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Wagon Trail

By: Rav David Milston

And they went up from Egypt, and came to the Land of Cana’an, to Ya’akov their father. And they told him, saying, ‘Yosef is still alive, and he is governor over the whole of the land of Egypt.’ And his heart fainted, for he did not believe them. And they told him all that Yosef had said to them, and he saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to carry him, and their father Ya’akov’s spirit was revived.

(Bereishit 45: 25-27)

Ya’akov’s initial reaction is puzzling. How are we to interpret his disbelief?

Are we to suggest that he simply could not believe the news? Yosef had been away for so long that he just couldn’t believe it was true. Alternatively, perhaps Ya’akov concluded that if Yosef was alive now, then the stories his sons had been telling him for the last two decades were untrue; but if they had lied to him for so long, then who says that they were telling the truth now?

Whatever the reason, Ya’akov needed to be convinced that his son Yosef was indeed alive. Yet how does the next verse serve that purpose? “And they told him all that Yosef had said to them, and he saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to carry him, and their father Ya’akov’s spirit was revived.”

The midrash[1] comments:

Rabbi Levi said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan Bar Shaul: Yosef said to his brothers: ‘If he initially believes you when you tell him that I am alive, fine. However, if he refuses to believe, then show him the wagons being drawn by heifers, because we were learning the parasha regarding the breaking of the heifer’s neck (Devarim 21: 1-9) immediately before we parted…’

Another version of this midrash suggests that Yosef and his father were learning about the wagons used for the Mishkan[2] immediately before they parted.

The plain meaning of this midrash seems to be that Yosef sent the wagons as confirmation that the information was genuine, hence when Ya’akov sees them he immediately believes the brothers, because the wagons were clearly sent for the specific purpose of proving that Yosef was still alive.

However, perhaps we could suggest that Yosef was sending a double message to Ya’akov:

Ya’akov plays a dual role. On the one hand, he is an individual father, an exemplary role model for every parent; an inspiration and a teacher. On the other, he represents Am Yisrael as a people; he is one of the founding fathers.

A normal father would be overjoyed at the news that his long lost son was alive after twenty-two years of unabated mourning. After never really coming to terms with losing his beloved son, a regular father would do everything he could to believe such fantastic news, so why does Ya’akov act in the opposite manner?

Perhaps we can suggest that Ya’akov’s natural paternal instinct really wanted to believe that his ‘little Yosef’ was still alive, but as patriarch, as leader of Am Yisrael, he not only needed to know whether Yosef was physically alive, but rather whether his soul had survived the Egyptian experience. And he had good reason.

He himself had spent twenty years in Lavan’s house, in an atmosphere that constantly attacked his religious beliefs; he himself had managed to survive the trials and tribulations of a life surrounded by idolaters, and return ‘shalem’ two decades later to Eretz Yisrael. After being through similar experiences, but at age sixty-three,[3] and with the help of fourteen years in yeshiva[4] beforehand, he could not believe that Yosef, who left home at just seventeen with no preparation, had the spiritual fortitude to survive after spending over two decades in Egypt, the most licentious and immoral environment in the world. And his skepticism was only compounded by the information that Yosef was holding high office in Egypt.

But then he saw the wagons, and “his heart was revived.”  Yosef was telling him that he had indeed retained his spirituality. Not only had he not regressed since he left home; he had grown from strength to strength. The symbolism of the wagons was that the last Torah portion that Yosef had been learning with his father was still fresh in his mind, twenty-two years later.

With these fascinating insights, we can now interpret our verses as follows:

And they went up from Egypt, and came to the Land of Cana’an, to Ya’akov their father. And they told him, saying, ‘Yosef is still alive, and he is governor over the whole of the land of Egypt.’ And his heart fainted, (realizing that Yosef had been under such spiritual strain for so long,) for he did not believe (it possible that Yosef had survived spiritually) them. And they told him all that Yosef had said to them, and he saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to carry him, and their father Ya’akov’s spirit was revived (having now received confirmation that Yosef had remained ‘shalem’ in Egypt).

After satisfactorily explaining the meaning of the text, we are still left to fathom why Ya’akov and Yosef were learning the specific parasha about wagons all those years ago, and exactly which ‘wagon parasha’ they were learning.

The most famous version of the midrash suggests that Ya’akov and Yosef were learning about the breaking of the heifer’s neck. The Hebrew word for ‘heifer’ is ‘egla,’ and the Hebrew for ‘wagon’ is the similar-sounding ‘agala.’ The Torah explains that if a corpse is found on the road, and the cause of death is unknown, the Sanhedrin is to be notified immediately. It then dispatched five elders to measure the distance between the corpse and the nearest community, which was then collectively accused of this tragedy. If a small village was nearer than a larger city, the guilt was attached to the latter even though it was further away.

After determining the closest city, the court of that city would have to bury the dead person and bring a heifer - less than two years old and never borne a yoke - to an untilled valley where the expiation ritual took place. The court then chopped off its head with an axe, and washed their hands, proclaiming that their hands had not shed the blood of the dead person.

Rashi[5] asks: Do we really believe that these Rabbis have to explicitly absolve themselves of direct responsibility for killing this man?

He explains that the Rabbis are stating that they never encountered this man, and therefore he left town alone, without food and without escort. The tragedy would never have occurred had they been aware of this man and his predicament. They need to ascertain that they are not even indirectly to blame for the terrible events that occurred in such close proximity to their town.

But what’s the connection to Ya’akov and Yosef? Why were they discussing this parasha?

The Maharal, in Gur Aryeh (Bereishit 45:27,) suggests that perhaps Ya’akov was explaining to Yosef why he was accompanying him at the start of his journey to his brothers; he was ensuring that Yosef did not leave town unescorted even though Yosef felt that this was an unnecessary bother for his father.

Such an understanding would have deep significance twenty-two years later. Yosef sends wagons to his father in order to tell him, ‘you accompanied me in exactly the way you should have done; you brought me up correctly; you did all that you could have done to protect me; I do not hold you in anyway responsible for what has happened to me.’

Just as Yosef generously forgives his brothers almost immediately upon revealing his identity, he wants to be doubly sure that his father does not bear any guilt regarding his exile. He wants Ya’akov to have no self-recriminations whatsoever.

As we have implied, Yosef could be saying even more. Bread and water signify the basic sustenance of any human being; a town’s leaders are expected to look after any traveler who enters their town. We can compare this to education too. Educators have a responsibility to prepare their students for the challenges that lie ahead along the journey of life. If and when the student fails - even though the bulk of responsibility must be placed on the student - there will always be an element of responsibility placed on the teacher, for perhaps inadequately preparing his charge for the tasks that lay ahead.

With that in mind, we could suggest that Yosef was absolving Ya’akov, not only of the responsibility of physical protection, but also of any educational liability. Yosef is insistent that his father should understand that what happened was not because of faulty educational standards at home. 

The less famous version of the midrash explains that Ya’akov was discussing the wagons of the Mishkan before parting from Yosef. It could be argued that this version makes more sense. Our verse clearly explains that Ya’akov saw the wagons and was convinced. According to the first midrashic version, he was not convinced by the wagons, but by the cattle hauling the wagons, mentally associating the Hebrew words, as mentioned above. 

The second version is a more direct allusion. He saw actual wagons, and that was sufficient proof, because that is exactly what he had been discussing with Yosef when they had last seen each other.

But what is the significance of the wagons in the Mishkan? We know that the tribe of Levi was divided into three families: Kehat, Gershon, and Merari. The work in the Mishkan was split between them, though according to a certain hierarchy. When Bnei Yisrael traveled in the desert, Gershon and Merari were responsible for the structure and infrastructure of the Mishkan, and they used wagons to transport the beams and curtains from place to place. The families of Kehat were responsible for transporting the holy vessels, which could only be moved by hand.

One could easily conclude that the Kehat family was greater than the Gershon and Merari families. The people chosen to move the Holy Ark, the Menorah, etc. must surely be of higher status than the families chosen to move wooden beams! However, Judaism doesn’t work like that. We are judged not by what we do but by how we do it. The hierarchical infrastructure within the Jewish people should never lead any member of Am Yisrael to feel self-important and egocentric.

Now we can understand why Ya’akov was discussing this episode with Yosef. Yosef had dreams; dreams that placed him high up on the hierarchal ladder of Bnei Ya’akov. This could well have led to delusions of grandeur, and so Ya’akov wanted to preempt this by learning the parasha of the wagons of the Mishkan. Using the example of Kehat, he explained to Yosef that all of the brothers played an equally crucial role in the future of Am Yisrael. Even though Kehat had the honor of carrying the Ark, there would be nowhere to place that Ark if Gershon and Merari did not provide the infrastructure.

“Yosef, my son, everyone has a role to play in life. Even if you are destined to lead the Jewish people, it does not make you any more important than any other Jew.” 

This may have been the last mussar message that Ya’akov gave his son. Twenty-two years later, as Governor of Egypt, Yosef sends a very important message to his father:

“Dad, my dreams have been realized! I have reached a position of leadership, and I am excellently placed to help you and my brothers in the exile that is about to begin. However, I want you to know, that I have not forgotten the parasha that we were learning all those years ago. Despite my position, I remember the wagons; I remember that there can be no place for the Ark if there is no Mishkan. I understand that everyone in Am Yisrael is a crucial part of the Almighty’s chosen people.”

When Ya’akov hears that Yosef is now Governor in Egypt, and he sees the wagons, he realizes that his son has absorbed the lessons of his youth. Yosef understands the importance and status of every Jew. Only then does Ya’akov believe. Only when Ya’akov sees tolerance, understanding, and sensitivity amongst his sons, an ideal he had waited over two decades to see; only then does Yaakov renew his belief, not only in the fact that Yosef is alive, but perhaps more importantly, in the long term survival of his people!


[1] Bereishit Rabbah 94:3.

[2] See Bamidbar 6: 1-8.

[3] See Rashi at the end of Parashat Toldot, Bereishit 28:9.

[4] See p.?

[5] Devarim 21:7.

 

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