation of Reform Jewish Educators I am blessed to do this work every day and have deep gratitude and admiration for the URJ, our sacred partners in this work, alongside every member of our community. As we complete our study of the book of Genesis together, may we use Serach Bat Asher as a model, and in doing so, go from strength to strength .