“Two of the Seventy Souls”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. The old patriarch, Jacob, departs from Beersheba to begin the long journey to Egypt, where after 22 painful years, he will finally be reunited with his beloved Joseph.

In Genesis 46:8-27, the Torah lists the names of the children of Israel who came down to Egypt together with Jacob. Including Joseph and his two children, Ephraim and Menashe, who were already in Egypt, the Torah counts a total of 70 souls.

Although the number of names listed add up to only 69, R’ Abraham Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) suggests that Jacob should be regarded as the 70th. Others propose that the Divine presence constitutes the 70th, because G-d had promised Jacob (Genesis 46:4) that He would descend with Jacob to Egypt. The most common opinion, cited by Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) is that Moses’ mother, Yocheved, was born as Jacob’s family entered Egypt.

In the list of the descendants of Jacob, the Torah names Jacob’s twelve sons and their offspring. Female offspring are generally not mentioned, with the exceptions of Dina, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, and Serach, the daughter of Asher (Genesis 46:17).

Because of the position of prominence that Serach occupies in Jacob’s genealogy, many legends have sprung up about her. One Midrash suggests that she was not actually Asher’s daughter, but rather his stepdaughter, and that Asher had married Serach’s mother when Serach was about three years old.

Serach was renowned for her modesty, piety and righteousness. Because of her sterling character and Jacob’s great love for her, the brothers designated her to be the one to inform her grandfather Jacob that Joseph was still alive. The Midrash says that Serach lived for more than 650 years, and at the end of her life she did not die, but entered the World to Come while yet alive, an honor reserved for only the most righteous!

Some Midrashim maintain that Serach endured the enslavement of Egypt and witnessed the Exodus. Others claim that Serach was even alive in the era of the prophets and lived through King Nebuchadnezer’s destruction of the First Temple and was exiled to Babylon. According to legend, she is buried in the Babylonian city of Asbachon, where there is a house of worship known as the “Synagogue of Serach, Daughter of Asher.”

A second unconventional personage whose name appears in Jacob’s genealogy is cited in Genesis 46:10 among the descendants of Simeon. Simeon’s sons are listed as Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, Zohar, and Shaul, son of the Canaanite woman. According to the Ibn Ezra, Shaul is described here by Scripture as the son of a Canaanite woman, as a way of purposely underscoring the shameful fact that only Simeon, of all Jacob’s children, married a woman of Canaanite stock.

The Midrash however, cited by Rashi, takes issue with this contention. Rashi posits that Shaul was the son of Dina who was raped by Schechem the Canaanite. After the brothers avenged the rape in Schechem, Dina refused to leave until Simeon promised to marry her. Shaul therefore was the son, not of a Canaanite woman, but of Dina and a Canaanite man. Since this took place before the Torah was given, it was permitted for Simeon to marry his sister.

Nachmanides suggests that Dina only resided in Simeon’s household, but that they did not live together as husband and wife.

The Yalkut Shimoni (an ancient midrashic text) on parashat Pinchas quotes Rabbi Yochanan who says that Shaul, the son of the Canaanite woman had five names: Zimrei, Ben Salu, Shaul, the son of the Canaanite, and Shloo’me’el the son of Zurishaddai. The Midrash says that Shaul was actually the son of Simeon and Dina, who was known as a Canaanite because she had been violated by a Canaanite.

The Midrash records that Shaul, too, lived an exceedingly long life, and that even though he was among those who came down to Egypt, he survived for more than 210 years, even beyond the Exodus from Egypt. During the trek in the wilderness he was appointed Prince of the tribe of Simeon and was given many names, including Shloo’me’el the son of Zurishaddai. According to the Midrash, Shaul possessed a special strength that enabled him to resist the temptations of joining in the sin of the scouts and the conspiracy of Korach. Unfortunately, he did not have the fortitude to withstand the scheme of Bilaam, the gentile prophet, and when he succumbed to the temptation of the Moabite woman, he was killed by Pinchas, the zealous grandson of Aaron.

The Da’at Sofrim (an extensive compilation of scriptural commentaries, edited by Rabbi Chaim D. Rabinowitz, b. 1911) notes that Shaul is the only descendant of Jacob whose mother’s name is emphasized by scripture. He suggests that this underscores the strong influence that Shaul’s mother had on her son, a fact that may be interpreted to both Shaul’s credit and detriment. It could imply that Shaul behaved like a “Canaanite,” which leads the rabbis to suggest that Shaul was indeed Zimrei, the prince of the tribe of Simeon, who sinned with the Moabite princess, Kozbi. Or, perhaps, Shaul actually overcame his ignoble background and became a truly righteous person. The fact that he was counted among the 70 souls that came into Egypt with Jacob, is an indication of how strong and righteous he was.

Despite the fact that, at least according to one opinion, Shaul the son of the Canaanite woman survived beyond the Exodus, the bottom line is that he could never really overcome his mother’s negative influence (the Canaanite influence). Therefore, despite the fact that he withstood the temptations of the scouts and the conspiracy of Korach, Shaul was unable to resist the temptations of the Moabite princess Kozbi, and dies a sinner and a rebel.

Two names, among 70 souls. Each one plays a significant role in Jewish history and Jewish destiny.

May you be blessed.