This week we read of the members of Jacob''s family who went down to Egypt. There were 53 grandsons listed, but only a single granddaughter – Serach, the daughter of Asher. The commentators wonder, what was so exceptional about this girl that her name was recorded? The Midrash spills forth with stories portraying an image of a unique and endearing Biblical heroine. Serach stands as a trusted, beloved sage of the people. She possessed an uncommon gift of healing through poetry and music. Somewhat as Orpheus is to Greek myth, so is Serach to the Biblical myth – the archetypal poet and bard.
The Midrash on this week''s parsha tells of the brothers'' concern that their father Jacob would die from shock upon hearing the astounding news that his son Joseph was alive and well in Egypt. Their solution – to appoint Serach to the task of sharing the news with him. In one version Serach masterfully waits until Jacob is praying and then relays the news to him through the poetic form of three rhyming lines.1 In another rendering she sings the news to him gently and wondrously with a harp.
Both versions reveal a girl with psychological insight into just how to approach Jacob with the potentially lethal news. Serach intuits how to tend to Jacob''s emotional wounds with song. Even though she was sharing a truth with him, sometimes the sharing of truth with someone can be even more shattering than a lie. Where the bald facts could have killed Jacob, Serach''s simple almost child-like rhyme and song healed him, opening him to hope and possibility after decades of despair.
So what is it about song and rhyme which is able to impart such promise and soothe such wounds? Voltaire is famous for saying, “Anything too stupid to be spoken in words is sung.” And this might be true enough if one were to survey song lyrics for their intellectual content. But God forbid the purpose of music would be deliver intellectual points. No, the great gift of song rests in its stirring of sentiment, its arousal of spirit, its curative catharsis of emotions. Serach, with her ample emotional intelligence and creativity knew how to utilize song, rhyme & poetry for their subtle therapeutic properties.
May all of our artistic endeavors likewise access healing and inspiration, offering hope and the possibility of betterment in the face of any despair. The poem below is a prayer and request to Serach to instruct us in how to do just that.
Serach, teach us pleaseyour therapy of harmony - that exquisite techniquethat you work with your speech
Reveal to us, ancient sisteryour mesmeric tinctureof lyric and meterAnd mix us well a word elixirto soothe the wounds ofinjured listenersJust the way you sung your way and stood in the way of the heart-halting paradeof gold-laden wagons sent to stun an old man too fast from his depression
For even one''s despair can be a precious thingto those who cling to their misery as if it were a love letterto the ones they''ve lost
But you with your harploosened that knoton the yarn of a lie that had so long bound
Jacob''s beguiled mind- as you applied the cautious remedyof a child''s rhyme2
Plucked hope back into a ruptured heart and strummed him through the sting and stun of loss
Suddenly reversed through your verse- with the touch of a song
For is not the crowning goal of creative endeavorto heal the bereavedand herald in a better reality?
So teach us more-loudly your chemistry of compositionto make what''s writtenglisten from the pageto release vast repositories of pain
To make space for the joyful reception of miraclesof salvation and spiritual accumulation like wagons laden with breadand corn, and a child rebornin the midst of a famine
And a lie overturnedand a family re-fashioned
So teach us Serach your eternal talentof healing hearts with harps and the ancient art of rhyme
And let it start with these faltering lines- a prayer for the gentle unravelingof our long-held lies
1MidrashHaGadolon Gen. 45:26: "ויגדו לו לאמר ''עוד יוסף חי''" (בר'' מה:כו) רבנן אמרו אם אנו אומרים לו תחלה יוסף קים שמא תפרח נשמתו. מה עשו? אמרו לשרח בת אשר, "אמרי לאבינו יעקב שיוסף קים והוא במצרים. מה עשתה? המתינה לא עד שהוא עומד בתפלה ואמרה בלשון תימה:יוסף במצרים/ יולדו לו על ברכים/ מנשה ואפרים. פג לבו כשהוא עומד בתפלה. כיון שהשלים ראה העגלות, מיד "ותחי רוח יעקב אבינו" (שם). [מדרש הגדול על בר'' מה:כו][The brothers said:]If we tell him right away, "Joseph is alive!" perhaps he will have a stroke [lit., his soul will fly away]. What did they do? They said to Serah, daughter of Asher, "Tell our father Jacob that Joseph is alive, and he is in Egypt." What did she do? She waited till he was standing in prayer, and then said in a tone of wonder, "Joseph is in Egypt/ There have been born on his knees/ Menasseh and Ephraim" [three rhyming lines: Yosef be-mizrayim / Yuldu lo al birkayim / Menasheh ve-Ephrayim]. His heart failed, while he was standing in prayer. When he finished his prayer, he saw the wagons: immediately the spirit of Jacob came back to life.(Translated by Avivah Zornberg in Genesis, the Beginning of Desire, p.281).