Some legends of Midrash are superheroes. They have an origin story; they have supernatural powers; and sometimes they have a hidden identity.
This aggadah begins at the very end of the book of Genesis, with the death of Joseph. After one of the most epic stories in the Torah, Joseph survived being attacked by his brothers, sold into slavery in Egypt, falsely accused and jailed for years, brought from the dungeon to serve at Pharaoh's side, only to become Viceroy, saving Egypt from famine, building its economy, then reuniting with his brothers but only after teaching them a lesson about modesty and gratitude.
So on Joseph's deathbed, he made his brothers -- and their descendents -- promise to do something very important for him.
So there's that. BUT...did they do it? Let's find out.
Great. End of story. Joseph made them swear that he wouldn't stay buried in Egypt, and Moses fulfilled that promise on their way out.
Except...some ancient Rabbis took issue with this. Here's another verse, for emphasis.
The Children of Israel were in Egypt for over 400 years. Moses wasn't there when Joseph died, obviously, but he somehow knew where Joseph was buried? I mean, Joseph was famous, so maybe he had a tomb and everyone knew where it was. But a tomb would preclude them from being able to get him later, so that's unlikely.
So if Moses wasn't there when Joseph died, how did he know where Joseph was buried? He would've needed someone:
- who knew Joseph
- who was there when he was buried
- and who was, therefore, over 400 years old.
In order to figure out who this might've been, we need to take a detour. We also could use a list of the most likely suspects. And here's a clue to reading the next passage: families and inheritances in the Bible are patrilineal.
The Torah lists the male descendents of Jacob in the list of the 70 who came down to Egypt after the reunification with Joseph. Someone in this list would be our prime suspect. And someone in this list sticks out.
The only daughter mentioned here is Asher's daughter, Serach.
But JUST to be sure, let's see if she's mentioned anywhere else. Tip: if you're looking for a census, where the Torah lists lots of people's names, look for the Israelites to do something terrible then get punished with a plague. Here's the census taken after the plague that followed the rebellion of Korach, which itself has some wild supernatural midrashim, but that's another story.
Numbers 26:46 has four simple Hebrew words, identifying and confirming that Asher had a daughter named Serach who came down to Egypt.
And we have our suspect. Why would Serach be mentioned here and there? She must've done something extraordinary for the Torah insist we remember her.
Let's see what the Talmud has to say about Serach.
- The Talmud doesn't name a specific source for the story, which could imply this story was steeped in Jewish tradition over 2,000 years ago.
- Serach tells Moses that, yes, she knows where Joseph is buried...but he's at the bottom of the Nile.
- The Egyptians put the casket in the Nile and not a tomb because, in deference to Joseph predicting when the Nile would flood and make the country fertile or dry up and cause possible famine, Egypt buried him in the river to bless the river for all time.
- [David adds: notice how Exodus begins with the new Pharaoh denying any knowledge of Joseph; no wonder, if Joseph was buried in the river with no marker.]
- Moses stands by the river and calls out Joseph: we've done all we can to get your coffin out of the river -- Serach lived this long just to tell me you were in the river -- the onus is now on YOU to appear or we're off the hook for this oath.
All this being said, he get to the next part of our journey. What are we to believe then about Serach? By this point in the Torah, folks weren't living more than 120 years. So, yes, it's unusual that anyone would live for over 400 years. If she does have what you might call a superpower, she must have been granted it as a blessing.
What did Serach do to earn this blessing of longevity?
Let's jump back a bit before the opening of our lesson. Here we find Joseph, post-reunification with his brothers, after instructing them to return home with tons of horses and donkeys and wagons full of goodies. Their biggest job is simply to tell their father, Jacob, that Joseph is alive...and all the stuff they bring with them is the proof.
How does Serach fit in here? She was present, as were all the families. But we have to dive deep to find her story.
Here it is.
We dive into a collection of Midrashim called the Sefer HaYashar. As far as I know, nobody's sure where this collection came from, only that its earliest appearance known was around the 13th century. Then again, the Torah does mention the existence of a Sefer HaYashar...so maybe this was a book lost in antiquity that was found in the Middle Ages. Maybe not.
We do not judge. We keep our minds open. Because we want to know the story.
As noted before, the brothers knew they had a trust issue with their father. As the Torah states, they told their father Joseph was alive, gifted them all this stuff, and was ruler of Egypt. And you'll never guess: Jacob did NOT believe them.
So...someone must've been there to convince Jacob, someone he trusted, and someone who had their own special way of communicating with her grandfather...thru music.
And so we learn why, and when, and how Serach was blessed. And we also learn, more specifically, that she wasn't blessed with longevity. She was blessed with eternity.
Serach, for her wisdom and her empathy, was blessed with immortality. That's her superpower.
This, of course, begs the question: how do we know she was immortal? Sorry, how do we know Serach is immortal? Do we just have to find a Torah story from somewhere further down the line that features and old, wise, respected woman?
The Talmud refers to the following story as proof of Serach's power. See what you think.
We jump ahead to the time of King David. A man named Sheva [translated here as "Sheba"] decides to revolt against King David. Sheva is a Benjaminite, Jerusalem is in their territory, and if David wants the capitol of his kingdom in their territory, someone's bound to start a ruckus at some point.
As we'll see, Sheva almost starts a civil war between "Israel" in the north and "Judah" in the south, splitting the kingdom in two. David tries to rally his southern army to put down the rebellion, but it's taking too long. So he gets a small posse to chase down Sheva and bring him to justice.
It's a wild story which I'm abridging, but feel free to read it in full.