I gave this talk at Temple Beth Israel (Eugene, OR) in 2004.
D’var Torah – Parashat Vayechi 5765 – December 25, 2004
By Rabbi Maurice Harris
This week’s Torah Portion is Vayechi, the last parashah of the Book of Breishit, the Book of Genesis. It is the closing chapter of a book that began with the creation of the universe, took us through the drama of the first human beings, through the stories of the first Jews – Sarah and Abraham and their extended family – and finally through the exhilarating and powerful cycle of stories surrounding Joseph. Breishit opens with the beginning of all things and closes with Joseph and his bretheren dwelling securely in the land of Egypt with Pharaoh’s blessing. The last word of the parashah is the Hebrew word for Egypt – mitzrayim. The stage is set for the second book of the Torah, Shemot – Exodus – and the drama of enslavement and redemption that form the next chapters of the Torah’s epic story.
You may recall the story of how Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, only to rise from an Egyptian jail to become the second in command of the Egyptian empire.
When we pick up this week, Joseph has reconciled with his brothers, and the entire family, including his frail, aging father, Jacob, has settled in Egypt. Hearing that his father Jacob has fallen ill, Jospeh brings his two sons, the first born, M’nasheh, and the younger one, Ephraim, to their grandfather. Jacob proceeds to bless his grandsons. In a gesture that has become commonplace in this family, Jacob gives the favored blessing traditionally reserved for the first born son to the younger son instead – a moment that I could easily spend the rest of this talk examining, but that will have to wait for another time.
Later in the parashah, Jacob gives his final words to his assembled sons. Jacob also asks his sons to bury his body in the Cave of Machpela, where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and his wife Leah were buried. Jacob dies, and Egypt’s finest courtiers accompany the funeral caravan all the way to the Land of Canaan, where Jacob’s sons bury him at Machpela. After burying their father, Joseph’s brothers go through one more moment of anxiety about their having sold Joseph into slavery. They become worried that, with their father Jacob no longer alive, Joseph may rediscover his anger at his brothers for their terrible treatment of him. The brothers reconfirm their reconciliation, and the parashah concludes with Joseph’s last remarks to his brothers.
Joseph, who has lived to a ripe old age, tells his brothers, “I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land which God promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and to Jacob.” The Torah continues, “So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, ‘When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.’ Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.”
Among all the possible points of focus in this remarkable parashah, I would like to focus on Joseph’s last words. Joseph told his brothers, “I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land which God promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and to Jacob.” God will surely take notice of you – PAKOD YIF-KOD ET-CHEM. Even if you don’t know any Hebrew, you can probably hear the doubling of a Hebrew root in that phrase – PAKOD YIFKOD. This is a special grammatical form the Hebrew Bible uses to express a kind of surety or emphasis – God will assuredly take notice of you – as opposed to “God will take notice of you.” The root, “PAKAD” is doubled and used in two words, instead of only one word, for special emphasis. PAKOD YIFKOD.
The rabbis of old took note of these special grammatical forms and looked for hidden meaning. In this instance, they found a gateway to midrash. You see, Joseph tells his brothers that one day God will remember the promise God made to settle their families in the Promised Land – God will surely take notice of you – PAKOD YIF-KOD ET-CHEM – he tells them. Centuries later, when the descendants of Joseph and his brothers are slaves in Egypt, Moses asks God what he should say to the leaders of the enslaved Hebrews when he tells them he has come as the messenger of God’s redemption. God tells Moses, “Go and assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, Adonai, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has appeared to me and has said, ‘PAKOD PAKAD’TI ET-CHEM’ – I have taken note of you and what is being done to you in Egypt.” There it is again – that special grammatical form, the doubling of the root, PAKAD.
It’s almost as if Joseph’s words to his brothers, the special way of doubling the verb PAKAD that he used to tell his brothers that one day God would take notice of them … it’s almost as if this was a special code phrase that God would only use when the time for deliverance was really at hand. Some of the rabbis write in midrash that this doubling of the verb PAKAD was in fact just that – a secret code phrase that signaled God’s redemption. The midrash states that the doubled PAKAD secret was first given to Abraham and passed through his sons, Isaac and Jacob, down to Joseph, and that Joseph shared this secret code phrase with all his brothers.
You might ask, how then did the secret code make its way through the generations of the Hebrew slaves, so that when Moses showed up on the scene, telling the elders of Israel that God had spoken with him and had said PAKOD PAKAD’TI, ‘I have surely taken notice of you’, somebody knew the significance of what he was saying?
This is where we have to jump slightly outside of this week’s parashah. As I was saying a moment ago, the midrash says that Joseph shared the secret code with his brothers. It goes on to state that one of his brothers, Asher, shared the code with his daughter, Serach.
Who, you might ask, is Serach?
Serach is mentioned in last week’s parashah as part of a genealogical list. She is briefly named in the list of children that Joseph’s brother, Asher, brought with him when he went down to Egypt with the rest of his brothers and their kin. The Torah’s list simply states, “Asher’s sons: Imnah, Ishvah, Ishvi, and Beriah, and their sister Serach.” The text says nothing more about her.
She appears only once more in Torah, again in a list. Strangely, the list is way over in the book of Numbers. It’s a list that begins, “The descendants of the Israelites who came out of the land of Egypt were…” and then it goes into one of those very long biblical lists of names that my 7th graders love to discover happens to be their b’nai mitzvah Torah portion. Buried in that list of Hebrews who came out of Egypt, after hundreds of years of slavery, we find Serach’s name, again.
A variety of midrashim – rabbinic interpretive stories – come out of this mysterious double listing of Serach’s name. In one midrash, we read, “Serach bat Asher – Serach the daughter of Asher – was among those who came to Egypt and among those who left Egypt.” The midrash goes on to state that Serach also entered the Land of Canaan. A second midrash states that Serach never tasted the taste of death – that she lived for centuries and then entered alive into Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, the heavenly world to come after this life.
Serach is a remarkable figure of midrash. There are stories explaining why Serach merited the right to live for centuries and never taste the taste of death. Serach also appears in midrashic stories about King David, and she pops up again in a midrash in which a great rabbi is giving a d’var torah. As the midrash tells it:
Rabbi Yochanan was sitting and explaining how the waters [of the Red Sea] were made into [walls] for Israel. Rabbi Yochanan explained that they were like opaque walls. Serach the daughter of Asher [appeared and] grew angry and said, “I was there and they were like lighted windows!”
The rabbis even wrote that she was the one, when the time came for the Hebrews to quickly get out of Egypt, who told Moses where to find Joseph’s coffin, so that his descendants could keep the promise that his sons had made to him to carry his body out of Egypt and bury it in the Promised Land.
And it was Serach, according to the midrash we first examined tonight, who knew that the liberation from Egypt would come when someone uttered the secret code words – a phrase doubling the verb PAKAD. Let me read you a translation of the rest of that midrash:
Asher, the son of Jacob, delivered the mystery of the redemption – [the secret code phrase] – to Serach, his daughter. When Moses and Aaron came to the elders of Israel and performed miracles in their sight [to prove that they were truly God’s messengers], the elders of Israel went to Serach bat Asher, and they said to her: A certain man has come, and he has performed signs – [miracles] – in our sight, [and they proceeded to describe the signs]. She said to them: There is no reality in the signs. They said to her: [This man] said PAKOD YIPHKOD – ‘God will surely take note of you’. She said to them: He is the person who will redeem Israel in the future from Egypt, for thus did I hear from my father… PAKOD PAKADETI. Straight-away the people believed in their God and in God’s messengers, as it is [written in Torah], “And the people believed, when they heard that Adonai had FAKAD, had taken note of the children of Israel.”
Much of the inspiration for this d’var Torah that I’m sharing with you tonight has come from a d’var I read online by Dr. Rachel Adelman. [Note from me in 2015 – see the bibliography at the end for the link to this online article from over 10 years ago. Also, here is another by Dr. Adelman.]
Adelman takes the figure of Serach bat Asher and writes of her importance as a carrier of oral tradition. She reminds us that when God first asks Moses to take on the mission of being the messenger of liberation, Moses expresses self-doubt. God’s first instruction to Moses is to tell the elders of Israel these words, PAKOD PAKADETI, and God tells Moses that the elders will listen to him. But Moses says, “What if they do not believe me … and say, ‘Adonai did not appear to you’?” Only then does God give Moses a set of three signs, or miracles, that he can perform in order to be convincing. But remember, in the midrash I just quoted, Serach tells the elders of Israel that the miracles mean nothing – rather, it is the secret words that are the sign of God’s involvement.
Adelmen writes that Moses is not able to trust in the power of the secret words, ‘PAKOD PAKADETI,’ because he has grown up in Pharaoh’s court, separated from the informal, oral wisdom tradition of his people – a tradition that was handed down from father to son, and in this case, to daughter. She uses the midrash to illustrate a traditional interpretation in which it is not signs and miracles that convince anyone that the redemption is at hand, but rather a hidden oral tradition.
Serach is, for Adelman, and I quote, “the repository of the oral tradition.” She knows how to decode words and she is essential to the community because of, and I quote again, because of her “continuity to the past, her rootedness in the oral tradition. She is a poet, an artist who stirs memory and longing, operating in the mode of Torah she-be’al peh – oral Torah – even before there is a formal oral tradition [in the way the rabbis came to understand it].”
I would add to Adelman’s wonderful insights that Serach presents us with a powerful female mythic role model along the lines of any of our most colorful or famous men. Adelman’s allusion to Serach as a repository of a hidden oral tradition strikes a chord for those of us invested in the feminist enterprise of recovering, and where that’s not possible, re-imagining – or “re-midrashing” – the sacred history of Jewish women. As Rabbi Barbara Penzner writes in an essay about Serach:
Serach enters the midrash like a phantom, someone we catch in the corner of our eye but cannot see in full view. In the Torah, she nearly disappears, like her sisters and nieces. Who would think to look in a list of names for such a heroine? Yet her presence, while almost invisible, carries great weight in the historical tale. Serach is a different kind of woman from the others we encounter in the more familiar stories, and her benevolent wisdom earns her a pivotal place in the Jewish saga.
… Serach … enters the biblical account to teach us to look in the dark corners for the true heroes, and not to overlook anyone just because they are old, or quiet, or isolated. Rather, we should treasure the gifts of memory, of authority, and awareness that our grandmothers bestow.
TO THE READER: To learn more about Serach bat Asher, consider clicking on the links to the following web sites:
Adelman, Rachel, “Joseph’s Bones and the Language of Redemption,” from the web site: Matan: The Sadie Rennert Women’s Institute for Torah Studies, www.matan.org.il/eng/learning/shemot.html
Penzner, Rabbi Barbara Rosman, “Vayechi: Serach Bat Asher – the Woman Who Enabled the Exodus,” The Women’s Torah Commentary, ed. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT, © 2000, pp. 116 – 117.