Thursday, July 14, 2011

"Im gonna live forever" / Parshat Pinchas

My father z”l always told me he planned to live forever. Alas, he didn’t, but according to our Rabbis, a woman mentioned in this week’s parashah did.

Her name is Serach – a name few of us know – and she is mentioned in a census recorded in Numbers chapter 25. Most of us think a census makes boring reading – good only for sociologists and insomniacs. A census may be tedious, but it is not always boring, and often contains a fascinating detail – the lily among the thorns.

By way of background, and to set the scene, this week’s parashah provides a rationale for, and final tally of, a census taken while the Israelites are encamped in Shittim. We are told that as a result of the “incident at Baal Peor” with which last week’s parashah closes (Numbers 25:1-9) in which the Israelites engage in idolatrous behavior with the Moabites that God orders a census be taken for war. The culminating scene of that episode comes when an Israelite named Zimri copulates with a Midianite woman named Cozbi in the Mishkan (sanctuary). With a flash of zeal, Pinchas handily runs them both through with one thrust of his sword. Shockingly, Torah conveys God’s approval for Pinchas’ act of fanatical zealotry, which serves as expiation for the nation, thereby heading off another plague. But the Midianites must be avenged for Cozbi’s seduction of Zimri and indiscretion in the Mishkan. If you’re not a fan of violent group punishment, this is yet another disturbing episode in the Torah.

So what’s interesting about this census? There are three mentions of women. Why mention women in a census whose purpose is to count men of sufficient age to fight a war? Here are the three:
1. The daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 26:33)
2. Serach bat Asher (Numbers 26:46)
3. Yocheved, the wife of Amram, and her daughter Miriam (Numbers 26: 59)

We can explain the mention of the daughters of Zelophehad as foreshadowing what will come next: chapter 26 is devoted to the objection to the law of inheritance that Zelophehad’s daughters bring to Moses concerning which God recognizes the justice of their claim. We can explain the mention of Yocheved and Miriam because they are connected with the priestly line (emanating from Aaron) that is uniquely important and related to the upcoming holy day and festival calendar in chapter 28 that enumerates the offerings brought on each day by the sons of Aaron – son of Amram and Yocheved – and their descendants. (In fact, Numbers 28:9-10 is included in the Musaf Amidah on shabbat, and v. 16ff find their way into the Musaf Amidah on festivals.)

Who is this Serach? We first meet her in Genesis in the midst of a long genealogical list (Genesis 46:17); we are told the names of the four sons of Asher, son of Jacob, and his one daughter, Serach. From this we know that she was among the 70 souls who ventured down into Egypt with Grandfather Jacob to join Joseph, who had risen to viceroy of the land. As if a bookend, the census of parshat Pinchas, as well as the account of this same census in I Chronicles 7:30, tell us that Serach was among those who left Egypt with Moses and Aaron. How is this possible? The Israelites were in Egypt for more than four centuries!

The Bible has nothing more to say about Serach, but the Rabbis found her a most intriguing figure and filled out her story.

Serach alone spans the generations from Joseph to Moses, as Pesikta de-Rav Kahanah (B’Shellach) points out: from one trustworthy leader to another trustworthy leader. At the time of the Exodus, she is more than 400 years old. In the Babylonian Talmud, Serach is said to be the one who showed Moses where Joseph was buried so that the Israelites could carry his bones out of Egypt during the Exodus (b. Sotah 13a).

One midrash has her still alive in the generation of King David – by now at least 600 years old – by identifying her as the woman in II Samuel 20:16-22 who negotiates with David’s general Yoav on behalf of her city (Beraishit Rabbah 94:9).

Perhaps best of all is a midrash in Pesikta de-Rav Kahanah 11:3 in which the R. Yochanan interprets Exodus 14:22, which describes the walls of water formed by the parted Reed Sea. A question is raised: how could the water become a wall? R. Yochanan explains that it was a sort of net that held everything back from the dry seabed. But Serach – now at least 1400 years old! – appears in the bet midrash (study house) and declares, “I was there and the water was not a net, but transparent like windows.” Serach’s testimony is immediately accepted because she was an eyewitness.

It is not surprising then that a tradition emerged that Serach never died, but rather entered Gan Eden alive, as had Enoch, Elijah and a select group of others. Serach achieved immortality thanks to a special blessing Jacob bestowed on her after she shared with him the news that Joseph was still alive by singing the words to him accompanied by her harp. Here is the blessing: “My daughter, because you revived my soul, death shall never rule you” (Yalkut Shemoni II:367, Sefer ha-Yashar, Vayigash, 14, Derekh Eretz 1:18, Midrash ha-Gadol to Genesis 45:26).

The implication is that Jacob was alive biologically after the news of Joseph’s death, but for him life was over, devoid of sweetness, value, purpose, and meaning. Without Joseph, Jacob was finished with living. When Serach broke the news to him – gently, sensitively, and lovingly, lest he die physically of shock – Jacob’s whole being was renewed and his desire for life was restored because he had found purpose in the possibility of seeing Joseph once again. It was as if Jacob, who had alive-but-dead returned to the world of the living.

And who among us has not witnessed someone brought back to life after a medical calamity, or a devastating tragedy, or serious mental illness?

The second blessing of the Amidah praises God who resurrects the dead: m’chayeh ha-meitim, literally “who enlivens the dead.” The Rabbis ascribed the blessing to Isaac who, according to some midrashim (Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer 31; Tanchuma, Toledot 22), actually died when his father Abraham acceded to God’s command that he sacrifice Isaac on Mt. Moriah. Taken together with this midrash from Shibbole ha-Leket (9a,b),

When Father Isaac was bound on the altar and reduced to ashes and his sacrificial dust was cast on to Mount Moriah, the Holy One, blessed be God, immediately brought upon him dew and revived him. That is why David, may he rest in peace, said: Like the dew of Hermon that comes down from the mountains of Zion... [Psalm 133:3] – for he is referring to that dew with which [God] revived Father Isaac. Forthwith the ministering angels began to recite, “Blessed are You, O Lord, who resurrects the dead.”

a picture emerges: Abraham completed the sacrifice, God resurrected Isaac, occasioning Isaac to be the first to say, “Blessed are You, O Lord, who resurrects the dead.”

There has long been controversy in the Jewish community concerning the phrasing of this blessing, the religious doctrine of resurrection that the Rabbis taught lies behind it, and whether or not it can and should be understood metaphorically.

There is a segment of the Jewish community that holds that the prayerbook should include only that which the community can all affirm, and in our time, few if any believe in a literal resurrection. I suspect that if we held ourselves to that standard, the siddur would resemble one of those blank books you buy at Barnes & Noble. Accordingly, some have changed m’chayeh meitim (“Who resurrects the dead”) to m’chayeh ha-kol (“Who gives life to all”) – an entirely different idea.

There are those who hold that we should recite the blessing as it has been handed down to us because it is tradition. (Are you humming those notes from Fiddler in your head at this moment?) If we cannot believe what it says, we can at least align ourselves with the generations before us that recited these same words.

There are those who hold that liturgy is poetry, and like our sacred texts, it is ours to interpret and reinterpret. Just as each generation is responsible for grasping and reinterpreting Torah to make it their own, so too must each generation make prayer its own.

I respect and find value in all three viewpoints, but I find the third more compelling. I don’t take Torah literally (indeed, I would deny that there is a “literal” meaning to any text; all understanding is mediated by interpretation). I struggle to interpret and re-interpret Torah year after year because I love it. As a Jew, it is my lifeblood. As Ben Bag Bag says of Torah (Pirke Avot 5:26), “Turn it and turn it again [study and scrutinize it], for everything is in it. Pore over it, and wax gray and old over it. Do not stir from it for you can have no better portion of life than this.” Should I not afford the siddur similar respect, love, and consideration, and seek to make its words speak to me in a real, rather than superficial, way?

Steven Schwartzchild has pointed out that the resurrection doctrine is necessary to affirm the value of our embodied existence, as well as God’s power. Neil Gillman (Death of Death) considers resurrection mythological because it points to the “beyond.” It is not that he believes he will truly be resurrected in the days of the Messiah, but the message behind the doctrine of resurrection that moves him. He explains it more or less like this: “My body” is indispensable to my sense of self. “I am my body.” Without a body, we would have no existence in time and space. Since there is no “me” without my body, whatever God has planned must include my body. He writes:
This is the ultimate meaning of the Talmudic doctrine that at the end of days, God will bring my body and my soul together again and that I will be reconstituted as I was during my life on earth. The mythic thrust of this doctrine is that it is this totality in its concrete individuality, as manifest during my lifetime, that God treasures and that God will therefore preserve for all time. (pp. 271-272)
Serach brings Jacob back to this world, back to a life of meaning and purpose. Jacob, recognizing this, blesses her with immortality. Perhaps she is mentioned in the census in parshat Pinchas to remind us that each of us can reclaim life at any time. Moreover, after we die, something of each of us remains forever because each of us has left his or her imprint on the world – the world is different for our having lived. And even more, we are linked not only to the generations before (as the midrashim about Serach point out so beautifully) but to those yet to come (as her immortality reminds us). We pave the way for them and bequeath this world to them. They live because of us and in so doing, keep us alive – even after we are dead. "Fame" has it right: "I'm gonna live forever."

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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