A Girl of Song and Wisdom

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG

There is an unsung Jewish heroine who makes her debut in this week’s Parshah of Vayigash. Actually, if you read through the biblical text, you will find only a single mention of her name amidst the list of those in Jacob’s family that descended to Egypt,[1] and no direct reference to the famous role that Midrashic literature attributes to her.

Her name was Serach, the daughter of Asher, the son of Jacob.

Here is the context.

Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, was kidnapped by his brothers at the tender age of 17, and sold as a slave to an Egyptian official. Jacob was simply presented with the multi-colored coat that he had given Joseph, drenched in (goat’s) blood, and he concluded that Joseph had been killed by a wild beast. He mourned Joseph for 22 years.

In the meantime, a series of providential events led Joseph to become the viceroy of Egypt, with absolute authority and control over Egypt’s entire food supply, while an intense famine plagued the entire region. Joseph’s brothers went down to Egypt to buy food for the family, which ultimately led to their being reunited with Joseph — all hard feelings, jealousy and hatred gone.

In Vayigash, the brothers are returning to Canaan to make a very joyous — yet very awkward — report to Jacob. Joseph, it turns out, was not killed by a wild beast 22 years ago; he was actually sold by his own brothers to the Egyptians. But he is alive! And not only is he alive, but he is the ruler of all of Egypt, and wants Jacob and his entire family to move to Egypt, where Joseph will provide for their every need and comfort.

The brothers are concerned by the impact that this report will have on Jacob. That Joseph is alive alone could be news so momentous that there was some concern that Jacob’s 130-year-old heart would not be able to withstand the shock. But there was also the issue of Jacob simultaneously coming to grips with his sons’ enormous perfidy. That they not only knew that Joseph was not dead — yet allowed Jacob to mourn him for 22 years — but they were actually responsible for his disappearance, and for all of the the pain that Jacob had endured over the past two decades!

It was not that the brothers were unwilling to take responsibility for their actions at this point — they were. But they needed to break the news to Jacob in a way that would not kill him, or tear the family apart.

The Midrash states that, as the brothers were approaching their home, still uncertain as to how to how to resolve their dilemma, they were met by Serach, Asher’s daughter.

Interestingly, at this moment in Jacob’s male-heavy family, Jacob had a total of two female descendants: Dinah, his daughter, and Serach his granddaughter.[2] (His third granddaughter, Yocheved — Moses’ mother — would be born as Jacob’s family entered the gates of Egypt).[3] Dinah was, by now, a woman in her forties. Serach then, was the only “girl” in the family.

Despite her youth, Serach already had a reputation for being exceedingly wise, as well as a talented harpist and singer. Thus, when the brothers encountered her on their way home, they realized that she was the answer to their dilemma; she would be the one to break the news and restore joy to the House of Jacob.

Serach took her harp, and sitting near Jacob, she began to play an upbeat and joyous song, repeating the lyrics “Joseph is alive, and the ruler of all of Egypt.” Jacob smiled kindly upon her, appreciating her efforts, her skill, and her positive spirit. However, Jacob was not immune to the subliminal suggestion in her song, and slowly he found his own mood improving, and his hopefulness for the future slowly being restored.

It is well-known among those seeking the gift of prophecy, that “the Divine presence does not rest amidst depression, but rather, only amidst joy.”[4] Thus, those who wished to prepare themselves and to attempt to prophesy, would only do so when they were in a joyous frame of mind, and would frequently use music as a means of achieving that happy state.[5]

The Midrash states that when Jacob was presented with Joseph’s bloodied coat 22 years earlier, his devastation and heartbreak was so stunning that he immediately lost his Divine inspiration.[6] So skilled was Serach in her song, and so successful was she in transforming Jacob’s mood, that his spirit was restored, and the Divine presence rested upon him once again — and he suddenly knew that Serach’s lyrics were not merely wishful, but that they actually reflected reality.

It was only then that Jacob appreciated how brilliant Serach’s plan was, and how expertly it had been implemented. So he turned to Serach and blessed her, saying “Just as you have restored my life to me, so too do I bless you that death shall never take hold of you.”

According to Jewish tradition, so it was. Serach did not die.

In fact, the Midrash identifies several key advisory roles that Serach played throughout the ages, although she is never identified by the Tanach by name.

For example, it was Serach who confirmed that when Moses, a former prince of Egypt, appeared to the Israelites and told them, in G-d’s name, “I have surely remembered you,” that Moses was indeed using the very phrase that Joseph had promised the Israelites would presage their imminent redemption.[7]

It was Serach who told Moses precisely where Joseph’s body had been interred beneath the Nile river when it was time for the Israelites to live Egypt.[8]

And there is one other story that places Serach at its center — about 300 years later.

David and his general Joab were attempting to subdue a rebellion that threatened to tear asunder the newly unified Kingdom of Judah and Kingdom of Israel. In the course of their efforts, they were in pursuit of the provocateur named Sheba, son of Bichri, when they learned that he had taken refuge in the city of Abel Beth-Maacah. Perhaps believing that the city was protecting him and was therefore throwing their lot in with his rebellion, Joab promptly laid siege to the city.

Hostilities were escalating until an unnamed “wise woman” from the city convinced Joab that Sheba’s choice to hide in Abel Beth-Maacah did not warranty the destruction of the entire city. To Joab, she promised to demonstrate that the inhabitants of Abel Beth-Maacah were innocent of wrongdoing or treason, and that they themselves would deliver Sheba to Joab. To the people of the city, however, she manufactured a deescalating set of demands purportedly demanded by Joab. “He wants a thousand men.” Then, “I was able to bargain him down to five hundred men.” Then “he has now reduced his demand to one hundred men.” Finally, she told them, “he now demands only a single person — Sheba ben Bichri.” At this point, the people of the city were so primed to accept this proposal that they killed Sheba themselves, and his head was thrown over the wall to Joab, ending the conflict.[9]

Who was the wise woman?

When Joab himself asked her this question, she describes herself as a “mother in Israel,” and her clever choice of words suggested that she was one of those who had completed the number of the 70 members of Jacob’s family who descended to Egypt, and she was the one who had delivered Joseph’s body to Moses.[10]


It is difficult to imagine living forever. It is just as difficult to imagine enjoying living forever. Can you imagine living without death on the horizon, as everybody that you know and love passes on? Is immortality really a blessing?

Other Midrashic sources state that Serach was one of the few that entered the Garden of Eden alive.[11]

This itself is interesting, as after Adam and Eve, we stopped thinking of the Garden of Eden as a physical place that a living person might enter. In fact, “entering the Garden of Eden” has become a phrase that almost inherently suggests death.

But Serach’s story, and a reconciliation of these Midrashic sources, suggest that there may in fact be a physical Garden of Eden, or perhaps a meta-physical Garden of Eden with a physical access point, in which select individuals may enter and exit. Thus, Serach might assist Moses at one point, and witness the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, then retire to the Garden of Eden for a while, before reemerging to play some additional role for her people.

Thus, we cannot even refer to Serach as an historic figure. As generations and eras have come and gone, Serach has endured, lending her people her wisdom, her millennia of experience, and perhaps even her sweet song.

Shabbat Shalom!

[1] Genesis, 46:17.

[2] This is consistent with the view of R’ Nehemiah, discussed here.

[3] See Rashi, Genesis, 46:15; Bamidbar Rabbah, 13:20

[4] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 30b; Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, De’ot, 7:8.

[5] Id.

[6] Genesis, 45:27, in Avot d’Rabbi Natan, ch. 30; Targum Onkelos; Targum Yonatan.

[7] See Shemot Rabbah, 5:13. See also Genesis, 50:24 and Exodus, 3:16.

[8] See Mechilta B’Shalach Pesikta.

[9] See II Samuel, Chapter 20.

[10] Id. at 20:17, Kohelet Rabbah, 9:25.

[11] See Derech Eretz Zuta, 1; Targum Yonatan, Genesis, 46:17.

Shabbat Shalom!