One of my favorite women of Tanach makes her first appearance in this week’s parsha. Serach, the daughter of Asher, is named as one of the “70 souls” who accompanied Jacob to Egypt — but she is one of only two women listed (the other one is Dinah), and the only granddaughter of Jacob to have a name in the entire book of Genesis. She appears only once more in the Torah — as one of the few individuals named in the census taken in the Book of Numbers, chapter 25, just before entering the Land of Israel. Over 200 years passed between the two mentions of her name, making her remarkably long-lived (for comparison, Moses lived for 120 years, Joseph for 110 years, and Jacob for 147).
Although Serach gets nothing more than a namecheck in the written Torah, the Oral Torah gives her far greater importance. From reading midrash, it is clear that Serach is the master of the power of speech, using it to repair vital broken connections within the nation of Israel.
According to the midrash, when the brothers returned home after Joseph’s revelation, they grew scared about breaking the news to Jacob. How could they suddenly tell their father, who was old and frail, that Joseph was alive, and the second in command over Egypt? They were anxious that the shock might kill him.
In my favorite midrashic version (Midrash Hagadol, Gen. 45:26), Serach repeats a little sing-song rhyme while Yaakov is immersed in prayer. She recites it like a nursery rhyme:
“ יוסף במצרים / יולדו לו על ברכים /מנשה ואפרים”
“Joseph is in Egypt / And to him were born / Menasheh and Ephraim”
(You lose the rhyme when you translate it, unfortunately!)
In another version (Sefer Hayashar, Vayigash 9), Serach takes her harp and softly sings the news:
“יוסף דודי חי הוא וכי הוא מושל בכל ארץ מצרים ולא מת”
“My uncle Joseph is alive, he’s the ruler over all of Egypt, he is not dead”
In both version, her words slowly seep into Jacob’s consciousness. He is able to absorb them gradually, in a way that allows him to accept the truth without feeling the shock. Serach knows not just what to say, but how and when 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”.
Many centuries later, the poet Emily Dickinson wrote a poem which could almost have been written for Serach bat Asher:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind
With her wise understanding of speech, Serach is able to revive Jacob. For 22 long years, Jacob was hidden inside himself. He was cut off from his extended family, who accepted Joseph’s death, mourned him, and moved on. He was cut off from his beloved son Joseph, who was lost to him. He was even cut off from God. The midrash again tells us that for as long as Jacob believed that Joseph was dead, he was in a deep depression. As we are told in the book of Samuel, one can only connect to God through a state of happiness. Jacob’s sadness surrounded him, and held him back even from the comfort of God’s Presence. Immediately after Jacob heard the news about Joseph, he communes with God through prophecy again, for the first time in 22 years. Serach’s mastery of words reconnects Jacob with his son, his family, his soul, and his God.
This is not the end of Serach’s role as connector and savior. Serach next features in the midrash at the beginning of Exodus. Moses returns to Egypt to tell the nation of Israel that he has come to redeem them. The Jews are exhausted, suffering, and lacking in hope. They refuse to believe that redemption could be on its way. Eventually, the elders turn to Serach, who (together with Yocheved) is the only known survivor of her generation, and ask her if Moses is for real.
They tell her all about the signs and wonders that he performed, and Serach says, “This man is a fake.”
Then they add, “Oh, he also said ‘God will remember (yifkod יפקוד) you.’”
Serach replies, “Well, in that case he really is the redeemer. The words ‘pakod yifkod’ are the code words for redemption, as I heard from my father.”
With her approval, the nation of Israel believed in Moses and felt renewed hope in God and His salvation. As the keeper of the code words for redemption, Serach once again uses the power of speech to give people hope, and enable them to connect to God.
A beautiful midrash on the lines of “Eishet Chayil” (A Woman of Valor) assigns each line of the poem to a different woman of the Bible. The line of “pihah patcha b’chochma” — “She opens her mouth in wisdom” is designated as Serach. She personifies wise and timely speech; — speech that heals and does not harm, speech that redeems and does not push away.
Kabbalah tells us that speech — dibbur — is the link between thought and action. Without speech, our thoughts have no expression; without speech, our actions too are unfathomable. Speech is what links thought and action, so that we can understand each other. Speech is there to connect people, nations, generations, and populations. That is exactly what Serach bat Asher does. She uses her speech to connect Jacob with the world again, and she uses her speech to give hope back to the Children of Israel at the end of the exile in Egypt.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslev articulates the kabbalistic concept of “galut dibbur” and “galut da’at” (literally the “exile of knowledge” and the “exile of speech”). Da’at, in Jewish thought, is the ability to make connections, infer meaning, and create relationships. It is linked inextricably with dibbur, which serves as the vehicle of da’at. Galut da’at, as Rebbe Nachman describes it, is what we’d call depression. When in a state of galut da’at, you are unable to connect with other people, even with your friend, or your God, or your own soul. Galut da’at is a terrible state of inaction, when one cannot see any way out of the exile of the mind and heart. During the years when Joseph was missing, Jacob was in a state of galut da’at, which only lifted when Serach came to reconnect him with the power of speech.
Kabbalistic sources, including Rebbe Nachman, also teach us that during the time of exile in Egypt, the nation of Israel was in a state of galut da’at and galut dibbur. Men and women felt estranged from each other and we felt cut off from God. It was Serach who preserved the code that led us out of this exile, through the power of speech. Serach shows us how much can be achieved, not just with the right words, but by using them in the right way and at the right time.