Vayigash is an important parsha filled with important events in the story of the important Joseph and the story of how the Hebrews importantly got to Egypt and eventually to Sinai, for the important revelation of Torah.
It is here that Judah, out of concern for Benjamin, admits his culpability to Joseph for what happened to the twelfth brother. Joseph, overcome, tells his brothers who he is and they are sent back to Jacob to tell him that Joseph is alive. The whole tribe can move to Egypt to be fed and cared for by Joseph who is now a very big shot. I tell you this so you know that all this important stuff is not what I’m going to talk about.
I’m going to talk about someone who gets a very tiny mention at the end of this parsha, and then again in Chronicles, Serach Bat Asher. In the parsha, Jacob is moving the whole crew to Egypt and all his sons and their sons are listed as part of the move. Sons and only sons are listed, which is the usual thing, until we get to Asher’s family.
וּבְנֵ֣י אָשֵׁ֗ריִמְנָ֧ה וְיִשְׁוָ֛הוְיִשְׁוִ֥י וּבְרִיעָ֖הוְשֶׂ֣רַח אֲחֹתָ֑M
And the sons of Asher: Yimnah and Yishvah and Yishvi and Beriah, and Serach their sister.
Serach Bat Asher is the only woman listed which is very unusual. She gets another mention, much later, as having gone into Israel with Joshua in Chronicles which, when you think about it, is impossible. she lived from the time of Jacob, through 215 years of slavery in Egypt, through the Exodus, through the forty years in the desert and at least up to the time of the crossing over into Eretz Yisrael, surely that’s impossible, yes? Which is what the rabbis thought, so a slew of midrashim grew up around Serach, which I’m going to tell you.
First, when the sons returned from Egypt to fetch Jacob back to Egypt, they were afraid to tell him, they were afraid the shock would kill him, and, I think, they were afraid to admit to their father the part they played in Joseph’s enslavement. So the legend says that they asked Asher’s daughter, Serach, who played the harp, to sing and play the news slowly to Jacob, which she did. And it is said that upon hearing the news, Jacob exclaimed: “May the mouth that told me these words never taste death!” And so Serach, because of her bravery and her desire to give Jacob good news and because of her artistry as a poet and a musician, lived a very long time.
Serach went to Egypt, and still living in the time of Moses, one legend says, so that when the elders needed to confirm that Moses was legitimate she remembered a special code phrase, “God has surely remembered”, and when Moses used this phrase she told the people and so they followed him
Then, as they were all getting ready to leave, Moses remembered the promise to Joseph to take his body and bury it in Israel. He knew they couldn’t leave without the body but no one remembered where it was buried.
But then, as it says in the book of Legends,
“How did Moses know where Joseph was buried? It is said, Serach, daughter of Asher, who was of Joseph’s generation, was still living. Moses went to her and asked, “Do you know where Moses is buried?” She replied, “The Egyptians made a metal coffin for him, which they sank into the Nile, in order that it’s waters might be blessed thereby. Then, too, the magicians and the sorcerers told Pharoah, do you wish that this people should never leave Egypt? If they do not find the bones of Joseph, they will never be able to leave.”
But Serach remembers and tells Moses where the metal coffin is, Moses goes to the Nile and calls for Joseph and the coffin rises to the surface and they are able to leave Egypt.
Another legend is that Serach was still alive during the times of the Talmud and that one day, when the rabbis in the Beit Midrash were discussing what it might have been like during the crossing of the Red Sea, Serach poked her head in the window and told the rabbis that the walls of the Sea looked like a lighted window. Another version of this says she descrobe it as like a clear mirror in which Israel saw all their generations reflected.
What a beautiful images, like paintings of hope.
She is said to have died at the age of 1000.
So these are fun stories, and besides that it’s nice to hear midrashim about women, but why do I tell you these today instead of talking about the teshuvah of Judah or the forgiveness of Joseph? It’s because, for me, the Serach of the midrashim is a role model, an exemplar of many of the qualities i’m finding I need to hold on to as I contemplate the next four years.
I am so grateful that we are able to study Torah together
And learn strategies of hope from the stories of our people.
Especially when times are hard
And we need to more than study:
The bravery to speak when others hold back,
And the cleverness to listen when it is time to learn.
The pleasure in spreading joy and hope
And the chutzpah to stick your head in an open window and give your opinion.
The endurance to keep going even when the suffering is too much,
And the patience to keep going even when nothing is happening.
The memory of when times were hard so as to inspire resistance
And the memory of beauty and freedom, and all the good things that make life worth living.
Whether we have to get through 215 years of slavery
As another brave and joyful woman,
Grace Paley, a sister of Serach,
Without action, hope is wasted.