“And when he saw the Agalot which Yosef had sent to carry him, the spirit of Yaacov their father revived” Breishit 45: 46
Rashi explains: “And they told him all the words of Yosef: He sent them a sign of what they were learning at the time Yosef parted from him, the parsha of “Egla Arufa” The spirit of Yaacov their father revived: the Shechina which had left him, returned”.
Rashi is pointing out to us that Yaacov became certain of Yosefs’ well-being and true identity through a secret sign known only to the two of them. This beautiful explanation leaves us however, with a number of difficulties: The laws of Egla Arufa are difficult and almost esoteric. How did Yaacov and Yosef come to be learning them at the moment they were parting? If so, was this the only secret sign Yosef could think of to tell his father that he was alive? And finally, why should relating this Mitzva cause the Shechina to rest on Yaacov after he had been without prophecy since Yosef’s disappearance?
Let’s review the mitzvah of Egla Arufa.
This mitzvah, appearing in Devarim 21:4, relates to a situation in which a man is found dead between two cities. The city which is nearer to the corpse must not only bury the man, but is also held responsible for his death. In fact, the elders of the town must bring an Egla Arufa, and proclaim their innocence.
One of the ideas behind this Mitzva is acceptance of the responsibility that cities have for travelers. This responsibility includes feeding, escorting, furnishing hotels for the travelers, and keeping the roads around the city safe. When proclaiming their innocence the elders are really saying “We did all that was in our power to safeguard this man in his journey. What happened was beyond our control”.
When Yaacov is notified by his sons of Yosef’s apparent demise, Yaacov recalls the circumstances surrounding Yosefs’ journey from the area near Chevron all the way north to Shechem. His mind is troubled by the question: Did he fulfill his duties towards his son on this long journey? The similarities between the situation in Egla Arufa and what has happened to his son seem almost too hard to bear. Somewhere between his city of departure and his destination Yosef was eaten by a wild animal. Does Yaacov perhaps see himself responsible to some degree for his son’s death?
In Egla Arufa there are two options. Either the city of departure is to blame for the tragedy, or the city of destination is responsible. Yosef realizes his father’s probable feelings of guilt, and offers his father an alternative option. Neither you nor my brothers are to blame for what happened. Both the journey and the enslavement were God’s way of bringing me here. (As he previously told the brothers “It was not you who sent me here, but God”.) Yosef’s message is, it is not necessary for Yaacov or the brothers to bring an Egla Arufa. It was God’s hand.
The Yerushalmi understands things differently, interpreting Agalot as wagons. This interpretation brings us back to our original difficulty: how did seeing wagons revive Yaacov?
Ancient history offers an explanation. Egyptians were unfamiliar with the wagon, until they were overrun by the Hyxsus tribes. For that reason, they symbolized status and power. We know from Egyptian art that only those of high status, who were close to the king, were allowed to ride in them. This can explain why of all the gifts Yaacov sent his father, only the wagons required special permission from Pharaoh. When we look back at Yosef’s second dream, it becomes clear why sending this symbol of status to his father was so important. When Yosef told this dream to his father, it was Yaacov who interpreted it as a sign of Yosefs’ impending Malchut. Yaacov knew that one of his sons must lead the family after his death. We see from his special treatment of Yosef, that he believed Yosef to be the chosen one. The dreams were a heavenly sign that reaffirmed his belief.
Then, suddenly, Yosef is gone. Yaacov is torn between two realities: Yosef as the designated leader, and the possibility of his demise. What is going on? If God wanted Yosef to be the future leader, how is it possible that he is dead?
According to the Yerushalmi, Yosef sends his father wagons that symbolize kingship. He sends the message: Do you remember my dreams? They have all come true.
This explanation clarifies another difficult Rashi in the parasha. According to Rashi, the reason only Yosef and not Yaacov cried at their meeting (Bereshit 46:29), is that Yaacov was reciting Kriat Shema. We may ask: for twenty odd years Yaacov looked for his beloved son, anticipating their reunion-only to miss that anticipated moment because he is saying Kriat Shema? How? Chazal must have a message for us.
Kriat Shema proclaims God’s unity in the world. Man, limited as he is, cannot see the world in a global view. Each incident in a man’s life is viewed individually. The total picture of how everything merges into a complete master plan is just beyond man’s grasp. For that reason, good and bad seem to be two conflicting forces, seemingly emanating from different sources. Mans’ essence, hides from him the reality, that in the deepest sense, both good and bad are part of the same picture, equally part of the way God rules the world.
When Yaacov saw his son before him, garbed in royalty, the two clashing realities in which he had been living (Yosef the designated leader, and his blood stained coat) came together and became one, no longer contradicting each other. Yosef’s destiny to lead, disappearance and reappearance all became part of a greater picture.
Yaacov’s Kriat Shema, proclaimed at the moment of his meeting with his son, is the truest expression of gratitude and faith: recognition of God in all his ways, and an understanding of God’s unity in the world. God is truly One.