בסיעתא דשמיא

In Search of Seraḥ: A Prayer to Seraḥ by Chaya Kaplan-Lester


מדרש הגדול על בר’ מה:כו
Midrash HaGadol on 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).‏
[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 Seraḥ, 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).
[In Parshat Vayigash] we read of the members of Jacob’s family who went down to Egypt. There were 53 grandsons listed, but only a single granddaughter – Seraḥ, 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. Seraḥ 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 Seraḥ 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 Seraḥ to the task of sharing the news with him. In one version Seraḥ masterfully waits until Jacob is praying and then relays the news to him through the poetic form of three rhyming lines. 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. Seraḥ 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, Seraḥ’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. Seraḥ, 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 Seraḥ to instruct us in how to do just that.

Source (English)

Seraḥ, teach us please
your therapy of harmony
– that exquisite technique
that you work with your speech

Reveal to us, ancient sister
your mesmeric tincture
of lyric and meter

And mix us well a word elixir
to soothe the wounds of
injured listeners

Just the way
you sung your way
and stood in the way
of the heart-halting parade
of gold-laden wagons
sent to stun an old man
too fast from his depression

For even one’s despair can be
a precious thing
to those who cling to their misery
as if it were a love letter
to the ones they’ve lost

But you with your harp
loosened that knot
on the yarn of a lie
that had so long bound

Jacob’s beguiled mind
– as you applied
the cautious remedy
of a child’s rhyme

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 endeavor
to heal the bereaved
and herald in a better reality?

So teach us more-loudly your
chemistry of composition
to make what’s written
glisten from the page
to release vast repositories of pain

To make space for
the joyful reception of miracles
of salvation and spiritual accumulation
like wagons laden with bread
and corn, and a child reborn
in the midst of a famine

And a lie overturned
and a family re-fashioned

So teach us Seraḥ
your eternal talent
of healing hearts with harps
and the ancient art
of rhyme

And let it start
with these faltering lines
– a prayer
for the gentle unraveling
of our long-held
lies

We are grateful to Chaya Kaplan-Lester for graciously sharing her prayer to Seraḥ with a CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported license, along with her d’var torah for the parsha Vayigash, first published in the Jerusalem Post.

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