Wisdom of the ages: Importance of listening to, learning from our elders

Dr. Lawrence Layfer

By Lawrence F. Layfer, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Vayigash – Genesis 44:18−47:27

“They told him, saying Joseph is still alive…but he could not believe them…when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent, the spirit of Jacob was revived, and Israel said: My son Joseph still lives, I shall go to see him before I die”…Genesis 45:25-28

In this week’s Torah portion Jacob learns that after 22 years of mourning, his beloved son is alive and has thrived. “Living” as we have with Jacob and Joseph for almost half of Genesis, being invited in for unprecedented looks of their inner thoughts during lives of such high drama, it is no wonder that rabbinic literature cannot withhold itself from Midrashic speculation on this reunion.

The Torah tells of a woman named Serach, the daughter of Asher, Jacobs son, the only woman whose name is listed with those who went down to Egypt. Louis Ginzberg, in “Legend of the Jews,” relates: “(Serach was) a beautiful maiden, and very wise, who was skilled in playing the harp. The brothers summoned her unto them and gave her a harp and bade her play before Jacob and sing that which they should tell her (as the brothers were fearful that such news might harm Jacob in his advanced years). She sat down before Jacob and with an agreeable melody, and she sang the following words accompanying herself upon the harp: ‘Joseph my uncle lives, he rules over all of Egypt, he is not dead’. She repeated these words several times and Jacob grew more and more pleasurably excited…Jacob rewarded her therefore with these words: my daughter may death never have power over three, for thou didst revive my spirit. And so it was, Serach did not die, she entered Paradise alive.”

Ginzberg continues: “Whence did Moses know the place where Joseph was buried (for Joseph had commanded that when the Exodus occurred, his bones should be recovered and reburied in Israel). It is related that Serach bat Asher was a survivor of the generation (for Jacob had blessed her with long life). Moses asked her: do you know where Joseph is buried… for no less a personage than Moses applies himself to hunt for them…for three days and nights preceding the Exodus, Moses looked up and down through the land of Egypt for Joseph’s coffin…but his trouble was in vain for the coffin was nowhere to be found…Serach, the daughter of Asher, met Moses and in answer to his question, took him to the Nile river and told him that the leaden coffin made for Joseph by the Egyptians had been sunk there.” Serach had known Jacob, her grandfather, and Joseph, her uncle, personally, she could supply Moses information concerning events long since passed.

Rabbi Abraham Twersky teaches us the lesson to be gleaned from this Midrashic interpretation of events: “there are some things that can only be learned from our elders, from those of previous generations, and cannot be acquired in any other way, even by Divine intervention.” It must have been very exciting for Moses to talk with a woman who had known Jacob, her grandfather, and Joseph, her uncle, personally. She was likely witness to the details of Joseph’s funeral over 300 years before, and as Jacob had blessed her with long-life. Despite all his learning and his elevated position, this was something that Moses could only experience (and learn) by talking to a simple old woman.

We often think that our generation knows more than the one before and certainly more than the one before that. We suspect that they have very little to teach us. And perhaps in things such as technology, this may be true. But the value of their experience, and the opportunity to hear it from a person who was there at the time, is priceless.  Imagine learning in the first person of the rebirth of the state of Israel, or the horrors of the world wars, or the beauty and terror of the old shtetls of Europe with their Yeshivot and pogroms. This Midrash of Serach comes to teach us to take advantage of the presence of our grandparents before we lose forever the opportunity to know the world in which they grew up.

But the stories are well hidden. They must be coaxed out of those elders who are their repositories and implanted in the memory of those whose slates are still clean. To get the older ones to talk, and the younger ones to listen, is a bit of a challenge. Like Moses sitting with Serach, it takes a little tea and quite a bit of patience, but the remembrances can come from nowhere else. And Moses, our teacher, also taught us to seek after such knowledge that comes of experience, not just the knowledge which comes of study, for as the Torah teaches us: “and Moses took with him the bones of Joseph (Exodus 13:18).”

Dr. Lawrence Layfer is Emeritus Professor at Rush Medical College and former Chair of Medicine at NorthShore-Skokie.

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