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Vayigash 5773

By: Rav Yonatan Horovitz

The drama reaches a climatic peak in this week's parsha as Yosef finally reveals his true identity to his brothers. Following a series of explanations and many shed tears, Yosef outlines his plan for the family at least for the foreseeable future. The brothers were to return home, collect their father and then resettle together in Egypt for the duration of the famine. (Why they actually stay longer is beyond the scope of this shiur but it is worth looking at the comments of Kli Yakar on the final verse of this parsha.) When the brothers arrive back in Eretz Yisrael they inform Ya'akov that Yosef is still arrive and is in fact viceroy of Egypt. Ya'akov does not believe them at first. But then we find the following two pesukim: "But when they recounted all that Yosef had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to transport him, the spirit of their father Ya'akov revived. Enough, said Yisrael, my son Yosef is still alive, I must go and see him before I die." (Bereishit 45:27-28) What changed in their report or in Ya'akov's attitude that caused him to believe the fact that Yosef was indeed alive? We will begin our analysis by referring to the well known and often misunderstood Rashi on this verse. Rashi, quoting a statement of Chazal found both in Midrash Rabba and Tanchuma, explains that Yosef sent Ya'akov a sign. He sent wagons, agalot, to remind Ya'akov of the section of the Torah that they had been studying when they were last together, that of the eglah arufa, the calf that has its neck broken. Apart from the obvious notion that this midrash is based on a play on words – agala and eglah – the entire supposition is somewhat strange. Eglah Arufa refers to a situation in which a dead body was found and is unaccounted for. It would appear that the person met an unnatural death yet there are no witnesses to this event. As the Torah describes in Devarim, chapter 21, the elders of the city found to be closest to the body have to perform a ceremony at the center of which a calf's neck is broken. The elders then make a proclamation stating that they (or members of their city) were not responsible for the said person's untimely death. Why would Ya'akov and Yosef have been learning about this? This raises the larger question of how to understand the statements of Chazal that the Avot kept the Torah. Without going into a detailed discussion of that matter, we suggest that the comment here about eglah arufa refers not to the details of the actual mitzvah but rather to the underlying values that it represents. Many of the commentators explain, based on various statements of Chazal, that the elders have to exonerate themselves and their city of blame lest they caused this person's demise. How could they be considered responsible? Chazal explain that maybe the members of the town did not offer lodgings to this guest and so he was left to wander around on his own. Alternately, they did not give him food and so he had to fend for himself. Any one of these situations could result in the stranger/potential guest encountering bandits, robbers or simple exposure to the elements which resulted in his death. In other words, the rationale of the Torah in requiring the elders to make this statement is the fear that this community did not look after the strangers that came within its borders. This sense of concern for others, of the need to act with responsibility towards other human beings, is what underlies the mitzvah of eglah arufa. If we return to Ya’akov and Yosef we can now suggest that Ya’akov was teaching Yosef the concept of social responsibility, of the need to take care of those around us. This concept, which underlies the mitzvah of eglah arufa, is something which Yosef would appear to have internalized. Ya’akov may have not believed the brothers when they originally told him that Yosef was alive because if that was indeed the case, Yosef himself should have come to see him and bring him down to Egypt. The fact that he is viceroy of Egypt is not sufficient explanation for his absence at this auspicious time. However, once the brothers elaborate on what Yosef was involved in, the fact that he was providing sustenance for the entire region, then Ya’akov understood why Yosef could not travel to Eretz Yisrael. Yosef had internalized the message that Ya’akov himself had been teaching him: that of communal responsibility. Yosef was playing a crucial role as distributor of food and could not leave his post even to see his aging father. Ya’akov understood that by acting in this way, Yosef was confirming the fact that he remained true to those ideals that he had learned from his father so many years ago. With this understanding, Ya’akov felt refreshed and decided that it was he who must make the journey to see Yosef. Kli Yakar adds a further dimension to Ya’akov’s acceptance of the fact that Yosef was alive. In connection with the “eglah arufa” midrash quoted above, Kli Yakar points out that we measure from the body to the closest city and hold the inhabitants responsible for the death of the stranger. In a similar way, Yosef wanted Ya’akov to consider why they had been separated all these years. More specifically Yosef believed that Ya’akov had suffered the agony of thinking that his beloved son was dead because of a sin he had committed in an analogous realm. As Ya’akov did not fulfill the mitzvah of kibbud av ve’em for twenty two years whilst he was with Lavan and then on his return journey from Padan Aram, so Yosef was not with Ya’akov for the same amount of time. Once Ya’akov had come to this conclusion he understood that his suffering was complete, he had received his punishment “mida kenegged mida” and he therefore concluded that Yosef was indeed alive. These comments of Kli Yakar, while they cannot be seen as “p’shat”, raise an interesting question as to why we would consider Ya’akov’s absence from his parents household as a sin. Surely Ya’akov had to flee from his brother as instructed by Rivka. In addition, it was Yitzchak who told Ya’akov to go to Padan Aram to find a wife. Why would Ya’akov be punished for not being able to perform the mitzvah of “kibbud av ve’em” if his absence was actually a result of him listening and performing his parents’ wishes?! We offer two suggestions. First of all, part of the reason for Ya’akov’s departure was due to the fact that he had tricked Yitzchak into giving him the bracha destined for Esav. This incensed Esav and caused him to want to kill his brother. Yes, we could give lots of explanations as to why this may have been the right thing to do but in the end it was still an act of trickery. In fact, I once heard an interesting question in connection with this, posed by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. When Ya’akov finally found out what had happened to Yosef, why did he not ask his sons why they had lied to him all those years earlier, thereby causing him to believe Yosef to be dead. Rabbi Riskin explained that Ya’akov did not do so because he already knew their response. The brothers would have simply said toYa’akov: well, you lied to your father…. This suggests that Ya’akov was haunted by this notion, the fact that he had deceived his father, for his entire life. Maybe that is what the Kli Yakar means here by stating that Ya’akov felt that all that had befallen him was a result of that act of trickery. This brings us to our second point. As we noted above, Ya’akov may have been justified in using deceptive means to take the bracha for himself. His ensuing journey to Lavan was also legitimate. However, despite this fact, he still missed out on serving his aging parents for so many years. Yes, he was forced to leave the family home but this still meant he was neglecting his duties as a son. This was not a black and white decision. Ya’akov still felt regret for all those years he spent away from his parents even if they were justified. This he now fully comprehends, and feels that his separation from Yosef is partial payback for what had happened between him and his parents. Often in life we have to choose between two tracks in life both of which have advantages and disadvantages. The fact that we choose one path, believing it to be the correct decision, does not mean that we are not losing out by not choosing the alternative. Life requires us to make decisions, almost all of which are not black and white. Having said that, I am not sure that we should all feel the same remorse as Ya’akov Avinu seems to have felt. But then again, we do not have the future of Am Yisrael on our shoulders – or perhaps we do. Shabbat shalom, Rav Yonatan Comments and questions are welcome ryh@harova.org

 

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