January 5, 2018/18 Tevet 5778
I regret that I cannot be with you in person this Shabbat. Instead I send my love and solidarity from New York where the city is essentially shutting down because of a measly few inches of snow and cold that Chicagoans endure on a far more regular basis.
I’m writing these remarks to be read in my absence because I want to warn you that the book of Exodus is a trap. In our retellings of the Exodus narrative, we are quick to delve into the injustice of slavery and the joy of redemption. We vilify the new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph and we root for Moses on his hero’s journey, even when the first step he takes toward that journey is retaliatory murder.
For many of us, the story is so familiar we encapsulate its journey from degradation to praise with one word. The word “Exodus” connotes slavery and redemption, the innocence of the Israelites and the guilt of Pharaoh. We apply the Exodus as our paradigm for any modern struggle for justice. The broad points of the narrative crowd out its finer ones. We don’t stop to think about the cost of redemption - please don’t tell me that spilling a drop of wine is enough remembrance of the slaying of Egypt’s first born. We’ve lost the details of the Exodus, and with them, its nuance. Yet we cling to our sanitized version of the story as if it is Truth. We may be commanded to see ourselves as if we were redeemed from slavery, but we fail to see the difference between cultivated empathy and personal experience. My friends, we have an Exodus complex, and it’s a trap.
I want to delve particularly into one detail this evening, a detail I think will help us escape the trap our Exodus complex creates. Parashat Shemot presents to us, directly and indirectly, the most number of women with agency of any of our Torah portions. This week, we meet Yokheved and Miriam, Pharaoh’s daughter who our Talmudic sages called Batya, Tzipporah, Shifrah and Puah. But before we get to any of these amazing women, we allude to another.
The book of Exodus opens with a recap. Last season on Biblical Tales, Jacob and his children and their households went down to Egypt. That totaled seventy people, and in Genesis where the full list is recorded, we read that among these is Seraḥ, daughter of Asher. This list is repeated in Chronicles. The only other time we read about Seraḥ bat Asher in Tanakh is in a census in the book of Numbers. At first glance, nothing is incredible about her. She’s merely Asher’s daughter. Except that she lived through the 430 years that the Israelites were in Egypt. From this, our Midrashic tradition concludes that Seraḥ bat Asher is immortal. Jewish tradition doesn’t posit many immortal humans, so the midrash gives a reason for Seraḥ’s immortality: as a child, she was the only one brave enough to tell Jacob that Joseph was still alive. (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Genesis 46:17)
This story is enough to explain why a seemingly insignificant woman is named in a Bible stingy with women’s names, but it doesn’t help us overcome our Exodus complex. Yet this is hardly the only midrash about Seraḥ bat Asher. Here’s one:
The enslaved Israelites did not know if Moses was truly sent to redeem them, especially because he was Egyptian royalty. Seraḥ recognized him by a code phrase which had been passed down from Abraham to Isaac, Isaac to Jacob, Jacob to his sons, and so on, and Serah remembered overhearing it. (Exodus Rabbah 5:13)
Serah was the only person to remember where Joseph’s bones were entombed in Egypt. When it came time to leave, Moses came to her. He searched everywhere but could not find Joseph’s grave. Seraḥ led him to the Nile and said that he was lowered into the Nile in order to bless the waters. She remembered the chant that lifted his coffin out of the Nile. (BT Sotah 13a)
Rabbi Yohanan was teaching about the Israelites crossing the sea. When he explained that the waters formed a wall, on either side, he describe the wall as being formed by some sort of impervious net holding the water back. Seraḥ bat Asher said, “No. The walls were like lighted windows; I was there.” Rabbi Yohanan corrected himself, taking Seraḥ’s lived experience as superior authority. (Pesikta deRav Kahana 11:13)
As our midrash evolved, together with the statement in Exodus Rabbah that Seraḥ bat Asher was taken in to the Garden of Eden while still living, this last story became the first in a genre of stories about her. (5:14) Sages argue about events of the past, reaching erroneous conclusions. Then Seraḥ bat Asher shows up to say “No, that’s not how it happened. It happened this way; I was there.” Seraḥ’s journey through the midrash in the pre-modern era is parallel to Elijah. She shows up exactly when she is needed, sometimes disguised. By some accounts, she is also testing us to see if we’re ready for the World to Come. Do we recognize Seraḥ bat Asher when she tells her story? Have we learned to listen to personal experience over retrospective analysis of events? Like the genre of Elijah stories where we don’t recognize Elijah until he is gone, we are often unable to recognize Seraḥ until it is too late.
Seraḥ’s message is that we must listen to the first-hand experiences. When our stories depart from those experiences, they must be brought back in line. We need not wait for Seraḥ to appear. We can listen to and amplify the voices of those speaking from their experiences. And we can get in touch with our inner Seraḥ - that part of us that is unafraid to speak truth to power. It’s that part of us that asks what Moses could have done other than killing the Egyptian. It’s that part of us that recognizes the true cruelty of the plagues. It’s that part of us that insists that true redemption would have redeemed Egypt, too. It’s that part of us that recognizes that we \wouldn’t have needed redemption if Joseph’s brothers hadn’t been so willing to be rid of him for being different. It’s that part of us that asks why we’ve forgotten the women in the story. Voicing and listening to our inner Seraḥ is the way we overcome our Exodus complex - the way we escape the trap.
We don’t need to abandon the entire Exodus narrative. It is formative, inspirational, and often relevant. But we have a bad habit of applying it to every struggle for justice, whether or not it fits. And sometimes we get so far afield of the original that Seraḥ bat Asher has to come and say, “No that isn’t what happened; I was there.” Because maybe the Exodus isn’t the map out of the territories of every contemporary injustice. Maybe that map comes from those who endure their own oppression.
There is a traditional blessing which thanks God for saving us from oppression which I choose to believe is sourced from Seraḥ’s image of the lighted windows of the parting sea. I want to leave you all with that blessing:
Blessed are you, Compassionate One, who guides us from darkness into light.