Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Writes Your Midrash?

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin, 7.10.20
Parashat Pinchas
Congregation Beth Israel, Scottsdale, Arizona

We signed up for Disney plus last week. And it wasn’t so that my daughter could watch the Lego Frozen series (which she has), or so that my older son could watch The Diary of a Wimpy Kid (which, he plans to do this weekend). It wasn’t even so my husband could watch Mandalorian (which, he hasn’t… because, seriously, who has time to watch tv with three kids, a full time job and global pandemic?).

No, we signed up for it so I could watch Hamilton.

Getting to see Hamilton again, this time from my own couch, getting to see it with the original cast, getting to share it with my kids without the price of a live theater ticket and with the ability to skip over some of the … ahem…. racier material… it was so much fun. We snuggled on the couch. We sang along. Josh got to teach the kids about American history, and I got to teach them about musical theater. It was one of those silver linings we have enjoyed amidst the dark cloud of COVID-19.

I’ve loved Hamilton since I first I heard Angelica Schuyler compel Thomas Jefferson to include women in the sequel to the Declaration of Independence. There was a several month period where I listened to the soundtrack on repeat trying to soak in as much of the complex musical themes as I could.

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But the real power comes from seeing the performance. Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton’s creator, does something surprising for a story about America in the 18th century. The cast is intentionally multi-cultural, and the music is heavily influenced by rap and R&B. It’s not typical musical theater. And, not only is it musically different, the cast itself is, in their own words, “a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds and orientations.”[1] Josh and I joke that someday, we will have to re-teach our children US history. They will be shocked to find out that Thomas Jefferson actually looked nothing like Daveed Diggs.

However, Miranda’s choice is deliberate — not just an accident of casting or a colorblind oversight. Miranda explains in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter that the choice to use a multicultural cast to represent a homogenous group in America’s history, “makes the story more immediate and more accessible to the contemporary audience… you excite people, you draw them in.”[2] It’s taking the history that belongs to all of us, as Americans, and seeing in the story the faces of the people we live with, the people we work with — allowing each of us to see ourselves in the story of our founding fathers.” It becomes a story that is not only our past, but also our present. You could say it becomes ‘the story of tonight.’

Miranda has encountered criticism for this unconventional retelling of American history. But he is not the first to reinterpret the past to make new meaning for the present.

In our Torah portion this week we have a brief mention of a character named Serach Bat Asher. Quite literally, in the midst of a long list of ancestors and their descendants, it says, “v’shem bat Asher, Serach.” And the name of Asher’s daughter was Serach.” (Numbers 26:46)

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At this point in Torah we know nothing about this elusive character. In fact, in the whole five books of the written Torah, she is only mentioned one other time. We find her for the first time in the book of Genesis. (Genesis 46:17) Here too, her name is buried in the midst of a long list — this time, of the ones who went down to Egypt.

The rabbis wonder:how is it that she witnessed both slavery in and the return to Eretz Yisrael? How is it possible that she lived through not just one peoplehood-defining miracle, but two? From their questions, the Rabbis draft the legend. This strategy that they use, this game that they play- This how midrash is created.

The rabbis answer their own questions with a story, often one that is more relevant to their own day and age than it is to the ancient world of Torah. The rabbis create an active midrashic life for Serach. She becomes not just a character, but a symbol.

In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, ‘they tell her story.’

For the rabbis, Serach Bat Asher is a mysterious truth teller, and an enigmatic relationship reviver. In Midrash HaGadol she sings a gentle lullaby to Jacob that sweetly explains that his son Joseph is not dead after all. Writer and educator Amanda Bradly explains that “Serach knows not just what to say, but when [and how] to say it. Jacob turns to Serach and blesses her with long life, saying “My daughter, because you have brought me back to life, death shall not rule over you”.[3] This blessing is how she comes to still be alive 200 years later, ready to cross into the land of Israel. Some legends say that Serach is immortal. It is taught that she gets to return to the Garden of Eden, a pretty nice way to spent eternity.[4] Paradise is her reward for carrying generations of collective memories, shared through the power of her delicate and deliberate speech.

For the rabbis, Serach is a missing link. She relates the ancient text to the rabbinic present. They write her story with themselves in mind. Serach bat Asher is an encouraging, redemptive force. Her character manifests the promise of return: to Israel, to Eden, to a hopeful, happier ending. Through the mystical midrashim of Serach Bat Asher, the rabbis find a way to write their own dreams into an ancient story.

Some of Hamilton’s critics say Miranda is re-writing history. Some call it revisionist. Or, I think, we could call it a midrash.

What Hamilton and Serach Bat Asher share is a version of a story that is as much, if not even more about the writer as it is about the character. The final number of Hamilton asks us to consider a question:

Who lives who dies who tells your story?

Every Thursday at three pm a group of CBI congregants gather on zoom for ‘coffee talk.’ (You are all welcome, by the way.) This past week a group of us chatted about the difference between monuments and museums, and where relics from difficult moments in our nation’s history belong. While there is much about which this diverse group disagrees, we found consensus on one point: The past will repeat itself. When the present turns into history, it becomes a text for all to study. The past is not to be repeated, but remembered. It is there to teach us. As we learn from kohelet, ein chadash tachat ha shemesh, ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’[5] People are not new. Problems are not new. Conflict is not new. Not even a global pandemic is new.

What is new, is how that history informs the present moment. And how we, in the present, live knowing that someday even we will be history.

There is no doubt that 2020 will be remembered.
The memes we’ve shared will live forever on the internet. The choices that we make today will become the narrative that our children tell to their children. We leave artifacts for the future to find. They tell our story.

Will the midrash future generations write about us answer questions about fact versus fiction? Will the record reflect the careful weighing of risk and reward? Will this era be remembered as a story of loss or a story of survival And will we play the part of the hero or the villain?

Aviva Zornberg writes,

“’What really happened in Egypt?’ becomes a less important question than ‘how best to tell the story?’ Where to begin? What in the master story speaks to one and therefore makes one speak?’”[6]

Will we be like Alexander Hamilton, writing it all down, like we’re running out of time? Or will we be like Serach Bat Asher, a mysterious ancestor who lets the future decide what her life really meant?

As we live through this pivotal moment in our state and in our world, we are writing our own history. We are drafting an outline for the future.

We don’t get to decide “who lives.”
We don’t get to decide “who dies.”
We don’t even get to decide “who tells our story.”

But we do get to decide is what we will make of this moment, this present. We tell the story of tonight.

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Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Scottsdale, AZ.

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