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Teachings on Shemot (Exodus)Essay On Parshat Bishalach – Who is “Serach”

Essay On Parshat Bishalach – Who is “Serach”

Moshe said to the people, “Remember this day, when you went out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, for with a mighty hand, Hashem took you out of here, and no leaven shall be eaten.” (Exodus 13:3)

The Jewish people have an interesting custom every day after praying to remember a list of six important events that took place in our past. The first on the list is remembering the exodus from Egypt.

The source of this custom is based on the Mishnah in the tractate of Brachot 1:5. There the Mishnah brings down a Halachic discussion regarding the obligation of remembering our departure from Egypt. According to all opinions, one is obligated to remember the exodus every day throughout one’s entire life. The question under debate is the necessity of doing so at night as well. The Rambam, in the laws of Shemah 1:3, rules that one is required to remember the exodus both day and night. The two opinions are based on the following verse:

“You shall not eat leaven with it; for seven days you shall eat with it matzoth, the bread of affliction, for in haste you went out of the land of Egypt, so that you shall remember the day when you went out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life (Deuteronomy 16:3)

The word “all” in the expression “all the days of your life” is superfluous. The verse could have sufficed with the days of your life. Therefore, we learn from the word “all” to include the nights as well. The other opinion states that the word “all” teaches us that even in the messianic period we will still be required to remember the exodus from Egypt. The many exoduses that will take place from the ingathering of the exiles in messianic times can overshadow the remembering our departure from Egypt. In our time, the messianic age, we have merited in seeing the ingathering of Jews from all over the world. One can easily see how this amazing redemption process can cloud over the departure from Egypt.

One obvious question is why is it important as Jews to remember our exodus from Egypt every day? If the holiday of Passover is not an enough of a reminder, we have every Friday night when reciting the Kiddush to remind us! Part of the Kiddush is mentioning “Zecher Liyiziat Mitzraim”. The holiday of Succoth and the mitzvah of Tefillin, and Tzizit are all reminders as well. In fact, on every holiday we recite in Kiddush the same line “in memory of our exodus from Egypt”!

The Maharal from Prague explains in his book, Givurot Hashem, chapter three – that this shows how important the principle of leaving Egypt is to our faith. He calls it the foundation and root of our entire faith!

There is no doubt that there are countless lessons we can learn from our exodus from Egypt. One can devote and entire life study just to the story of Exodus.

In the opening of this week’s portion, Parashat   Bishalach, the Torah explains the reason for the roundabout path of travel when leaving Egypt. “It came to pass when Pharaoh let the people go, that God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines for it was near, because God said, Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt”

The Torah continues to describe to us how the people of Israel were “Chamushim” when leaving Egypt. The word, “Chamushim”, can be interpreted in a few different ways: The different explanations are based on the root of the word in Hebrew – “Chamesh“, meaning five.  One explanation is that they were armed with five different types of weapons. A bow, club, shield, spear, and sword. It follows the meaning in Joshuah 4:12 “And the children of Reuben, and the children of Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh, passed over armed before the children of Israel, as Moses had spoken to them.”

 Others learn from the verse in Genesis 41:34 “Let Pharaoh appoint officials over the land to hastily prepare the land of Egypt during the seven years of plenty.”  In Hebrew, the word in this verse used for the phrase “to hastily prepare” is “Chimeysh“which is similar to the word in our portion – “Chamushim“.

The Targum Onkelus explains that this means the Jews left Egypt well prepared with everything they needed. Which included not only weapons but also wealth and bounty.

This, the Eben Ezrah argues, contradicts the verse in exodus 12:39 “They baked the dough that they had taken out of Egypt as unleavened cakes, for it had not leavened, for they were driven out of Egypt, and they could not tarry, and also, they had not made provisions for themselves.”  The difficulty raised by the Eben Ezrah is that if they did not make provisions to take with them, it means that they were lacking the proper preparations necessary. This does not seem to agree with the Targum Onkelus, who states that they had everything they need! The Eben Ezrah therefore explains that the meaning of “Chamushim” means to be armed.

There are other opinions that learn from the word “Chamushim” as referring to fractions of multiples of five. Some say that only a fifth of the Israeli population left Egypt, others say only a fiftieth, and others even more extreme say that only one in five hundred left. The rest died in the three days of darkness.

Others explain that Chamushim refers to five different groups of people that left Egypt. For example, converts, slaves…

One may ask which one of these explanations are correct? The answer is that they all are. They each are focusing on a certain aspect of the Exodus. Their deep insights and conclusions all comply with the law of remembering our exodus from Egypt.

The Torah continues in the next verse revealing to us what Moshe our teacher was busy with at the time of the exodus. “Moses took Joseph’s bones with him, for he had made the sons of Israel take an oath, saying, God will surely remember you, and you shall bring up my bones from here with you” Exodus 13:19

The Midrash Michiltah of Rashbi gives a detailed account of how Moshe rescued Joseph’s bones.

“Come and see how dear the Mitzvoth are to Moshe our teacher! While all of Israel were busy with the spoils of Egypt and Moshe was busy with a mitzvah – as it says in proverbs 10:8 “The wise-hearted takes commandments…”How did Moshe know where Joseph was buried? It was told that “Serach” the daughter of Asher was the surviving remnant of the previous generation. Moshe turned to her and asked her where the bones of Joseph were buried. “Serach” told Moshe that they were buried in an iron casket and placed in the Nile River in order to bring a blessing to the Egyptian river. Moshe stands on the bank of the Nile and calls out Joseph Joseph, the hour has come that Hashem has sworn to redeem the people of Israel! The time of your oath has come before Israel as well. Israel and the Divine presence are waiting for you! If you reveal yourself good, if not we are clean of our oath. Immediately the casket of Joseph began to float up from beneath the river.

There is a lot to analyze in this Midrash, but I want to focus on the role of “Serach” the daughter of Asher. First, I want to talk about this amazing Biblical personality. The name “Serach” in Hebrew is spelled with the letter  ש  (sheen)  -pronounced here “sin  .”It is interchangeable with the letter Samech ס. The same root is mentioned in respect to the building of the Tabernacle. “And the remnant that remains of the curtains of the tent, the half curtain that remains, shall hang over the back of the tabernacle” (Exodus 26:12) “Serach” is the Hebrew word for remnant. “Serach” also means to rot in Hebrew. When something is leftover in can rot.  In a moment, we will see how this meaning of her name connects to her personality and purpose.

“Serach’s” first appearance in the Torah is when  her family comes down to Egypt. “And the sons of Asher were Imnah, Ishvah, Ishvi, and Briah, and Serach, their sister; and the sons of Briah were Heber and Malkiel.”  (Genesis 46:17) According to our Rabbis, she completes the number of 70 people that came to Egypt. This is unusual since she is the only woman. Interestingly, she is the only granddaughter of Jacob mentioned in the Torah. We also find her still alive over 210 years later after the Jews have left Egypt (see the consensus in Numbers 26:1, 2, 3, 4, and 46). Besides her mentioning her, the Torah does not describe directly any outward activity that she engaged in.  She is known simply as the daughter of Asher. On the other hand, the fact that she is mentioned twice in the Five books and once in Chronicles makes her a very important lady. She speaks to us through her silence. In Hebrew, the letters of her name are שרח if we reverse them they spell חרש meaning deaf – connected to silence. It is the Midrash that reveals her greatness. The Midrash says that there are 13 people that never died – meaning that they went straight up to the Garden of Eden alive and she was one of them!

After this introduction, we can now get back to the role of “Serach” in the Midrash I brought down above. The Midrash reveals a special connection that she has with Joseph. Moshe’s seeking her knowledge about the whereabouts of Joseph’s burial site, was not only because of her position as a remnant of the previous generation. It was much more than that.  Moshe realized that she had a deep understanding of the special role Joseph played in Israel’s redemption. Joseph is known as the foundation – Yisod. He has the important function of channeling blessing and bounty. Without the Yisod blessing and bounty would remain locked in and would not reach the receiving vessels. This means that without Joseph the redemption would not be able to take place. When a seed is not planted it dries up and decays. That is what takes place when there is no rectification of the Yisod. On other hand, when the seed is planted it seems to decay at first but then it sprouts into beautiful blessing and bounty. That is the secret behind Joseph being the Yisod. His brothers did not appreciate who he was. They judged him on his outward appearance. In the end, he proved to be the greatest of Jacob’s sons. Serach on the contrary knew all along who Jospeh was!

Serach’s deep understanding of Joseph’s role in redemption is supported by other Midrashim as well. It was “Serach” that was the first to reveal to Jacob – “Od Yoseph Chay” – Joseph is still alive! Serach was able to see the greatness of Joseph and knew all along that he was a vital link in the lifeline of Israel. She knew that Joseph would prevail. Jacob revealed to Joseph the secret of redemption hidden within the two words “Pakod Pakadity”I will surely remember. When someone will come along claiming to be the redeemer using the code words “Pakod pakadity” it will be a sign that he is a true redeemer. Joseph in turn revealed the sign to his brothers. This is what he says in Genesis 50:24 “And Joseph said unto his brethren: ‘I die; but God will surely remember you, and bring you up out of this land unto the land which He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” Asher then revealed this secret code sign to his daughter Serach. Later in the book of Exodus it is Moshe, the true redeemer, that says the magic words. “Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say unto them: Hashem, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, hath appeared unto me, saying: I have surely remembered you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt” (Exodus 3:16).

This woman of valor, who carried the secret code of redemption, knew that Moshe was the true redeemer. She knew the important role that Joseph played and therefore helped Moshe get the bones of Joseph.

This great woman is in my opinion, hinted to in the blessing Moshe gives the tribe of Asher.Of Asher he said, “More blessed than sons is Asher; May he be favored by his brothers, And may he dip his foot in oil.” (Deuteronomy 33:24)

What was Moshe hinting to when he said Asher is more blessed then sons? He was referring to this amazing righteous woman “Serach” who is major link in the redemption of Israel.

Jacob’s Blessings to Asher is “Asher’s food shall be rich, and he shall yield royal delicacies.” (Genesis 49:20). Jacob is hinting to Asher’s connection with kings. This refers to “Malchut” in our esoteric teachings. It is the vessel that receives all bounty. “Serach” from the tribe of Asher was the link that allowed Joseph, the foundation, to thrive and flourish bringing the bounty of redemption. How suitable it was for the tribe of Asher to be given a very fertile inheritance along the coast from the Mount Carmel in the south until Sidon in Lebanon along the Litani River. In Her merit the tribe of Asher was blessed with being able to provide royal delicacies to the house of Israel.


It is fascinating, that everything about leaving Egypt is a lesson in remembering! The key words of redemption are “I have surely remembered you”. Hashem wants us to remember how He took us out of slavery and gave us everything we have. We must be grateful for receiving such a blessing. That is what the song “Dayenu” that we sing on Passover is all about. Appreciation! When one remembers, one appreciates. G-D wants us to remember our ancestors that were the backbone of our success. That is what bringing the bones out of Egypt was all about. It wasn’t only Joseph’s bones but all the bones of all the tribal fathers were taken as well. Moshe’s taking out Joseph’s bones was a demonstration of his appreciation of all that Joseph had done for Israel. We can’t go ahead without looking back at those that helped is get where we are.  When we remember and appreciate others Hashem will remember us. That is the secret of redemption. That is why we must remember leaving Egypt every day. Even when new events take place we still cannot forget about the previous generations – in their merit we exist today! Not showing gratitude and appreciation letting our memories decay is the source egoism and evil – that delay the redemption process.

Joseph’s bones traveled with the people of Israel 40 years in the desert together with the Two Tablets. The Torah is obviously the source and root of life. Why then were the bones of Jospeh, dried up and decayed matter, carried together with the Torah Tablets? The answer is obvious they were in reality were the seeds of our redemption!

Joshua, continuing the mission of Moshe, brings the bones of Joseph to their final resting place the city of Shechem near Itamar. And the bones of Joseph, which the children of Israel had brought up out of Egypt, they buried in Shechem, in the parcel of ground which Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem, for a hundred pieces of money; and they became the inheritance of the children of Joseph. (Joshua 24:32)

It is Joshua that merits in inheriting the city of “Timnat Serach” in the land of Ephraim. “In accordance with the command of the LORD they gave him the city for which he asked, Timnath-serah in the hill country of Ephraim. So he built the city and settled in it. (Joshua 19:50)

Does the name of this city sound familiar to you? Yes, the same name as Serah the daughter of Asher. Timnat in Hebrew sounds like the Hebrew verb Taman, although spelled with a Tet, means to bury. (the Tet and tav are interchangeable)

If I were allowed to fill in the blanks – I would say that when Joseph’s bones finally were planted in the land of Israel. “Serach” – completing her important mission on earth and return to her Maker. Joshua showing his deep appreciation and gratitude builds a city and names it after her – Timnat Serach.

Shabbat Shalom Rabbi Moshe Goldsmith Itamar Israel

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