Dec 19 2015

Parshat Vayigash: Reviving the Spirit of Yaakov

Joseph_Overseer_of_the_Pharaohs_GranariesSurely one of the most dramatic moments in the Torah is when Yaakov receives the news that Yosef is alive and is the viceroy of Egypt. As expected, Yaakov is in a state of shocked disbelief until, “he saw the wagons which Yosef had sent to carry him, the spirit of Yaakov their father was revived.” What was it about seeing the wagons that revived him?

Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam), the grandson of Rashi, is well-known as the foremost exegete of the most straightforward level of meaning of the Torah, referred to in Hebrew as “peshat.” The Rashbam notes that after Yosef reveals his true identity to his brothers and sends them back to Yaakov with wagons, the Torah is careful to state, “Yosef gave them wagons, as Pharaoh had commanded, and he also gave them provisions for their journey.” Pharoah himself had authorized the provision of wagons. In fact, the Torah records that very authorization, as Phaorah commands Yosef, “You are also directed to tell them, ‘Do this: Take some wagons from Egypt for your children and your wives, and get your father and come.”

Apparently, the export of wagons from Egypt was strictly regulated and could only be done at Pharaoh’s behest. When Yaakov saw the wagons, it confirmed that Yosef was not only alive, but had risen to a position of incredible influence and respect, so much so that Pharoah himself would act on his behalf. This sight signaled to Yaakov that Yosef’s dreams of ascending to a position of rule had been fulfilled. This was the moment which Yaakov had pondered from the time he had about Yosef’s dreams, “his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.”

Rashi, Rashbam’s “Zeida,” gives a very different interpretation, based on a Midrash, “Yosef gave his brothers a sign to relay to their father: that at the time that Yosef had parted from Yaakov, they had been studying the laws of Eglah Arufah (“The Beheaded Heifer,” Deuteronomy 21). Thus, although it was Pharaoh who had sent the wagons, the verse says, “And when he saw the wagons which Yosef had sent” — for the “wagons” (agalot) of which the verse speaks is a reference to the Eglah Arufah.”

This Midrash requires quite a bit of unpacking. The law of the Eglah Arufah, simply stated, is that if a corpse is found in an open field and it is not known who is the murderer, the elders of the nearest city have to go out and make a proclamation including the phrase, “our hands did not spill this blood.” They then bring an atonement offering, a special sacrifice, known as the Eglah Arufa, the beheaded heifer.

The Talmud wrestles with what seems to be an internal contradiction in this mitzvah. If “our hands did not spill this blood” then why is there a need for an elaborate atonement ceremony? Our Sages explain that, although it occurred outside of the jurisdiction of the city, nevertheless it was their responsibility to send the traveler off with adequate provision and protection. They were remiss in not “going the extra mile,” literally.

Now what is the connection to the wagons that Yosef had sent to Yaakov that so revived his spirit? The Midrash connects these wagons to the mitzvah of Eglah Arufa, through a poetic resonance of the Hebrew words for heifer and wagon: eglah (heifer) and agalah (wagon), which sound so similar. The sight of an agalah (wagon) was a coded reminder of the last topic discussed by Yaakov and Yosef, the mitzvah of the eglah (heifer).

According to the Chassidic masters, this encoded message accomplished much more than the confirmation of the identity of the sender.

The principle behind the law of Eglah Arufah is that a person is responsible also for what occurs outside of his domain — outside of the areas where he is fully in control. This mitzvah is a profound expression of the meaning of taking responsibility. In the words of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, “This is the deeper significance of the message which Yosef sent to Yaakov. Father, he was saying, I have not forgotten the law of Eglah Arufah. I have been exiled from the sacred environment of your home, but I have not allowed my soul to travel to the spiritual no-man’s-land of Egypt without provision; I have not abandoned it to a spiritual death with the justification that ‘This is outside of my element; I have no way of dealing with this.’ After 22 years of slavery, imprisonment and political power in the most depraved society on the face of the earth, I am the same Yosef who left your home on the day that we studied the laws of Eglah Arufah. This was the message that revived the spirit of Yaakov.”

We live in a society which is quick to abdicate personal responsibility. It is someone else’s fault. Some external circumstance led to this mess. Yosef could easily have severed his ties with his family and the covenantal mandate. Yosef had endured a string of traumatic experiences and was very far, in multiple ways, from home. Yet, remarkably, Yosef takes full ownership of his behavior and never betrays the vision and values taught to him by Yaakov while he had “dwelt in the tent” of his father’s tutelage.

It is so tempting to abdicate personal responsibility. It is even fashionable. Our Sages are exhorting us to buck the trend and take full ownership of our behavior. May the great fortitude and integrity of our spiritual heroes inspire us to do the same and thereby revive the spirit of Yaakov in our lives.