Serach is the one who helps us, the unready, become ready.
Passover is approaching sooner than we'd like to admit, and as usual, I'm not ready. It behooves me to remember that I'm in a lineage of people who "weren't ready" either: weren't ready to leave Egypt and so couldn't let their bread rise, weren't ready to let go of oppression, and so fought tooth and nail at each chance to return to captivity. Passover asks us to claim our collective ancestors—the organizers, the workers, the poor, the hungry, the desperate, the distraught, the cautiously hopeful, the painfully pessimistic, the Jews, the allies, the ones who knew our liberation was bound up in each other. All of them left Narrowness together, and few of them were ready. Our haggadah demands that we see our own selves in that hoard.
At this time of year, I dream of the perfect haggadah with the perfect ritual supplements to get us through a Trumpishe Pesakh. I dream of a sparkling clean house, a meaningful Fast of the First Born, a menu of vegan meals that nourish my family and friends all week. And I know I am not ready.
It's in this season that I am reminded of the story of Serach. Search bat Asher has become a companion to me for the past five years, calling me to remember and honor received traditions, calling me to break news easy, reminding me the power of song, to remember where our ancestors are buried. Serach is the one who helps us, the unready, become ready.
The story of Serach first appears in Midrash. She is only named in the Torah at two moments: as part of the 70 souls who go down into Mitzrayim, and far into the wandering in the desert.
In Midrash, we dig into the moment when the brothers again discovered Joseph was alive in Egypt, and they were sent back to retrieve Jacob. But how to tell a bereaved father that his beloved son whom he had been mourning for decades was alive? So the brothers sent Serach, daughter of one of the brothers, Asher, to break the news to her grandfather. While Jacob stood in the field in prayer, Serach approached her grandfather and wove a tapestry of song around him. The song was so beautiful and so evocative that by the end of her song, Jacob understood that his son Joseph was alive. Having been eased into reality with song, he did not die from shock, as the brothers feared, but was comforted as Serach slowly told him the truth. For her kindness, Jacob blessed his granddaughter with long memory and long life, saying in one midrash, "My daughter, because you revived my spirit, death shall never rule you” (Sefer ha-Yashar, Vayigash, chap. 14).
And so, Serach was a part of the 70 souls who journeyed into Egypt to escape famine. When Joseph died in Egypt, he made his brothers promise that they would bury his bones in Canaan. Midrash teaches that Asher passed this teaching to his daughter, who held the knowledge that there would arise a leader who would both fulfill this promise and bring the Israelite people out of Egypt. Serach's grandfather's blessing of long life kept her alive through the Jewish people's entire time in Egypt.
When it became time to leave Egypt, Moses came to fulfill this obligation to take Joseph's bones out of Egypt, but he could not locate his grave. It was Serach who helped him find where Joseph was buried, explaining that the ruling Egyptians had thrown the bones into the Nile, to increase the blessing of the land. Moses was not ready to leave Egypt. It was Serach who equipped Moses with the knowledge he needed to prepare to leave.
Serach journeys back out of Egypt, aged, but remembering. Serach is seen again entering the Land (Num. 26:26), in Midrash during the time of King David (II Samuel 20:19), and even solving a debate about the nature of the splitting of the Red Sea for the rabbis: "Serach appeared and said: ‘I was there, and the water was not as a net, but as transparent windows’ ”(Pesikta de Rav Kahannah 11:13). Some say she never died, and her immortality continued as she ascended alive to the Garden of Eden.
It is Serach who preserves family custom, who remembers the wishes of the dead, from generation to generation. Serach is our ancestor that inspires us to break the news easy, to use song to comfort. Serach is our ancestor who protects sacred burial grounds (and we call to her again, in these times.) Serach calls out to us to tell the story as true as we can.
So in these weeks as I feel unready for our collective journey out of Narrowness, I call on Serach to guide me. As a people, we feel perpetually unready. It is through memory and action that we can prepare. It is through imagining ourselves at the edge of the sea as it split that we can learn how to prepare. It is Serach who, through song and story, reminds me that in every generation we have felt unready, but had all the tools we needed to get prepared.
Ariana Katz is the host of Kaddish, a podcast about death, mourning, and the people who do it. Ariana is a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. She is a member of the Philadelphia Reconstructionist Chevra Kadisha, a volunteer chaplain and board member at Planned Parenthood of South East Pennsylvania, and a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council. Ariana is in training to become a soferet, a scribe of sacred Jewish text.