But when they recounted all that Joseph had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to transport him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived. (Bereishit 45:27)
The long-awaited child
who fills his mother’s arms
gazes at his father’s joyous face, but
inexorably the wheel revolves:
his mother dies in childbirth; and
his father’s light is quenched.
The father’s treasured son,
adorned in jaunty splendor,
recounts his shining dreams, but
inexorably the wheel revolves:
his brothers cast him out
to exile far from home.
His master’s favorite slave,
comely and unspoiled,
brings blessing to the house, but
inexorably the wheel revolves:
he finds himself in jail.
Plucked from prison’s cell
he comes before the king;
his visions are fulfilled, but
inexorably the wheel revolves:
the pain wells up, of anguished years –
his father’s and his own.
He sends a cipher to his father:
a cavalcade of wagons
conveying cryptic cargo.
Inexorably the wheels revolve:
they inch towards the exile
whence redemption will emerge.
In parashat Vayiggash, we read that Joseph finally reveals his true identity to his brothers and reassures them of his good intentions. Having ascertained that their father is still alive, he sends the brothers back to Canaan in wagons to bring Jacob down to Egypt so that the family will not suffer the effects of the famine, and they can all live near each other. The brothers arrive home and impart the wondrous news that Joseph is alive and ruling over all Egypt. We read, “Jacob’s heart went numb for he did not believe them.” Then we learn that when the brothers tell him all that Joseph has told them, and when Jacob sees the wagons that Joseph sent to transport him, only then his spirit revives and he believes.
So the commentators wonder what it was about the wagons that Jacob saw, which convinced him of the veracity of the brothers’ story and “revived his spirit”.
Rashi, citing the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 94:3), comments that Joseph sent Jacob a sign of what they had been learning at the time they were parted, the section of the “eglah arufah – the broken-necked heifer.” Rashi makes a word play on the word for wagons – “agalot“, and the word for heifer, “eglah“.
Although the simple reading of the text suggests that there was something about physically seeing the wagons that revived Jacob, the Midrash seems to be hinting at something more.
In a commentary on this parasha from 2012, http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/vayigash-wagons-laden-with-meaning/, Rabbi Mois Navon notes a teaching from the Talmud (Berachot 31a) “that one should never part from his friend “with ordinary conversation, or joking, or frivolity, or idle talk, but with some matter of halacha (divine law)… so that he should remember him thereby.” That is, when one engages his friend in words that transcend time – as opposed to words of ephemera – their relationship will, correspondingly, transcend time. The relationship between Jacob and Joseph, indeed, transcended time, and their learning served not only that they remember one another when about to part but that they identify one another when about to meet. “And the spirit of Jacob their father revived.” ”
Rabbi Navon looks at the text of the section on the broken-necked heifer: “If one be found slain … and it be not known who hath smitten him;…[then] all the elders of that city, who are nearest unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley. And they shall speak and say: ‘Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Forgive, O Lord, Thy people Israel, whom Thou hast redeemed …’ And the blood shall be forgiven them. (Devarim 21:1-8).
He says, ‘This “halacha”, then, is not just any “halacha” but one of great relevance to Joseph and Jacob. Tellingly, our Midrash does not say that the two were learning the case together, but rather that Joseph himself was “engaged” in it – in the unsolved murder – for indeed, Joseph himself was the subject. And if Joseph was the unsolved murder, then Jacob, as patriarch, would be the “elder” held accountable.
“Yet why would the elder(s) be held accountable? The Talmud (Sotah 46b) explains that, in making the statement, “Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it”, they, at one and the same time, acknowledge responsibility for communal safety yet absolve themselves of wrongdoing – saying, in effect, that the man found dead “did not come to us for help that we dismissed him without food, nor did we see him that we let him go without escort.” Conversely, Jacob held himself responsible without absolution, for he, explains the Zohar (Vayigash 210b), sent Joseph without food and without escort.”
Rabbi Navon adds that Joseph’s words “all the words” – which Rashi explains refer to the teaching of the eglah arufah “are words of forgiveness and atonement for an unsolved murder.
It was to these redemptive words that “the spirit of Jacob was revived”; for, it was these words that both resolved Jacob’s guilty conscience and neutralized the burning question of whodunit.” So Rabbi Navon depicts the wagons symbolically carrying a “profound message of forgiveness”.
In a commentary on Vayigash, http://etzion.org.il/en/parashat-vayigash-and-he-saw-wagons, Rabbi Itamar Eldar cites from the same Midrash:
“Rabbi Levi said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan bar Sha’ul: He said to them: “If he believes you, fine; if not, say to him: ‘When I took my departure from you, was I not studying the section dealing with egla arufa [the heifer whose neck is broken].'” This is the meaning of the verse: “And when he saw the wagons… the spirit [of Ya’akov their father] revived. And Israel said: It is enough [alternatively, ‘great’].” My son Yosef’s strength is great, for various troubles have befallen him, and he has remained firm in his righteousness, much more than I have, for I have sinned saying: “My way is hid from the Lord” (Yeshaya 40:27), and I am confident that I have [a share in that] about which it is said: ‘O how great is Your goodness’ (Tehilim 31:20).”
Addressing the end of the Midrash cited above, Rabbi Eldar examines the words attributed to Jacob. Here the latter alludes to Joseph’s steadfastness during his troubles, compared with his own in which his faith faltered. Rabbi Eldar suggests that Jacob learns about this stance of trust from Joseph who lived in exile, without ever losing his hope and trust that God remains with Him wherever he goes. Thus the Midrash attributes to Jacob these verses which express his acknowledgment of Joseph’s “mantra” “O how great is Your goodness,” compared with his own, previously: “My way is hidden from the Lord” …
We also see in the text earlier, how Joseph reassures his brothers three times, saying, “God sent me.” (Bereishit 45:5,7,8)
In his book A Partner in Holiness* Rabbi Jonathan Slater cites Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev in his Torah commentary, Kedushat Levi, on the verse above, (Bereishit 45:27. The Berdichever says, “In this manner Joseph sent a message to Jacob not to fear exile, for it is what will turn events toward redemption, just as the bad is the cause (sibbah) of the good. What was the form of the message? The word “wagons” AGaLot is derived from the word for circular (IGGuL). The turning of events (cause, sibbah) is likened to a wheel, something circular…”
Rabbi Slater notes that Rabbi Levi Yitzhak clearly bases his teaching on the same idea as Rashi cites, yet he has taken it to a different place, and Rabbi Slater wonders why. He surmises that Rabbi Levi Yitzhak is bringing a mystical teaching that is more profound than that suggested by Rashi. Rabbi Slater says, “It is not just that Joseph has maintained his holy status in idolatrous Egypt, as the Midrash would have it. Joseph is sending a message about a much larger matter: the nature of life in exile, the life into which Jacob and his descendants were about to sink. This exile will not be – is not even now – a final destination; it will turn into something new. It is a necessary stage in the final redemption. [As we read in the Covenant between the Pieces (Bereishit 15: 13-16) in which God foretells to Abram of the descent into Egypt and the subsequent redemption]. More, Jacob’s descent into Egypt will set in motion the forces that will turn the wheel of fortune, that will move processes forward to cause the emergence of redemption.”
Rabbi Slater suggests that in this mystical view, Divine emanation, whereby God’s will for the world is expressed, “needs a mechanism by which it can come into being. The wheel of life – that one thing leads to another, that one thing follows another, that one thing forces the emergence of the next and draws its successor in its train – is that mechanism.”
So Rabbi Slater concludes that Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s message to us is: “Do not turn away from whatever you face – including exile (suffering). Remaining present to it, accepting that it is true in this moment, makes possible the perception of change, the emergence of some new situation. This is how exile is the precedent for redemption, how bad leads to the good; it participates in and helps generate the energy that leads to its own transformation and end.”
* A Partner in Holiness: Deepening Mindfulness, Practicing Compassion and Enriching Our Lives through the Wisdom of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev’s Kedushat Levi by Rabbi Jonathan P. Slater.