Pesah and Sefirat Haomer

The Crossing of the Sea and Serach bat Asher
by Rabbi Jill Hammer

The Israelites believed because they heard, not because they saw the signs. What made them believe? The sign of redemption. They had this sign as a tradition from Jacob… Asher, the son of Jacob, had handed down the secret to his daughter Serach, who was still alive. This is what he told her: “Any redeemer that will come and say to my children pakod yifkod (“he will surely remember you”) shall be regarded as a true deliverer. When Moses came and said these words, the people believed him at once.

Exodus Rabbah 5:13

Rav Yochanan was sitting and preaching: “How did the water of the Sea of Reeds appear like walls to Israel? It looked like thick bushes.” Serach daughter of Asher looked into the study-house and said: “I was there, and it didn’t look like that at all. It looked like bright windows (or mirrors).”

Mekhilta deRabbi Ishmael, Beshallach, Petichta

The seventh day of Pesach, according to tradition, marks the crossing of the Sea. Storytellers and moviemakers have long tried to capture this wondrous image of parted waters. In the Mekhilta, an ancient collection of midrash, there is one eyewitness to what transpired at the Sea: Serach bat Asher, granddaughter of Jacob and Leah. This eyewitness offers a unique view of the miracle, by saying: “I was there!”

A midrash tells that it was Serach who conveyed to her grandfather Jacob that Joseph was still alive, and living in Egypt. Because of the merit of this act, Serach was rewarded (like Elijah) with impossibly long life. She lived through the slavery in Egypt, and crossed the sea with her people. Centuries later, she poked her head into a Talmudic-era beit midrash to tell the sages what crossing the sea looked like: a shining glass surface, window or mirror. One imagines Serach seeing in this glass surface the reflection of her face as she experiences freedom for the first time.

The character of Serach is a triumph of irony. She is entirely invented by the sages (she appears in the Bible only in genealogies) but they use her to keep them honest, allowing her to correct them when they get too far off track in their creative storytelling.  When they spin fanciful tales, Serach rises up to say: I was there! Serach reminds us to listen to the witnesses to history. In fact, she becomes the keeper of all secrets lost by time. In midrashic lore, it is Serach who confirms for the Israelites that Moses is their redeemer, by remembering and reciting the “code words” of promise and redemption that her father taught her generations before. It is Serach who shows Moses where to find Joseph’s bones, for the Israelites had promised to carry those bones out of Egypt when they were redeemed. Serach’s role is as the keeper of memory, yet, as an invented character, she also reminds us of the power of imagination. It is fitting that we mention her at Passover time, when we bring memory and imagination together to tell the story of the Exodus. In a sense, we are all invited to be Serach: to speak as if we were there, to write ourselves into the picture.

We are now almost a week into the counting of the Omer: the season of counting the forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot. The sixth day of the Omer, in the kabbalistic understanding, embodies the quality of yesod shebehesed. This loosely translates as connection and communication within love. To me, Serach bat Asher embodies yesod shebehesed. She teaches us to keep our ancestors’ and loved ones’ memories as our own, just as she kept the secret words of redemption and the location of Joseph’s grave.  She also teaches us to speak of our own experience: to say “I was there.”

Some questions I’d like to ask Serach this year:

What are our codes for liberation? What should we be remembering when we choose our leaders?

What is buried that we need to reveal? What knowledge do we have that we have hidden away, that would benefit others?

Who most needs to hear about the way we see things? How can we share our truths with our leaders and communities?

As we journey through the sea and forward from Pesach, may we look into Serach’s mirrors and find the truths we need to carry with us.

Shabbat shalom.


Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion. She is the author of five books, including the Omer Calendar of Biblical Women.