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Redemption Song

Shmot (Exodus 1:1-6:1 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Very suddenly, the servitude that had been predicted so many years earlier, in the covenant forged between God and Avraham beneath the dark and ominous evening sky, had come to fruition - but with an unforeseen twist: The Egyptian slave-masters began to imagine that their Israelite slaves were subhuman and had no rights whatsoever - not even the right to exist. A "final solution" had been set in motion. All the male children would be put to death and the females would be used as slaves of the most sordid kind, bringing an abrupt end to the family of Avraham before the second half of the covenant, redemption, could become a reality.

The genocidal program was in full swing, but before very long heroes emerged, brave women who refused to be a part of the Egyptian killing machine. These women defied the powerful Pharaoh and feared only the unseen, all-powerful God of their faith.

A close and careful reading of the first two chapters of the Book of Shmot reveals that it is the women who lead. Midwives and mothers, Moshe's sister Miriam and the daughter of Pharaoh: An overwhelming percentage of this story's protagonists are women. While the men slave away in the dismal present tense, the women insure the continuity of the Jewish People. With an acute sense of their past, they look toward the future and the great destiny they know awaits.

This preponderance of female figures was not lost on the sages of later generations, who articulated a foundational principle that has both philosophical and, quite possibly, halachic ramifications: "The redemption from Egypt was in the merit of righteous women."

In fact, there is one more woman who played a particularly important role in the redemption. Despite the fact that her name is not mentioned in these chapters, Serach, the daughter of Asher, was a pivotal figure in the crucial moments of Israelite history. When Moshe was finally cajoled into leading the people, he traveled to Egypt and stood before the elders of the nascent Jewish nation. Moshe showed them the signs and wonders with which God had equipped him, but the elders were unsure what to make of this talented stranger. They sought the counsel of an elderly woman, Serach, the daughter of Asher. They described the signs and wonders Moshe had performed for them, but Serach was unimpressed; Egypt was rife with magicians. Then, they recalled a particular phrase Moshe had used: "God has 'remembered' (pakad) the Children of Israel." (1) Immediately, Serach knew that Moshe was the chosen one, that he was, indeed, sent by God to lead them out of slavery and back to their homeland. Serach had been entrusted by her father with a tradition that was passed down by Avraham to Yitzchak, who passed it to Yaakov, who passed it on to Yosef, who, in turn, passed it on to his brothers, including her father Asher - a tradition regarding the precise words with which the redemption would begin. As soon as she heard that Moshe had used this phrase, she knew that the time had come. The elders' doubts were immediately erased; Serach's decision was all that was needed to set in motion a chain of events that would change the world.(2)

The subsequent chapters are full of wonder and fury; eventually, the great moment arrived, and the Israelites were freed. They spent their last hours in Egypt amassing the spoils of their erstwhile oppressors, in fulfillment of God's promise to Avraham that they would leave with great wealth. However, one man was in pursuit of a different treasure. He, too, sought to fulfill a promise, but of a different sort: Moshe spent his last moments in the land of his birth seeking out the remains of Yosef, in order to fulfill the promise that had been made not to leave him behind when the redemption came. Moshe, too, had been a prince of Egypt, only to rejoin his brothers later in life, and he was determined to fulfill Yosef's dying wish - to return to his homeland.

But when Moshe was unable to locate Yosef's remains, he sought out the authoritative source of information. There was only one person, a vestige of the previous generations, who knew exactly where to find Yosef's remains: Serach, the daughter of Asher,(3) the keeper of secrets, the repository of tradition, the bridge across the generations.

What was it about Serach, more than anyone else, that prepared her for this role? There is a rabbinic teaching that traces Serach's unique talents back to a touching scene that had transpired years before: (4) When the brothers returned from Egypt with the shocking news that Yosef was still alive, no one knew how to break this news to their elderly, fragile father Yaakov. They decide to entrust Yaakov's granddaughter, a young girl named Serach, with the delicate task - and with good reason.

While Yaakov stood in prayer, Serach sang to him: "Can it be so? Is Yosef truly in Egypt? This and more: Children were born to him, Menashe and Efraim!"

Serach knew the words that would liberate Yaakov from his pain and suffering, and she had the sensitivity to deliver the message in a way that her frail and bereft grandfather could accept. Similarly, years later, it was Serach who showed Moshe how to liberate Yosef from the depths of the Nile, just as she alone knew the words and tune that would liberate the entire people from their slavery. As she grew into adulthood and then into old age, she never forgot the tune she had sung to her grandfather. She retained that sensitivity and kept her ear attuned to the melody that was the key to Yaakov's personal liberation. As an adult, she taught that same song of freedom to Yaakov's descendants. Through it, they, too, knew that the redemption that had been promised so long ago would soon be a reality. From Serach, they - and we - learned the song of redemption.

For a more in-depth analysis see:


1. Shmot 4:31.

2. Yalkut Shimoni: Lech Lecha Remez 64.

3. Tosefta Sotah 4:7.

4. Midrash HaGadol, cited in Torah Shleimah page 863 section 88 and note 88.


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