B'chol Dor Vador - In Every Generation
The afikomen has been found, the Haggadahs have been put away, and Pesach is nearly over, so naturally, I’m making my guest list for next year’s Seder. I’ve decided that since Elijah was a no-show yet again (at least at my Seder--I don’t know about yours), I’m going to invite someone else in his place next year: her name is Serach bat Asher.
Serach is the daughter of Asher and the granddaughter of Jacob. She’s mentioned in Genesis along with the rest of Jacob’s family as they head down to Egypt (46:17) and, curiously, she is also mentioned in the Book of Numbers along with the generation of Israelites that is about to enter the Land of Israel, more than four hundred years after Jacob and his family’s journey to Egypt (Num. 26:46). The Sages saw Serach’s inclusion in both censuses and concluded that she was immortal and, what’s more, had prophetic powers and access to secret divine wisdom, especially about redemption.
Serach is a symbol of continuity with the past and the fulfillment of promises. Before Joseph dies, he makes his brothers swear an oath, “When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.” And sure enough, in Exodus, we read, “And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph” (13:19). According to the Talmud, Serach bat Asher is the one who knew that Joseph was buried at the bottom of the Nile, and helped Moses summon Joseph’s casket to the surface of the water so that the promise could be fulfilled (Sotah 13a). She also knows the secret sign, passed down from Jacob to Asher to her, that proves that Moses is God’s true agent of redemption and so the Israelites should believe him and trust him to lead them out of Egypt (Exodus Rabbah 5:13).
Not only does Serach bat Asher play a role in the exodus from Egypt itself, but she becomes the eye-witness of that miraculous moment for future generations. We read in a midrash, “Rabbi Yochanan sat [in the teacher's seat at the Beit Midrash] and expounded how the waters [of the Red Sea] became like a wall for Israel. Even as Rabbi Yochanan was explaining that the wall of water looked like latticework, Serach bat Asher looked down and said, "I was there, and the waters were, rather, like shining windows" (Pesikta deRav Kahana 11:12).
This last story is more than just a funny anecdote about a very, very old woman schooling a famous rabbinic sage. This story reminds us of what Serach truly represents, and of what our obligation on Passover truly is. Serach reminds us that the story of the exodus isn’t meant to be read as history, but rather, as memory. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains, “There is a profound difference between history and memory. History is his story – an event that happened sometime else to someone else. Memory is my story – something that happened to me and is part of who I am. History is information. Memory, by contrast, is part of identity. I can study the history of other peoples, cultures and civilizations. They deepen my knowledge and broaden my horizons. But they do not make a claim on me. They are the past as past. Memory is the past as present, as it lives on in me. Without memory there can be no identity.”
Serach says, “I was there,” and reminds Rabbi Yochanan that an intellectual analysis of the story of the exodus, represented by his hypothesizing about what the walls of the Red Sea looked like, misses the point. Serach makes the story real and immediate, reminding us of the obligation spelled out in the Haggadah, to make the story of the exodus memory rather than history: בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם - in every generation, it is incumbent upon us to see ourselves as if we personally had gone out from Egypt.” That’s why Serach says the walls of the Sea looked like shining windows -- in other words, like mirrors. So as rabbinical student Hilly Haber says, “We must push ourselves to look into the mirrors of the parted sea.” We must see ourselves reflected in the walls of the sea, reflected in the story of Serach bat Asher, our people’s memory-keeper.
And what’s the point of finding ourselves reflected in this story? Rabbi Sacks sums it up beautifully: “That narrative provides the answer to the three fundamental questions every reflective individual must ask at some stage in their lives: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? There are many answers to these questions, but the Jewish ones are: I am a member of the people whom God rescued from slavery to freedom. I am here to build a society that honours the freedom of others, not just my own. And I must live in conscious knowledge that freedom is the gift of God, honoured by keeping His covenant of law and love.”
Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? These are the real questions we answer on Pesach, and by not just retelling, but reliving the Jewish People’s master story, we find the answers: We were delivered from bondage and given the gift of freedom. And only by bringing liberation and relief to others who are in bondage will our lives be worthy of that gift.