Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 45

It’s not always what you say, but how you say it

December 24, 2020

Dear Holy Friends,

I hope this correspondence finds you having well-managed the first snowstorm of the winter. We will see how much shoveling is in store for us over the next couple of months. Perhaps, the concept of shoveling ourselves out from under will be an appropriate metaphor for the clearing our minds and the welcoming of brighter, sunnier, and happier days, after receiving vaccinations in the next few months.

Over the next couple of Shabbatot, we will conclude the saga of Joseph: the coat of many colors; his ascension to power in Egypt; his reconciliation with his brothers and father; and his eventual demise. This week we hear of Jacob moving down to Egypt, seeing Joseph after a twenty-two-year hiatus, and living out his final years.

Each of us has likely experienced separation and fracturing of important relationships in our own life, but we have also likely had the opportunity for new blessings and the rebuilding of social contracts. Allow me to share a quick Rabbinic legend of how the great news of Joseph’s existence was shared with his aging and fragile father from the Midrash Aggadda.

Serah, daughter of Asher, is mentioned in the Bible in the count of the Israelites who went down to Egypt (Gen. 46:17) and in the enumeration of the Israelites at the steppes of Moab (Num. 26:46). Aside from this, she takes no part in any narrative, nor is anything said about her. In contrast, there are a plethora of midrashic traditions about this woman and thus, this faceless Biblical character, becomes a fascinating personality.

When Joseph was reunited with his brothers and he sent them to the land of Canaan to bring his father Jacob to him in Egypt, he ordered them not to alarm their aged father. Following his request, the brothers summoned Serah and asked her to sit before Jacob and play the lyre for him. It was in this manner that she revealed to Jacob that Joseph was still alive.

Serah played well and sang gently: “Joseph my uncle did not die, he lives and rules all the land of Egypt.” She played this for Jacob two or three times and he was pleased by what he heard. Joy filled his heart, the spirit of God rested on him, and he sensed the truth of her words. He bade her: “Continue to play for me, for you have heartened me with all that you said.” While he was speaking with her, Jacob’s sons came to him with horses, chariots and royal garments, and with slaves running before them. They told him: “[We bring] glad tidings, for Joseph still lives and he rules all the land of Egypt.” When Jacob saw all that Joseph had sent with them, he knew that they spoke truthfully. Jacob was exceedingly happy and he said (Gen. 45:28): “[This is] enough [for me]! My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die.” (Sefer Ha-Yashar, Vayigash, chap. 14).

I believe the lesson from this Midrash is that we need to be sensitive when sharing news with those who we love, especially if they are emotionally or physically frail. We must always think about the impact that our words and messages could have on the people to whom we are delivering them, especially when breaking news, good or bad, to them. Serah’s gentle approach is a reminder of the age-old adage that, “It’s not always what you say, but how you say it.”

May the New Year offer us all the occasion to go back to sharing news and messages in-person, always with words chosen wisely and our listener’s situation considered.


Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD
201 562 5277

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