An old lady, a convert, and Elijah enter a seder

Tonight, I will invite a miraculous old lady and a female convert to enter our seder conversation.

As we know, women played a great role in the miracles of the redemption from Egypt. The Torah begins the story of the exodus by telling us about the great work of the Jewish mothers and midwives who saved the lives of the newborns in Egypt (Ex. 1:17). We read about how a man of the Levi tribe and his wife defied Pharoah and gave birth to a baby, Moshe. We are told that these were Moshe’s parents, whose names were Amram and Jochebed. Their daughter, Miriam, convinced them to live together in defiance of Pharoah. In fact, Moshe recognized that there would be no redemption from Egypt without the Jewish women. Pharaoh told Moshe he could leave with the men and go serve God, but Moshe declared we will go serve God with our women and children (Exodus 10:9).

The Talmud tells us that on account of the righteous women of that generation, the people were redeemed from Egypt. When women went to draw water, God made a miracle and fish would come in the buckets. The women would feed their husbands and make love. Then they would give birth in the fields (Sota 11b). As it states in the Song of Songs (8:5), “Under the apple tree, I awakened you. There your mother gave birth to you.”

Two women played a great role in the redemption, but their great contribution is sometimes overlooked. According to legend, they are two of the people, like Elijah the Prophet, who ascended to heaven and bypassed death in a mystical way. Their names are Serach the daughter of Asher and Bitiah the daughter of Pharaoh.

In Jewish legend, we meet Serach first in the story of Jacob and his sons. When it came time to tell Jacob that his son Joseph was still alive, the sons attempted to disclose this news to him in a gentle way. They asked Asher’s daughter Serach to play her musical instrument, a harp or lyre, and gently sing that Joseph is still alive. In this sympathetic way, Serach revealed the news to Jacob. Serach continued to live through the trials in Egypt. When it came time to leave Egypt, Moshe and the people realized that they must take the bones of Joseph with them. Serach was the only one remaining with the knowledge of where Joseph’s bones were: They were at the bottom of the Nile. After first confirming that Moshe was a true prophet, Serach helped raise the bones of Joseph from the river, so that the people could be redeemed.

This incredible woman, Serach, continued to live even after this. In the study house of Rabbi Johanan, we are told, the sages were having a dispute about the nature of the walls of the sea that parted for the people at the exodus. Serach spoke to the sages and told them, “I was there. The walls had windows of light.” Finally, we are told (kala rabati 3:23) that Serach never died at all and she is one of the few who entered Paradise alive.

The second woman who legend says never died is the daughter of Pharaoh, Bitia. Before we review the Jewish legend about her, it is worth mentioning that Bitia as one of the four greatest women in the Islamic tradition. But, unlike in Jewish tradition, in Islam the daughter of Pharaoh is elevated to holy status for being martyred by Pharaoh for defying his idolatrous commands.

Our sages tell us that Bitia, the daughter (or wife, in some traditions) of Pharaoh, likewise never died (Yalkut Shimoni, Ezekiel 247, 367; Beit Yossef 470:1). The daughter of Pharoah is not only mentioned in Exodus (2:5-6) but she is also mentioned in 1 Chronicles (4:17-18). There we learn about the children of the daughter of Pharaoh, which some understood to mean that she never died on account of her great merits. The midrash tells us that on account of her merit of defying idolatry and embracing God, Moshe is called by the name that she gave him instead of the many other names that were given to him.

These two women played such a great role in the redemption from Egypt, so I feel that it is appropriate that they are a part of our seder conversation. As we see how Serach continues to speak to our sages in the Talmud, so I feel that her voice should be present also in our seder conversation, which otherwise would be dominated by male voices.

Perhaps tonight I will invite her and Bitia to enter our seder at the same time that Elijah enters through the door to taste the wine. He is a symbol of redemption, but so are they. At the same time, as I think about the lasting words and deeds of these great legends of the Jewish tradition, I will ask my family to think of our ancestors from the past who are with us in spirit celebrating the holy Passover with us.  Chag Sameach.

About the Author
Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld works on English language projects at Ne’emaney Torah Va’Avoda. He is a co-parent of five rambunctious children, and lives in Modi'in.