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Thursday, 5 April 2012

The Search for Serach

In 2003 I had the fortune to study Talmud at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College with two wonderful teachers - Jonah Steinberg and Sarra Lev - both of whom opened up new ways of approaching Talmud. In one of Jonah Steinberg classes, he mentioned Serach bat Asher and suggested that having a cup for Serach would actually be more appropriate than a cup for Miriam (I'm aware that you may be thinking 'Who's Serach?' - don't worry, I explain later!). Miriam's cup is now well established in very many progressive seders around the world so I remember thinking that, as much as I appreciated the narratives of Serach bat Asher, I could never see a cup for her replacing a cup for Miriam.

It was only once I started leading communal seders at Bournemouth Reform Synagogue that I realised that Serach could ... should... make an appearance but not instead of Miriam but in addition to Miriam. All of this, by the way, presupposes a cup for Elijah, the fifth cup on the table, about which the Rabbis didn't know if we should drink from it, so they left it out for Elijah to solve when the Messiah comes.

Below is the text that I wrote to explain who Serach bat Asher is and how and why we should have a cup for her. Please feel free to use this (provided you acknowledge the source!) in your seder if you wish...

The Cup of Serach bat Asher, Rabbi Neil Amswych, 2006

Not only did Serach bat Asher go down to Egypt with Jacob’s family, but she was also present after the Exodus. Midrash ascribes eternal life to a woman whose presence in modern conscious Jewish history is hardly recorded. Yet we read that she was the person who proved to the Israelites that Moses was genuinly going to redeem the people, and only she knew the locations of Joseph’s bones that were due to be carried out of Egypt.
Serach finds herself in between Miriam and Elijah. Just as Miriam’s Cup reminds us of the past, so too the start of Serach’s journey is a reminder of the past. But her ability to live into the Israelite’s redemption from Egypt also makes her like Elijah, looking forwards into the future. Some commentators say that she died, like Miriam, but others hold that she lives forever, like Elijah. As a keeper of secrets and, according to tradition, the guardian of Israelite folk-memory, she brings the past into the present, and she looks forward from now.
Serach, like each one of us, finds herself not to be a prophet or prophetess, but an ordinary human being capable of extraordinary things. From normality, Serach creates for herself a remarkable destiny. Her cup is the cup of the immediate present, reminding us to be fully present at all times, and yet to remember the past as well as look to the future. She mixes the lives and abilities of Miriam and Elijah, and so her cup of a mixture of water and wine. It is a cup which refreshes us and enlivens us, just as we are to refresh and enliven those around us. As we drink from Serach’s Cup, we remember that even though we may not be a prophet, we are still very human, and it is the gift of our humanity that promises so much.

We pour the wine from Elijah’s cup and the water from Miriam’s cup together into the previously empty cup of Serach bat Asher.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ..., שׁהַכֹּל נִהְיֶה בִּדְבָרוֹ:
Blessed are You, our Living God, by whose word all things exist.

We drink the mixture of water and wine.

We drink the wine from Elijah's cup? Yes, we do. Because it's a ridiculous waste of wine and energy to have it grown, bottled, transported and then sit out on your table only to then be thrown away at the end of the evening, and such a waste is clearly contrary to bal tashchit - the prohibition against needless waste. But we don't drink straight, we mix it with water to show (as well as all the reasons mentioned above) that we're not just drinking from Elijah's cup - hence the blessing is not the one for the fruit of the vine.