This week is certainly the highlight of the Yosef saga. We read about breath taking moments of drama and we all rejoice in the happy ending of the multifaceted story that we have been following.
One of the stranger aspects of the story is the mentioning of the wagons sent to bring Yaakov and clan down to Egypt. At first glance they would seem to be a very technical detail, hardly worth mentioning at all, when in fact they get a very elaborate part in the story. The commentaries and Midrashim have discussed the wagons in at least three different ways, and I would like to offer something new.
The password –
Rashi, quoting the Midrash, is clearly bothered by the prominence of the wagons, especially in 45:27 when a simple reading of the passuk is that only after having seen the wagons does Yaakov fully understand the story and accept it. What was it about the wagons that so inspired him to believe? The answer that Rashi uses is that the wagons hint to the final chapter of father-son learning that Yosef enjoyed with Yaakov before his disappearance. They were involved with the issue of Egla Arufa. In fact this has nothing to do with wagons at all but the two words have the same ring egla/agala, or possibly the wagons were pulled by oxen which would be a closer connection. (There is another version of the Midrash that says that they were learning about the wagons that were to be used in the service of the Mishkan, which is obviously a better fit.)
According to this view the wagons serve as a secret password and signal that Yosef sends his father that only the two of them could know.
The moving van –
Sforno sees the wagons as the tool that was used to convince Yaakov of the urgency of moving to Egypt. The brothers did not simply return home with an idea but the wheels (literally) were already set in motion. The scene is almost as if the moving van is outside and the engine is still running; there is no reason to think about anything, the decision has been made.
The limousine –
Many of the commentaries point to another central part of the story. The very usage of wagons was quite peculiar indeed. Most travel, and even movement of merchandise, was by donkey as we have seen in the last couple of weeks with the travels of the brothers back and forth from Cannan. The very idea of seeing a wagon pull up in front of the house was tantamount to a presidential motorcade or even helicopter suddenly appearing in some backwater village. No one could have pulled off such a stunt had the story of Yosef not been true.
The power struggle –
I would like to suggest a different reading of the wagons and see it in the larger context where I believe the wagons represent a major struggle happening.
If we look at the entire story of Yosef we find a “rags to riches” theme. The foreign prisoner with a good head on his shoulders springs himself from jail in the strangest manner. In a very short span of time he finds himself not only free but actually the key man of the major world power. He is awarded a political marriage that signifies his newfound status, given a title, and there is nothing standing in his way. From Yosef’s perspective this is even better than his fanciful dreams as a teenager.
How did the Egyptians feel about all this? One would imagine that the average Egyptian was happy to start off. Yosef had not only saved their economy but was turning them into the world economic superpower. Of course, later on one would imagine that they lost their enthusiasm as he bought the entire Egyptian nation as well. In the first few days, weeks or months Pharaoh must have felt himself the luckiest of men to have such a brilliant advisor on his side.
However I am sure that it quickly became apparent to Pharaoh that Yosef was actually a huge threat. He had essentially made Egypt in to what it had become. This high profile young man seemed to be unstoppable and was amassing more power as each day passed and his predictions and plans played out in reality. Pharaoh was stuck. He could not get rid of him, because his ideas were actually producing all of the results and Pharaoh was clueless as to how to achieve such goals. On the other hand it must have been quite clear to anyone that Pharaoh had become nothing more than a puppet.
With this in mind I think we can understand the verses describing Yosef’s revealing himself to his brothers. Yosef says to them, “You did not send me here, rather it was God; He made me into a father of Pharaoh, a master of his house and the ruler of all of Egypt. Go quickly and tell my father and tell him – so says your son Yosef ‘God has made me master of Egypt’”. Yosef is well aware of his status.
As we continue we read that “it was heard in Pharaoh’s home that Yosef’s brothers had arrived and this was good in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servants.” Most of the commentaries explain that there was relief for the Egyptians that their leader was not simply a slave but rather he came from the aristocracy of Canaan, hence the satisfaction and joy.
I would like to suggest that their joy was for a much different reason. Yosef was no longer the “new Egyptian” who had so valiantly saved Egypt from financial ruin; he was now identified with a foreign family and could be marginalized. We can imagine the scenario of any modern day government official who rises to the top and then they find out that he is a Jew!! He clearly has allegiance to his faith and family and all of his previous work is now suspect. The joy is not only that of Pharaoh but more interestingly it comes from his surroundings, his servants and his home. His close advisors and traditional power base see this as an opportunity.
We continue to read that Pharaoh immediately gives orders (!!) (see the strong language in 45:19) to resettle Yosef’s family in Egypt. This move will cement the image of Yosef forever. As part of the royal underwriting he sends the wagons, the presidential motorcade to bring Yaakov. Yosef provides the wagons “as per Pharaoh’s instructions”. If we continue to read carefully we find that the brothers report to Yaakov that “Yosef is still alive and he is ruler of all of Egypt… Yaakov saw the wagons that Yosef sent and his spirit was revived”. The brothers tell the story that Yosef is telling. He is the leader and he sent the wagons, while from Pharaoh’s viewpoint it was actually Pharaoh himself who was calling the shots.
I believe that the Torah, as the narrator, indicates to us that Yosef was still living his glorious past when in actuality the tables had turned. The final mention of the wagons is in 46:5 where we read that Yaakov was taken to Egypt on the wagons that Pharaoh sent!
I think this explains the very peculiar events at the next section of the parsha. Yosef has to brief his brothers as to their meeting with Pharaoh and how to play their cards to allow them to settle in Goshen. Doesn’t Yosef have enough pull to resettle his family anywhere in the country? Isn’t he the most powerful man in the country? Obviously not. In fact, if we read it carefully we find that Pharaoh grants the wish to allow them to settle in Goshen but at the same time adds “if any of them are qualified you should make them shepherds for my sheep”. This does not sound like “do as you wish” but more like a feudal agreement.
If our reading is accurate we can also understand the end of next week’s parsha when Yosef has to get special permission to leave Egypt to bury Yaakov. Once again I would have expected that Yosef would not require special travel papers as he was the leader. The days of his glory are over and he is now the puppet being manipulated by Pharaoh.
I believe that this week we read of the turning point in Yosef’s career when Pharaoh decided to really “fix his wagon” (for those not familiar with the term see http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/fix+wagon)!