By Rabbi Annie Lewis
In this week’s parshah, Beshalach, we make our way out of Egypt via a roundabout route and a march through the sea on dry ground. Moses carries the bones of Joseph as together, trembling, we venture into the unknown.
According to the Midrash, there is an unsung hero of the Exodus story named Serach bat Asher, daughter of Asher and granddaughter of Jacob. Back in Canaan, when Jacob has given up hope of ever seeing his beloved son Joseph again, he hears the song of his granddaughter.
In his darkest time, Serach’s song gives Jacob hope and allows him to keep going. When Jacob’s sons discover that Joseph is indeed alive, Serach breaks the news to her grandfather in song, so that Jacob can hear it, so that his heart can bear this twist in what he knows to be true. God rewards Serach for the life-giving power of her voice by declaring that she will live forever.
For this reason, our sages teach, Serach is mentioned in the Torah both as part of the Israelite community leaving Canaan to go down to Egypt, and her name is listed again several generations later among those present in the wilderness.
On his deathbed, Joseph comforts his children, promising them that, “God will surely remember you” and take you out of Egypt — “Pakod yifkod Elohim etchem.” In turn, he asks for his children’s word that, when that time arrives, they will carry his bones with them to the Promised Land.
Four hundred years later, in our parshah, Moses fulfills that pledge. According to the Midrash, when it is time to leave, no one has any idea where to find Joseph’s bones. At this moment, Serach comes forward. She remembers that the bones are in the Nile. She goes to the right spot on the banks of the river and recites her uncle Joseph’s words, “Pakod yifkod Elohim etchem. God will surely remember you.”
Serach is a role model of resilience. She is at once a child full of hope and possibility, and a wise elder — a guardian of sacred stories of struggle and survival. When we suffer in the stuckness of slavery, Serach remembers the promise of redemption. Through years of oppression, she holds onto hope. She tells our people when the time for liberation has come.
It is only because of her deep knowledge of our past that we are able to get out of Mitzrayim. I imagine her song rising from her lips. “Pakod yifkod …” Joseph’s bones rise up in the water. And we know we are ready to go forward, to go home.
Serach bat Asher reminds us that, in order to make change and to survive it, we need the stories and the songs of those who have come before us. The stories and songs of our ancestors are the seeds for our own liberation.
This Shabbat, I will be participating for the third year in a row in the Philly Women’s March. As a local rabbi, I have been invited to speak at the rally and address the pressing issue of anti-Semitism and its connection to other forms of discrimination and inequality.
The theme of this year’s march is “We Shall Be Heard!” I will be carrying the voices of our ancestors who took risks to fight for equity and dignity. I will be holding in my heart names and stories of Jews of different races, ethnicities, ages, abilities and gender identities, along with our neighbors of different faiths.
Like our journey out of Egypt, sometimes the road to liberation zig-zags and the path forward seems inscrutable.
The work of ending anti-Semitism, sexism and racism is immense. As we have lifted up our voices to push for change, we have encountered the sting of anti-Semitism. There are moments when we have felt forgotten.
As we work for our freedom and the freedom of others, I pray that we will hear Serach’s voice singing, “Pakod yifkod Elohim etchem. God will surely remember you” and that we — and our allies — will have the courage to speak out and to keep showing up for ourselves and one another.
May we share our stories and know that we are remembered, seen and loved, that we are beautiful, beloved and worthy of life. May we remember to tune into the voices of people of all backgrounds who face oppression and seek dignity in order to create a world where all of us may live and flourish.
Like Serach, may we lift up our truths and our songs. May we hear one another and may we be heard.
Rabbi Annie Lewis serves as director of rabbinic formation at Reconstructing Judaism. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.