Timeless Song| December 23, 2020
Serach bas Asher held on to secrets — and then, when the time was right, conveyed them. What was her secret?
We came home from kindergarten singing “Od Yosef Chai,” but how much do we know about the legendary woman who brought the ultimate comfort to her grandfather Yaakov? Join us on a tour of Jewish history as we learn more about the unique role of Serach bas Asher — the woman who was blessed with eternal life, entrusted with the secret of Redemption, and generations later, continued to protect her people.
Serach grew up in the home of Asher ben Yaakov, but she wasn’t born into the family. She was three years old when her mother Hadurah married Asher after her first husband’s passing; it was a second marriage for both of them. Serach was a clever, beloved child, and although she wasn’t Asher’s biological daughter, she become a beloved member of the family, and everyone knew that Yaakov cherished her.
It was a regular day when Serach suddenly heard her half-brother’s call. “They’re coming home!” he cried, thrilled to see his father returning from the pasture. The children ran to welcome him, but Serach remained behind, gazing indignantly at the sons of Yaakov.
“Yes, they returned… but they are missing one,” she whispered.
A few moments later, Serach heard the sound of wailing from the tent of her beloved grandfather.
“A wild animal ate my son! My beloved son Yosef! My precious son, the son of Rachel,” he wept bitterly.
Serach, seeing her stepfather and uncles emerging from her grandfather’s tent carrying a bloody garment, bowed her head.
Suddenly, she rose, her eyes flashing anger. She ran to her father Asher and stared at him piercingly.
“I have received a nevuah!” she said firmly. “Yosef is alive!”
Asher looked at his wife’s daughter, whom he’d raised and loved as his own, and understood that she didn’t believe the story they’d told their father; she must have truly received a nevuah.
“It was a din emes that was ruled as halachah,” he said with pain.
Serach remained silent.
“You know what happened, but you must keep silent and don’t tell a soul what occurred,” Asher said somberly. “We’ve made an oath that if any of us relates what happened, he and his family will be excommunicated.”
Serach looked at the floor and bit her lip, then left the tent.
From that day on, Serach tried to spend as much time as possible with her grandfather, helping him and trying to cheer him with her musical instruments.
After a time, the Shevatim began to suspect that Serach knew about the sale of Yosef.
“Your daughter knows that Yosef was sold!” they accused Asher.
“I never said a word to her!” Asher was vehement, but his words fell on deaf ears.
“We made an oath, and you violated it. If your adopted daughter Serach knows something about the sale, you must have revealed the secret! You’re excommunicated, Asher, as is your family.”
And so it was.
Twenty-two years passed. The secret of the sale remained a secret. Yaakov’s grief was throbbing and painful. The tribe of Asher was ostracized by the rest of the tribes. And only one woman broke all norms — ignoring the excommunication, bypassing the isolation.
Serach would visit her grandfather each day, doing whatever she could to revive his flagging spirits. Her closeness to her grandfather granted her a position of power and influence.
And then came the day came when Serach received an urgent summons. A young child ran to her home and beckoned urgently.
“Come quickly! The sons of Yaakov are calling for you!”
Serach hesitated. “Are you sure? They haven’t spoken to our family for over 20 years.”
“I’m sure.” The child nodded excitedly. “All the brothers are there, even Grandfather Asher. They need you!”
Serach hurried to her uncles. “What do you need?” she asked.
The brothers were silent for a long moment. Then one spoke. “We hope you can help us. Yosef is alive! He’s a king in Egypt. And he’s married, with two sons, Menashe and Ephraim.”
Serach’s head jerked up. “He’s alive?!”
The brothers nodded, a bit uneasily.
“Have you told Grandfather Yaakov? He’s been mourning for 22 unbearable years now!”
“That’s why we need you. We’re afraid this news will be too much for our father at his age. But you are so close with him… perhaps you can be the one to tell him the news?”
Serach nodded and quickly left the tent. She went back to her home, took her beloved harp, then continued on to her grandfather’s tent.
Yaakov smiled, happy to see his clever granddaughter. Serach simply sat at the side of the room, then waited for her grandfather to begin to pray. When he did, she lifted her harp.
“This is a new song, I just composed it,” she explained. As she played the slow, pleasant tune, she began to ask, in rhyme: “Yosef is in Mitzrayim? Does he have two children at his knees — Menashe and Ephraim?”
She continued, her words telling of an uncle Yosef in Egypt who’s a ruler there, who’s still alive.
She recited it once, twice, three times. Yaakov’s heart flooded with joy as he understood the message Serach was transmitting. And for the first time in 22 years, he merited to have the Shechinah descend upon him.
Yaakov turned to his precious granddaughter. “My daughter,” he told her, “Death shall never rule over you because you have revived my spirit. Your words have brought me great joy.”
The Sign of Redemption
A delegation of elders walked through the streets of Goshen, pausing before a familiar home. It wasn’t the first time they were taking this route.
A young man approached them. “Why do you come to Serach bas Asher?”
“Whom should we go to?” one of the men answered. “Serach is from the generation that knew Yaakov Avinu, and she knows secrets that we don’t.”
“And remember what happened to the children of Ephraim?” another man interjected. “Thirty years ago, they decided the time had come for them to leave this exile… and they all perished in the desert. No, we must ask Serach — the secret of the Geulah has been given only to her.”
The young man stared at them evenly, then spun on his heel. “I will ask Serach if you may enter.”
“I hope this time they haven’t come for naught,” Serach said, as she closed her eyes in thought.
“Who knows?” her housekeeper wondered aloud. “People have come so many times, telling us of this navi or that one, claiming he will be the one to redeem Am Yisrael. But each time, Serach, you shake your head.”
“What would you like, my daughter? Should I say the false prophets are speaking the truth? You know that in my youth, some two hundred years ago, my father revealed a secret to me and told me I cannot share it with anyone, until the right moment comes. And I’m still waiting.”
The housekeeper sighed. Serach looked at her kindly. “Do not be sad, my daughter. The bondage is hard, and we await its end anxiously, but the redemption will come at the right time. But enough talking — the delegation is waiting for me.” The elderly Serach emerged from her room.
One of the elders greeted her, then said, “A son from Shevet Levi, Moshe ben Amram, has come to us from Midyan. He claims that Hashem sent him and that the Redemption is near. He even showed us wondrous signs.”
Serach shook her head sadly. “Wondrous signs… that is not the sign of the Redemption.” Their faces fell. “Do not be dejected!” she hurried to add. “The Redeemer will yet come.”
“The son of Amram said something else,” one of them added. His brow creased, remembering. “ ‘Pakod pakadeti,’ he said.”
“What did the son of Amram say? Repeat his words!” Serach’s eyes sparked.
“ ‘Pakod pakadeti,’ Moshe said,” the elder repeated.
“He is a real navi! Those are the words my father told me!” Serach clapped her hands joyfully. “Can you believe it? The time has come! The day of our redemption is near! Hashem has heard our cries and has sent the son of Amram to take us out of Egypt!”
Serach leaned forward urgently. “Hurry back to him. Do everything he tells you. He has been chosen by the Creator to redeem Am Yisrael!”
A Promise Fulfilled
The elders were confused. Moshe Rabbeinu was walking restlessly among the streets of Egypt, his joyous expression of the day before gone, no longer reminding Am Yisrael of their impending redemption.
“What happened?” they asked him.
“Yosef’s aron hasn’t been found,” Moshe replied. “Our ancestors promised Yosef that when Bnei Yisrael ascended from Egypt, they would take his aron with them. And now, the end of the bondage has come, but the aron is not to be found. We cannot leave without the bones of Yosef!”
“Have you asked Serach bas Asher? She is Yosef’s niece, from our father’s generation — surely she remembers that incident.”
Moshe saw Serach bas Asher walking toward him.
“Listen, son of Amram,” she began. “You know it’s a mitzvah to fulfill the words of the dead, and a person who inherits an oath is not free to annul it. Your father and the elders of the generation swore to my uncle Yosef that they would take his aron from Egypt during the Redemption. Although you didn’t know Yaakov and his sons, you are obligated through those who made this oath to bring up the bones of Yosef and those of his brothers, who are buried in his aron, to kever Yisrael.”
“I know that,” Moshe replied. “I do not want to, nor can I leave Egypt without fulfilling that oath. Yet for three days and three nights I have been searching for Yosef’s burial site without success. Perhaps you know where Yosef’s aron rests?”
Serach closed her eyes. “When Yosef passed away, the Egyptians prepared a coffin of 500 kikaros of metal, and the magicians came and placed Yosef inside it. Then they deposited the aron in the Nile River, hoping to bless the waters. Indeed, the waters of the Nile rise and flood the fields of Egypt and bring blessing year after year. Come with me to the Nile.”
The gray waters of the Nile welcomed them.
“Here. This is where they sank his aron,” Serach pointed.
Moshe followed her finger, then looked back at the old woman. “Did you say it was a coffin of metal… How can it float to the surface?”
Serach looked at the water and whispered, “Call it, Moshe. Call to Yosef.”
Moshe took out a quill, ink, and a scroll. On the scroll he wrote the Sheim Hameforash. He placed the parchment in a small case and tossed it into the flowing waters. And then he cried, “Yosef, Yosef! You know how you promised Klal Yisrael ‘Pakod yifkod Elokim eschem.’ Give honor to Hashem and don’t delay the redemption of Yisrael!”
The waters of the Nile stilled. Moshe continued to call to Yosef: “You have many good deeds. Beg for mercy before your Creator and rise from the depths! If you do not rise, you will remain here in Egypt and we will be cleansed of the oath we made to you.”
As soon as Moshe finished his declaration, there was a sound of rising waters. A whirlpool formed in the middle of the river, and a few moments later, a dark shape floated to its surface.
“That is the aron of my uncle Yosef, floating as if it is a reed,” Serach whispered emotionally.
Moshe hurried to draw it out of the water.
“The moment I have awaited 210 long years has come,” Serach said, overjoyed. “Go, Moshe ben Amram, go and redeem Am Yisrael.”
Portion in the Holy Land
“Your honor, now that we are going into the Land of Canaan, how will the land be divided?” a man asked one of the elders.
“The Land will be divided into shares according to the shevatim, as discussed in the days of Moshe. Each household will get its own plot of land. This includes the daughters of Tzelofchad and Serach bas Asher, whom Moshe ruled will also get a plot of land.”
“Serach? The old woman? Why is she getting land?!” the man asked in surprise. “Asher ben Yaakov had sons. Sons receive land.”
“You’re right that Asher had sons, but Serach wasn’t his daughter; she was his wife’s daughter. Since her father died without sons, she receives his inheritance,” the elder explained. “And besides, the Torah lists Serach with her brothers — she was so pious that that the pasuk calls her ‘their sister.’ ”
Serech received a portion of her own.
Woman of Courage
Many years later, a man named Sheva ben Bichri declared a rebellion against the kingdom of Dovid Hamelech. Dovid sent Yoav ben Tzeruyah, his general, to pursue the rebel. Sheva ben Bichri fled from Yoav and retreated to a city called Even ben Ma’achah.
“He is a rebel and his crime is punishable by death,” Yoav ben Tzeruyah ruled, as he wielded his sword angrily. “My king, Dovid, has sent me on a mission, and we must fulfill it. Lay siege to the city!”
His soldiers hastened to comply. Yoav ben Tzeruyah thought the residents would turn in the rebel, but when he realized they weren’t doing so, he decided to breach the wall of the city and destroy all its inhabitants.
“Those who help a rebel can also be punished by death,” he ruled.
Yoav approached the wall, his massive army behind him. Suddenly, a very old woman emerged from the city’s gates, her face radiating wisdom. She motioned for the general to stop, and in his great surprise, he did.
“Who are you?” Yaov asked.
The woman responded with a question of her own: “Are you Yoav? Can you be the one who everyone calls Yoav because he is an av, a father, to Yisrael? You’re now entering a city full of men, women, and children and you want to kill them all!
“Does the Torah not say, ‘If you approach a city to fight over it, you should call to it in peace?’”
Yoav was stunned into silence. After a long pause, he asked again, “Who are you?”
“Anochi shlomei emunei Yisrael. I am the one who completed the number of people in Egypt, I’m the one who completed one faithful one —Yosef, to another — Moshe. But why do you seek to kill an entire city, and me, a mother of Klal Yisrael?”
Yoav ben Tzeruyah looked at Serach bas Asher. “Chalilah, chalilah li. But let’s go into your city, as a man from Har Ephraim has rebelled against King Dovid and is deserving of death. Not only has he rebelled against the king, but he’s also dealt a serious blow to a Torah sage. We have learned that one who touches a talmid chacham is like one who touches the Shechinah. How much more so when he’s both a king and a Torah scholar.”
Serach agreed that the rebel deserved to be killed. She promised that if Yoav retracted his intention to kill the entire city, the residents would hand over Sheva ben Bichri.
Yoav returned to Dovid, reported what had happened, and the negotiations he had conducted with Serach bas Asher, which spurred a halachic controversy over the question of whether a woman was allowed to conduct a war. Ultimately, Dovid ruled that if a woman could manage a war with strategy and not with weapons and war tools, then she would be allowed to do so.
And peace reigned.
Spectator to Miracles
The beis medrash was full; the benches were packed, students crowded into the aisles. Who would dare miss a shiur from the Amora Rabi Yochanan ben Nafcha? The leader of the largest yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael, he was widely considered the gadol hador.
“Rabi Yochanan will speak today about miracles that occurred to Bnei Yisrael when they departed from Egypt,” those in the know whispered to one another as they scrambled for seats.
“We’re learning about Kri’as Yam Suf,” Rabi Yochanan said, and then asked. “The pasuk says (Shemos 14:22), ‘And the water was like a wall on their right and on their left.’ Did you think about what that wall of water looked like? The wall was opaque, and Am Yisrael couldn’t see anything through it.”
Suddenly they heard a female voice from the corner of the beis medrash: “No, no, no… the wall wasn’t opaque. Of course not! I was there! The walls were clear, like glass, and they looked to us like massive bright windows.”
Then the rustle of hundreds of heads spinning, followed by a babble of questions.
“Who is that? Who dares to dispute the rosh yeshivah’s words?”
Hundreds of stunned talmidim turned around and saw a very old woman, sitting near the wall of the beis medrash.
“What is she doing here? Has she lost her mind?”
But the elderly woman didn’t back down. “I was there, and that is what I saw,” she repeated.
Only the Amora Rabi Yochanan smiled with satisfaction. “This is Serach bas Asher,” he told his students.
“This is Serach bas Asher who merited to bring the news of life to Yaakov, and for that reason, her spirit is still with us. This is Serach who sits and looks out over the beis medrash and hears the divrei Elokim chayim learned here. And she, who experienced Yetzias Mitzrayim personally, who saw the revelation of the Shechinah on the sea, knows what occurred. Therefore, her words are accepted in this beis medrash of Tannaim.”
The woman of secrets knew to reveal the truth at the right time.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 723)
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