Serach bas Asher takes on a great role in the Midrashim, though her presence in the story line of the Torah is quite limited, to say the least. When listing the offspring of Asher, the son of Jacob, the Torah records:
Asher’s sons: Imnah, Ishvah, Ishvi, and Beriah, and their sister Serah. Beriah’s sons: Heber and Malchiel. (Bereishit 46:17)
Other than Dina, the daughter of Jacob, Serach is the only woman listed among the descendants of Jacob. Rashi quotes from the Midrash that Yocheved was in fact also one of the descendants of Jacob alluded to in the verses, though her name is not mentioned explicitly. Who then is Serach? What do we know about her, and what can we learn from her?
The Ramban notes that Serach was not actually the child of Asher, which is why the verse identifies her as the sister of Imnah, Ishvah, Ishvi and Beriah, as opposed to the daughter of Asher. In fact, she was the daughter of Asher’s wife, though born to a previous husband. So Serach was the step-daughter of Asher. This makes her inclusion in the list all the more puzzling. She’s not even Asher’s genetic daughter, and none the less she is listed as being one of the 70 descendants of Jacob!
Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg in his Ketav veHakbalah suggests, though with some reservation, that this verse shows that raising a child creates the same status as if one gave birth to that child. In Parshat Pinchas the Torah records:
The name of Asher’s daughter was Serah. (Bamidbar 26:46)
In this verse, there is no mention that in fact Serach was really the step-daughter of Asher. Perhaps this is proof that a step-child actually attains the same status of a “genetic child,” in that the Torah just lists Serach as the child of Asher in this context.
Though a greater question emerges from this verse in Bamidbar. How is Serach still alive all these years later? Parshat Pinchas occurs at the end of the 40 years of travel in the desert, which is at least 250 years after she moved to Egypt.
The Bechor Shor seems to suggest that the Torah is not indicating that Serach is still alive, rather her name is mentioned because she was part of the descendants of Jacob who went to Egypt.
The midrash has a different answer. Serach attained eternal life; she never died. So she was alive during the time of Jacob, she was alive during the time of the travels of the Jewish people in the desert, and she is still alive today! What did she do to merit eternal life? The midrash answers that she was the one who told Jacob that Joseph was still alive. But she told him in such a way that he did not go into shock and die. Of all the mitzvot and good deeds that a person can do in life, it is amazing to think that it was this one, simple action that gave her eternal life. She spoke calmly and pleasantly to her aging grandfather. This is a great lesson for us all!