The Daughters of Israel by David Gertler


The question has been asked: Why are there no women in the list of the seventy people who went down to Egypt? If the presumption were correct, the answer would be that it is a count of men or of heads of household. The question is made much more difficult in that there are two women counted. The question now is: Why these two?

It would not be difficult to find a reason for Dinah, the daughter of Yaakov, to be listed in the seventy because we already know her. Perhaps, Dinah is specifically mentioned to show that she was not excommunicated after she was violated (something that may have been common practice, in those days). The puzzle that begs a solution is the inclusion of Serach Bat Asher. Serach is not mentioned anywhere with a description or personality. She is mentioned only as a name.

The Midrashim, however, go to great lengths to describe Serach as someone who was given extreme longevity for having done a single virtuous deed as a child. The Midrash Hagadol, which is quoted in the Targum Yonatan to Bereishit 46:17, claims that it was Serach who informed Yaakov that Yosef was alive by singing “Od Yosef Chai.” In addition, the Midrash Rabbah (Shemot Rabbah 5:13) says that she was still alive around the time of Yetziat Mitzrayim. It was she who verified that Moshe was the appointed savior, and it was she who showed Moshe where to find Yosef's bones. There are other Midrashim that speak of Serach, including one that claims that she was alive in the time of David (Bereshit Rabbah 94:9). However, the Midrashim cannot be attempting to explain why Serach's name is made known to us because Midrashim are drawn from a textual indication. These Midrashim seem unrelated to the mention of Serach's name, and they must be using a different Pasuk as a starting point for these stories.

As we mentioned, little is known of Serach. Even of her father, Asher, not much is known. All we really know about Asher is what is hinted to us from what others say about him. The first such mention is Asher's naming, when Leah declares, “Happy am I, for the daughters shall call me happy.”  Very little can be learned on this Pasuk alone, but we should keep in mind that Leah claims that her happiness is based on the perception of other people.

Our second clue can come from Yaakov's Brachah to Asher.  “Out of Asher: His bread will be fat [or oily], and he will yield royal dainties,” (Bereshit 49:20).  There are a few important points.  Firstly, while it does say that Asher will have rich bread, it is not for his personal benefit.  Rather, his riches are for the purpose of giving them to royalty.  This can be seen as a connection to the naming of Asher, where the happiness is what is perceived by others.  Similarly, we can understand that it is not Asher that is being blessed but an outgrowth.  (Either will help us to understand a possible explanation for the Brachah starting, “From Asher,” and not “Asher.”  The other Brachot in this section all begin with the name of the son being addressed.)

Our third hint to the origin of Serach and the essence of Asher comes from Moshe.  “Asher is more blessed than sons.  He shall be desired by his brothers, and he shall dip his foot in oil” (Devarim 33:24): (The translation is original to this author but it is true to the text.)  We also cannot deny that we hope to find references to women based on Serach's appearing in the text in a number of places.  The word used here for desired is “Retzui,” which, in other places, is used specifically regarding women.  We also now have two references to oil.  This could either be used to refer to women, who would beautify themselves with oil.  Or it could be meant to refer to kings (as we do have the earlier reference to royalty), who were annointed with oil.

There is one further reference to Asher.  This is in Divrei Hayamim.  A number of times in the Midrash the statement is made that the only purpose for Divrei Hayamim is to allow us to analyze names.  In Divrei Hayamim I (7:30-40), we are given the genealogy of Asher.  We are told of his grandson Malkiel, and Malkiel's son Virzayit.  The name Malkiel is translatable without Midrash (My king is God).  Virzayit, however, is not as clear.  The Midrash suggests (Bereishit Rabbah 71:10) that his name comes from “Barar Zayit, “chosen with oil.”  The Midrash continues to suggest that the daughters of Asher were married to Kohanim Gedolim and to Melachim, both of which were anointed with oil. 

This does well to explain the Brachot of Asher, but what of our original question of Serach?  Yaakov's Brachot, as clearly shown from those whose actions are known to us, were in no way arbitrary.  They may have been wishes, but they were deeply rooted in the connection that he had with each son.  That our text says “from Asher” may have been the Midrash's starting point to suggest that Yaakov had found favor in Serach.  Regardless of Serach's precise actions, there is enough textual evidence to explain that her mention in the count of the seventy was based on a previous deed that affected Yaakov.  As a result of Serach's deed Asher's fame came to him by way of his daughters.

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