In this week’s Torah reading, Pinchas, there is a mention of Serach, daughter of Asher. She is a mystical figure in Jewish history who is named in midrash as one of eight or nine people who goes directly to Heaven without dying.
Serach bat Asher is identified as the bearer of wisdom in the Torah, beginning with her informing Jacob that Joseph is alive, to her convincing the people to follow Moses, knowing he is Divinely designated to liberate them, and then as knowing where Joseph is buried so that his bones can be taken with the Children of Israel when they leave Egypt.
In addition to being one of the seventy, one of only two women named as going down to Egypt with Jacob, and listed as one who not only survives the entire period of slavery but also the forty years of wandering in the desert, according to midrash, she re-appears much later in Jewish history.
Serach is identified with the wise woman in the Second Book of Samuel, Chapter 20, when Joav, King David’s general, is besieging the city of Abel of Beit-maacah. A traitor has taken refuge there and the entire walled city, with all its population, is being threatened.
Abel had been known as a place where one could consult wise women. This woman climbs the walls in defiance of the surrounding army, identifies herself to Yoav and challenges him. The Tanakh quotes her brave, uncompromising words and the commentators explain them and describe her subsequent actions.
Her challenge to Yoav is threefold: first, about his personal role and destiny; secondly, his and the King’s misinterpretation of Torah; also, the wisdom or common sense of them taking such a position.
Regarding his name, she reminds him that “Yoav” is connected to the word “av” (father) and that he should be worried about creating and preserving life, not taking it. Next, she reminds him of the Torah injunction that before laying siege to a town, one should offer it peace (Deuteronomy 20:10). She suggest that neither he nor his king have remembered that principle. Then, she says that there is an alternative to bloodshed.
The midrash goes on to describe how she convinces the population of the city, some of whom at least seemed to welcome the idea of a battle, that simply handing over (the head of) the traitor, would be infinitely preferable to the loss of many lives. She makes them realise that their thinking had been wrong and allows them to change their minds. This is achieved through wisdom and humility.
The story can be seen as a paradigm for problem-solving. There are those – the men – who think that the best way to solve a problem when there are opposing positions is to go to war. There will be collateral damage, many lives may even be lost, but the ends will be achieved eventually. The other approach is to consult both sides of the argument and to show them that there is a solution that will minimise loss of life and loss of dignity. The solution may, in some cases, even be quicker that with confrontation. This is the wisdom of the wise, old woman.
We need Serach bat Asher today. UN Resolution 1325 says that woman should be involved in law-making and peace-making. The midrash gives us this powerful example of what bringing a woman’s voice into the process can achieve.
Midrash suggests that Serach may be an adopted daughter of Asher’s and this make a great deal of sense to me. “Asher” means happiness. If we use the stories of Serach as a parable – wisdom lives on through the generations and grows through experience; it is not just about information and learning but about the application of that information for minimising conflict and finding creative solutions – then of course Asher would want to adopt such wisdom. Indeed, he cannot fulfil the destiny of his name (Happiness) unless he does.
Happiness is dependent on wisdom. Peace is dependent on hearing the wise voices of women.