She was a child among the 70 who descended into Egypt with Jacob; the only one still alive when 600,000 left Egypt with Moses; still alive when Joshua entered the Promised Land; still alive even after she died. Legend has it, Serach Bat-Asher left this earth like Elijah, not in a grave but eternal in a chariot bound for Heaven, returning forever to her people somehow, like Tom Joad, Joe Hill or, well, Elijah himself. Unlike Elijah, though, no one opens the door for Serach, or pours her a cup.
Despite being the only one who lived through the entirety of the Passover story, from Joseph to Moses, she’s pretty much forgotten. Though mentioned twice in the Torah, in Genesis and Numbers (a long way in time and parchment) the rabbinic authors of the Haggadah left her entirely out of the Haggadah while including numerous stories about themselves. Today, just about all children are taught the charming but relatively lightweight Haggadah story about the Talmudic sage who looked “as if he was 70,” but wasn’t. But who is taught about a survivor, a witness to both slavery and salvation?
There is, however, a Talmud-era story about Rav Yochanan teaching about the Red Sea, how the Shechina’s light glowed through the sea walls as if through a lattice. Serach appeared and the survivor corrected Rav Yochanan: No, she said, the light was clearer than through a lattice; it was as if though a window (an important, if esoteric, mystical distinction). “Taman Havina,” she said in Aramaic. “I was there!” (The Serach-Yochanan dispute is poetically reconciled in the Song of Songs, “My beloved is like a gazelle or young stag… behind our wall, looking through the windows, gazing through the lattice.”)
Perhaps it takes someone as holy but as obscure as a maggid to redeem someone as holy but obscure as Serach.
Yitzhak Buxbaum is a maggid, ordained as such by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who was quite a maggid himself. A maggid, explained Buxbaum, is an inspirational teacher and storyteller. From the middle ages until the Shoah, “there were maggidim all through Eastern Europe telling inspirational stories. It was an era when rabbis would only give sermons twice a year, on Shabbos HaGadol (before Passover) and Shabbos Shuva ( before Yom Kippur).” Those two sermons were very scholarly, often beyond the comprehension of Jews with limited education. “So the maggid traveled around, inspiring people,” with stories, with legends,” leaving halachic (legal) teachings to the rabbis.
“Shlomo was a maggid,” says Buxbaum. “Most people associate him with his music, but his concerts almost always featured extended storytelling. Maggidim were a major reason why chasidism spread so quickly. Many of the early chasidic rebbes were connected to this tradition of the wandering storyteller — the Maggid of Mezeritch, the Maggid of Chernobyl.”
Buxbaum is more often found writing than wandering. He is the author of 10 books, including such classics of the trade as “Jewish Spiritual Practices” and “The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov,” perhaps the most important and authoritative collection of Baal Shem Tov stories. Based in Brooklyn, Buxbaum directs the Jewish Spirit Maggid Training Program. Now, in the midst of researching a new Haggdah commentary, he is making available the 16-page “Serach at the Seder: A Haggadah Supplement,” with full-color artwork by Maggidah (a woman maggid) Shoshannah Brombacher, a Lubavitcher from Holland who has taught poetry at the University of Berlin, and graphics by Maggid Steven Klapper.
This supplement to the Haggadah is a poetic, romantic rendition of Serach’s story, based on extensive footnoted sources from Biblical, Midrashic and Aggadic texts. The story is arranged as a play for eight participants at the seder, or it can be studied on its own.
“When Serach was at a Passover seder, as she was many times,” writes Buxbaum in his supplement, “if someone said something that was inaccurate, she was not shy about correcting him… ‘I was there,’ ‘Hayiti Shom.’”
All Jewish souls – past, present and future – were at the Exodus, too, say the mystics, and that is why, says Buxbaum, though Serach was there physically, “our souls were present, and we can say: ‘We were there, too!’”
Serach was there. She was everywhere. As Buxbaum tells it, when Joseph sent his brothers back to Jacob, they worried that Jacob would die of shock upon hearing that Joseph was alive. “So they asked Jacob’s favorite granddaughter, seven-year-old Serach… wise beyond her years, to gently break the news to him. Serach sat near her grandfather and played the harp as she sang: ‘Joseph is alive and rules over Egypt,’” singing the song over and over until Jacob realized its truth, the holy spirit (which had left Jacob in the years he mourned for Joseph) returning to him. In return, Jacob blessed little Serach: “Because you brought me back to life… I bless you that you never taste the bitterness of death.”
When Moses came on the scene, the elders went to Serach, because she was the only one alive, after more than 200 years, who remembered the old code words with which the redeemer could be authoritatively identified, (the words, “Pakod Pakaditi,” “I have surely remembered you.”)
When it was time to leave Egypt, and Moses was searching for days to find Joseph’s coffin, to fulfill the pledge that Joseph made the people swear, that they would not leave Egypt without him, it was only Serach who could remember where the Egyptians sank Joseph’s iron coffin at the bottom of the Nile.
And at the Red Sea, in Buxbaum’s script, an Israelite woman “saw greater visions than the visions seen by Ezekiel the Prophet… That female slave was Serach Bat-Asher.”
And Serach (or rather the one who reads her part in the supplement) replies: “The Red Sea parted and the Heavens opened and I saw visions of God. I saw the Holy One above and the Shechinah below and myriads if angels watching us as we walked through the sea on dry land. I was there!”
And everyone at the seder can say: “We were there, too!”
Serach, explains Buxbaum, means “span” or “overlap,” as she united the generations and unites them still. He explains, just as it is written that “Elijah, who visits every seder, will repair the breach between parents and children, ‘turning the hearts of parents to their children and the heart of children to their parents.’ Serach will repair the breach between men and women, turning the heart of husbands to their wives and the heart of wives to their husbands, if we listen to her voice.”
Buxbaum’s supplement ends with the call: “Serach Bat-Asher! Serach Bat-Asher! We believe that you can visit our seder and we invite you to come. We do not want to be clever and close the door to mystic vision…. May we merit seeing you and greeting you. And if you appear as a young girl [or] an ancient woman… may we recognize you! Teach us the deepest lessons of the Passover story. Teach us how to bring the final redemption.”
After all, she was there. And we were there, too.
“Serach at the Seder” may be purchased in PDF or as a book at Buxbaum’s website, www.jewishspirit.com.
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