Monday, December 13, 2010

Who's Serach? A D'var Torah for Parashat Vayigash in Honor of Sylvia Eisenberg's 80th Birthday

One of my favorite biblical characters, a matriarch of sorts – though not a familiar one as those made famous by their roles in the patriarchal history and their association with Abe, Isaac, and Jake – is Serach daughter of Asher. Serach. Who’s she, you might ask.

Serach, according to the biblical text is quite simply, the daughter of Jacob’s son Asher. Serach is far from a major character in our biblical text which frankly makes her all the more interesting to me, and to the Rabbinic mind, makes her mention significant. Recall, the traditional rabbinic approach to Torah study views every detail, not matter how small or seemingly insignificant as vital to our proper understanding of Torah. Serach thus calls attention.

Serach is mentioned twice in Torah – included in family listings with no additional detail, no additional narrative. In this week’s parashat Vayigash, Serach appears in a genealogical listing of Jacob’s progeny. Amongst all of Jacob’s grandsons listed as entering Egypt is Serach, his one named granddaughter (see Gen 46:8-26, spec. 17). According to the biblical narrative, Jacob will be blessed with another granddaughter born while in Egypt, one of whom we are very familiar: Yocheved sired by Levi who grows up to be mom to Moses, Aaron, & Miriam. Serach is thus not unique in her role as granddaughter to our patriarch Jacob; however, remarkably Asher’s daughter Serach is remembered here in this listing of those who enter Egypt AND again later among those counted in the census taken bamidbar, in the wilderness, some 400 years after descending into Egypt! Moreover, the way in which she is listed in this second accounting is striking. This census is taken by clan, למשפחתם (Numbers 26:4 ff). Everyone is listed per their group identity, by family, save for Serach. She alone is remembered as an individual, ושם בת אשר שרח (Num 26:46) – by name.

On the one hand, we can scold the hand that authored the Torah for failing to give us the back story to this extraordinary remembering of Serach; but, at the same time this lack of detail here leaves open a wonderful opportunity for the Rabbinic imagination. And the Rabbis don’t let us down. Serach is imagined to be the longest living individual of our Jewish history. Longevity a reward for sensitive honesty; for according to midrash, it is Serach who delicately informed Jacob through song that Joseph was still alive. Talmudic legend imagines that it was Serach who showed Moses were Joseph was buried at the time of the Exodus from Egypt so that his bones could be returned to Canaan (B. Sotah 13a). Serach is viewed as a font of wisdom as well as compassion in Rabbinic literature. The medival Midrash Rabbah (Genesis Rabbah 94:9) places Serach in role of Secretary of State negotiating with David’s army chief, Joab. Another midrash imagines Serach, not unlike the prophet Elijah, as a reconciler of disputes. Though, whereas we must wait for redemption in order to hear Elijah’s judgements, Serach offers astute resolution in the moment to Rabbinic disagreements. You see, Serach is generally consulted to resolve conflict over past events. Remember she apparently was there to witness these events and thus is able to provide wise and insightful comment. Even our mystical tradition elevates Serach to great heights. The Zohar, that great mystical work that came out of medieval Spain to serve as a spring board for later Kabbalism, particularly Lurianic Kabbalism, teaches that Serach is among the few who have entered heaven alive where she remains teaching Torah.

Serach is an extraordinary figure, almost too extraordinary. Perhaps because there aren’t many female biblical characters, Serach’s shoulders get burdened by the full weight of creative possibility. She is wise, independent, and capable of rendering a serious and accurate judgment in a world not generally inhabited by women. She is at the same time nurturing, caring, and always present giving – teaching – to others. Indeed, the Rabbis have burdened Serach with being that 'superwoman', multi-tasking exemplar that we thought only stood as an unattainable role model since the mid- late 20th century.

Our biblical and rabbinic literature needs Serach! There simply aren’t enough strong female characters in our ancient and medieval literature to serve as inspiration for our young students studying Torah today. Too often, we have trouble finding those figures even in our modern history for their stories, like Serach’s, haven’t been documented in primary accounts. But strong, wise, and capable women have always been present in our history.

Sixty-seven, sixty-eight years ago, it wasn’t customary to celebrate a young girl’s coming of age with the kind of educational and leadership demands with which the majority of Jews do so today. Be clear, Rabbinic literature discusses a girl’s coming of age in the same detail as a boy’s – it is a maturational milestone; but due to differing gender roles of the ancient and medieval periods, the celebration of this milestone took on very, very different qualities. This Shabbat, we celebrate an important milestone for one of those strong, wise and capable women, and that milestone is far more than the 80th birthday of a beloved and remarkable member of our congregation. Sylvia’s journey to the bema this morning serves as exemplary a model of wisdom and compassion as our rabbinically imagined Serach, and even more so, because we know Sylvia is real! She is right here.

It is not for me to share details of Sylvia journey, that is for her to share as she pleases, but her kindness, her dedication to pursuing her education when and how she did in particular, her generosity of spirit which she brings into the congregation every time she steps into worship, study, and/or volunteer, her strength of character which has served her through challenge, and her ongoing and steadfast commitment to Torah -- these qualities serve as a continual inspiration to me personally and should to all of us blessed to know her. Thank you, Sylvia, for sharing your special birthday with us in the manner in which you have. Thank you for inspiring us to Torah.

As Reform Jews, it is incumbent upon us to continually grapple with text and tradition even when it challenges, perhaps all the more so when it challenges our modern sensibilities. How do we understand an ancient text that at first glance places women at best on the margins of community? As exemplified by Serach, Rabbinic tradition, even early medieval Rabbinic tradition already starts the process of challenging tradition. As exemplified by our modern midrashic poets, such as the one whose work I will share in a moment, that process continues. I conclude with a poetic midrash included in the 2008 URJ publication of The Women’s Commentary, a book that inspires the women’s Torah study group that Sylvia helped to organize in our community. This poem furthers the voice and discussion of Serach and ultimately challenges all of us to model both Serach and Sylvia as we work to find our voice in Torah and Jewish tradition.

Serah bat Asher, by Hara E. Person
Entranced by the swirling colors of his tunic
I crept behind Joseph when Grandfather sent
him to find his brothers.
Hidden behind a bush,
I watched my father and Reuben and the others.
Young and female and powerless
I could do nothing to stop them
But I saw the cruel truth behind the lie.
Trapped between the responsibility of a
daughter’s loyalty
and the heavy guilt of my secret knowledge,
I could not bring forth the words
That would have revealed my father and his
for what they became that day
and released my grandfather from his suffering.
Instead I withdrew into the safety of silence,
learning to whisper through the music of my
while my refusal to speak
mocked my father’s now empty authority.
They were relieved to let me stay with Jacob
in his tent,
hearing only the endless anguish of an old man
and the stubborn silence of a useless girl.
I played and he remembered,
recounting the travels and wanderings of our family,
the pains and joys and dreams of each
He spoke of love and treachery and
and I created a soothing idiom of song.

It was I who was chosen to tell Jacob that
Joseph lives still.
Upon hearing the news he granted me eternal
Endless life, for Joseph’s life.
I became the family historian,
the keeper of tales,
the finder of bones,
the weaver of loose ends.
That is my gift from my grandfather,
to revisit the sufferings and joys and wanderings
anew with each generation,
to observe endless cycles of loss and hope and
of births and deaths,
never to rest, never to finish, only to witness,
to drag these weary limbs through epoch after
and to wonder until the end of time
if this gift is a blessing of thanks for solace in
his loss
or a curse for having kept the truth from him all
those long years.
(Ezkenazi, Tamara Cohn & Weiss, Andrea L., eds. The Torah A Women's Commentary. NY: URJ Press, 2008, p. 280)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Responding to Israel's need... Shabbat Message 12/10/2010

One of the most extraordinary stops during my recent trip to Israel with the Maryland Clergy Initiative was the Yemin Orde Youth Village. Founded by visionary educator, Haim Peri, Yemin Orde is an absorption and educational center devoted to making sure every child in Israel has a safe environment within which to live while having access to education. Be clear that I did not say “Jewish child.” Yemin Orde is committed to providing resources to any child in need. One of their largest populations is orphaned Ethiopian children, but they strive to take in any child who is orphaned, abandoned, or simply in need. Haim Peri’s vision, which is still central to the values of the center, encompasses providing “trusty representations of parental roles” so that the students learn to feel safe, cherished, and able to rely on adults. This foundation of care and trust enables these students to move forward becoming functional and productive members of society. At the same time, Yemin Orde always remains home for all the students who have spent time there.

Tragically, due to its geographic location, Yemin Orde suffered horrific devastation during the fires that have just struck northern Israel. Luckily no one was killed, yet over 500 children have been displaced, children for whom this was not their first displacement. I expect that you have already received requests for aid to Israel to help offset the costs of this devastating fire. I ask you, if you are planning to make a donation to Israel at this time, please consider sending your donation directly to The Yemin Orde Youth Village in order to help them rebuild and continue to provide the extraordinary services they provide to the youth of this region.

Yemin Orde’s website is below. Please explore the website so that you can learn about them. Specifically, I encourage you to look under the “News” menu tab and compare “snapshots from the village” with “Israel wildfire update.” Thank you for considering this act of tzedakah!