Everybody knows Sarah, the matriarch, but who is Serah?
Serah is mentioned in this week’s parshah along with Yaakov’s descendants. She is Asher’s daughter, which makes her Yaakov’s granddaughter. In fact she is the only granddaughter mentioned in this genealogical list. This has led the commentators to believe that she is a person of significance.
The best-known of the midrashim about her tells of how she was the first to inform Yaakov that Joseph was still alive. Fearing that the news would be too much of a shock for the old man, she informed her grandfather by playing a harp for him, gently mixing in the words that Joseph is “alive and the ruler of all Egypt.” In return, Yaakov blessed her, saying “May you live forever and never die.”
This teaches us that we should be careful when being the bearer of news, even if the news is good.
In fact there are other occurences or references to careful speech in this week’s parshah. Thus at the beginning of the portion, Judah chooses his words carefully to win his brother over, makes a moving speech and succeeds.
Then only minutes later, according to Rashi, Joseph proves his identity to his brothers by speaking to them in לשון הקדש. This is understood by Rashi as his having spoken Hebrew to convince them. Yet Rabbi Twerski sees it as also meaning that he had changed his way of speaking. Joseph who used to tell tales about his brothers, thus making himself guilty of lashon hara, has changed and can now use speech to do good.
Finally when his brothers prepare to go back to Canaan so as to bring their father to Egypt, he warns them:
For Rashi, Joseph is saying: “don’t argue with one another regarding whose idea it was to sell me”. Josef knew that his brothers were embarrassed and ashamed because they had sold him. He didn’t want them to quarrel and blame one another on the way.
This parshah reminds us that words are a powerful tool and like all powerful tools should be used carefully.
Judaism has laws about speech, about the what we may say (or not) and how. The Chofetz Chaim has written extensively on the subject. More recently Rabbi Telushkin has tried to raise awareness on this aspect of Jewish law; a good book to start with is Words that Hurt, Words that Heal: How to Use Words Wisely and Well.