Joseph’s Niece

Serah was still a child when Joseph’s brothers asked her to sing a little song for her grandfather, Jacob. For Joseph had sent his brothers to bring the House of Jacob to Egypt, because of the famine in the land. Then Joseph’s brothers had to find a way to break the news to Jacob that Joseph was still alive. They said, “If we tell our Father that Joseph is alive, he might die from the shock.” And they decided to have Serah play the harp for Jacob and sing the words “Joseph is alive.” This Serah gladly did, and when Jacob, who was lost in a reverie, suddenly understood what she was saying, he cried out, “Is it true?” And when Serah assured him that it was, Jacob, in his joy, gave her a great blessing, which let her live so long….

The name Serah bat Asher appears in the Torah only twice, in two lists. Nothing else is said about her. Yet, using the midrashic method, the ancient rabbis were able to create a full identity for her and make her play an essential role in many key biblical episodes. They concluded that she lived longer than anyone else, even Methuselah. It was she who…helped Moses search for the coffin of Joseph; she who crossed the Red Sea and later reported on what the walls of the Red Sea looked like. This figure, Serah bat Asher, comes to life in the Talmud and the Midrash and becomes one of the favorite figures of the rabbis, whom they draw into the narrative as often as possible. How they did this is an object lesson in the midrashic method.

Serah is also used to resolve another apparent contradiction. Genesis 46:27 states that the total of Jacob’s household who came to Egypt was 70 persons. However, those listed in Genesis 46:8-25 only total 69. The explanation given in Genesis Rabbah 94:9 is that Serah bat Asher was counted twice. Because of her extreme righteousness and wisdom, she had the value of two.

The story of Serah bat Asher begins with a name in the list in the passage describing Jacob’s journey into Egypt…[then] in Numbers 26:46, the census taken by Moses in the wilderness the name Serah bat Asher appears again…. Using the midrashic method, the rabbis searched for the “right place.” This is the place in the text that gives the necessary clue, making it possible to read between the lines. And in this case the clue involved another matter that is missing in the biblical narrative; how the sons of Jacob finally informed him that his beloved son, Joseph, was not dead after all….

Indeed, he was none other than the Prince of Egypt. And now that Joseph had revealed his true identity, he commanded his brothers to bring their father and the rest of the family to Egypt, for there was a famine in the land… Reading between the lines, the rabbis intuited that the brothers were filled with guilt and remorse, as well as with fear that Jacob might die of shock when he heard the news. So they came up with the idea of letting Serah break the news to him. They asked Serah, who apparently was a child, to play the harp for Jacob and sing him a little song, with the words “Joseph is alive, Joseph is alive.” Serah, of course, was glad to sing a song for her grandfather, and when Jacob realized what she was saying, he jumped up and asked, “Is it true?” And when she told him it was true, he blessed her with such a great blessing that she lived as long as she did! In this way the midrash brought Serah to life and explained how she lived for so long.

The Coffin of Joseph

Before his death, Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here” (Gen. 50:25). So when the time came to leave Egypt, Moses searched everywhere for Joseph’s coffin, but no one remembered where it was. After Moses had tired himself out searching for it, he encountered Serah bat Asher, who was a survivor of the generation of Joseph. Serah said: “My lord Moses, why are you so” Moses replied: “For three days and nights I have been searching for Joseph’s coffin and I can- not find it.” She said to him: “Come with me and I will show you where it is.” Moses said: “Who are you, and how do you know where the coffin can be found?” She said: “I am Serah bat Asher, and I know for I was present when the leaden coffin of Joseph was sunk into the Nile.” She led him to a shore of the Nile and there she said: “In this place the Egyptian magicians and astrologers made a metal coffin for Joseph and sank it into the river Nile, so that its waters should be blessed. Then they returned to Pharaoh and said: ‘If it is your wish that these people should never leave this place, then as long as they do not find the bones of Joseph, they will be unable to leave.'”…

A Vision at the Red Sea

When Serah bat Asher was among the children of Israel at the Red Sea, she had a vision in which she saw things that none of the others saw. In the vision she saw the multitude of angels who had gathered to watch the children of Israel cross the Red Sea. So too did she see the Divine Presence, who descended among them when Miriam played the tambourine and sang the Song of the Sea. And in that vision Serah even saw the Holy One commanding the waters of the Red Sea to part. For other than Moses, Serah was the only one alive in that generation who could look upon the Holy One and live.

The Death of Serah Bat Asher

How long did Serah live? Some say she lived until the days of the Temple, while others say she lived even longer than that. One account has it that she met her death in the ninth century in a fire in a synagogue in Isfahan. And when that synagogue was rebuilt it was named the Synagogue of Serah bat Asher, and the Jews of Persia made pilgrimages to that synagogue, the holiest Jewish site in the land. Others say that Serah bat Asher never died. She was taken to the heavenly Garden of Eden while she was still alive, because she had announced to Jacob that Joseph was alive. There Serah has a palace of her own, where she teaches Torah to the righteous women. And they know that every word she says is true, because she was a witness to all the miracles that took place in those mighty days….