Faceless Immortals

One of my favorite series of books is Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga. It incorporates everything great about the genre of science fiction: fascinating worlds, complex characters and explorations of issues alive and well in our own very un-science fiction reality. In this series is a group of characters known as “the faceless immortals”. These beings do not die. Their life only ends when and if they choose that it should. They are receptacles of vast amounts of knowledge, about which they deliberate if, when and how to share it with the larger world. They are full of intrigue and some of these “faceless immortals” have become some of my favorite characters. It recently occurred to me that the idea of a “faceless immortal” really has its roots not in fiction but in sacred text. In fact, we meet a kind of “faceless immortal” in this week’s Torah portion. Her name is Serah.

Serah is mentioned only twice in the Torah. In both cases, it is in a list of other names, the first genealogical, the other a census. The census reference is found this week’s Torah portion, where all we read about her is, “The name of Asher’s daughter was Serah.” It is a name easy to miss, and we often do. However, the rabbis of the Talmud had a rich tradition about who Serah was. Scholar Judith Antonelli has collected the various traditions about Serah in her work, In the Image of God, and the picture these sources offer us is truly extraordinary. It begins with the fact that she was Asher’s daughter. Asher was one of Jacob’s sons, meaning that Serah was Jacob’s granddaughter. The midrash tells us that she “walked in the ways of the sons of Jacob, the holy ones. She lacked nothing, and God gave her wisdom and common sense” (Yalkut Shimoni 166). But why was this wise granddaughter of Jacob mentioned in a census of the Israelites that came hundreds of years later? The answer for the rabbis was simple: she was still alive.

According to this tradition, Serah would have been at least well over 200 years old (by some calculations, much older) by the time of the census in this week’s parasha, and have lived through the Israelites descent down to Egypt, proliferation there, enslavement, exodus and 40 year wandering through the desert. But it doesn’t stop there. This rabbinic understanding of Serah also posits that she played vital roles throughout her long life. The rabbis explain that it was Serah who informed Jacob that Joseph was still alive (Yalkut Shimoni 203). It was Serah who verified that Moses was truly sent by God (Exodus Rabbah 5:13), it was Serah who knew the location of Joseph’s bones, knowledge that she revealed to Moses so he could collect them and bring them out of Egypt (Exodus Rabbah 20:19). It was Serah, who was among the very small handful of individuals from the Hebrew Bible who never died, but rather, entered the Garden of Eden while still living (Kallah Rabbati Ch. 3). The Ben Ish Hai, Rabbi Yosef Hayim, of 19th C. Baghdad, argues one last remarkable point about Serah. So great was her merit, he explains, that her name was in fact a permutation of one of the mystical names of God, Rahash, which is formed from the same Hebrew letters as Serah. We are reminded of both on a daily basis, he writes, when we recited the preliminary part of the service which includes the line describing an ancient offering that was “memulah tahor kodesh/blended, refined, pure, sacred” the last letters in each word of the Hebrew forming the letters that make up both the mystical name of God, Rahash, as well as Serah’s name.

What might all of this mean for us? There are many lessons to take from the example of Serah but one that feels particularly relevant right now is the following. We often allow our understanding of the world to be shaped by those who take up a lot of air time, those who speak loudly, or demand attention. In some cases, those people genuinely do reflect the state of our world, but we must not forget that far more often the best people to look to get a sense of where we are at are those whose names get barely a mention at all. They are the people who without fanfare act with genuine care for others. They are those who spend their free time helping stock food pantries for those in need. They are those who are there to pick up the phone when someone else is need of an ear. They are those who comfort others who are struggling. They are those who simply smile and extend welcome when someone new enters a space. They are those who pick up others who have fallen down. They are those who see true value in other people and help point them in the right direction. And that might be what our rabbis are really telling us when they say that Serah was immortal, that our world will always experience upheavals, its ups and downs. But, there are always the Serahs of the world, whose goodness is ever present, even if not publicized like it should be. In that sense, each time you and I step up to keep that goodness going through our own actions, we each maintain Serah’s legacy of immortality.

The name of “faceless immortal” may come from science fiction but, for our tradition such people are as real as it gets. Each of us can make sure that such beings weren’t just real once upon a time, but continue to be so today and forever.

(This post also appears as a contribution from Rabbi Villarreal at shaartsafon.org)

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