Wednesday, December 27, 2006

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Secret Messages and Physical Protection

The Torah tells us that at first Ya’akov refused to believe his sons that Yosef was alive. Only when “they related the words that Yosef had spoken to them, and he saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to transport him” then “the spirit of their father Ya’akov was revived” (Genesis 45; 27). With the words and the wagons, Yosef managed to convey the conclusive message to his father that he was alive, which carried more weight than the words of the other brothers. The Torah does not tell us what the secret code words were that Yosef sent to his father, but Rashi (on verse 27) cites the Talmud which explains the riddle of the wagons. “He gave them a sign. When Yosef last saw his father he had been learning the section of egla arufa (the calf used as atonement when a corpse is discovered and the murderer cannot be found) with him.” The Hebrew word for wagon (agala), is the same root as the word for calf (egla), therefore when Ya’akov saw the wagons he realised that it must be a message from Yosef, and not an impostor.
There are two problems with this interpretation of the message from Yosef. Firstly, how did Ya’akov know to interpret the wagons as a play on words of the final section he had learnt with his son. After 22 years how could Yosef even be sure that his father would remember what their final words together were? Secondly, if we look at the preceding section we find that the wagons were not sent at Yosef’s initiative, but at the directive of Pharaoh. “Pharaoh told Yosef ... ‘Now you are instructed to do the following: take wagons from Egypt for your small children and wives, and also use them for your father....’ ... Yosef gave them wagons according to Pharaoh's instructions, and he also provided them with food for the journey.”
The egla arufa calf is not a sacrifice, but a form of atonement brought by the heads of a city which is nearest to where a dead body is found. There is an elaborate public ceremony involving the Sanhedrin who must come from Jerusalem to measure distances and oversee the procedure. The whole event is intended as a very public message, not only to the unknown murderer, but to those who didn’t do enough to prevent the murder taking place. “The elders shall speak up and say, ‘Our hands have not spilt blood, and our eyes have not witnessed it’.” (Deuteronomy 21; 7). Obviously they were not the murderers, but they are nevertheless responsible for allowing a wayfarer to pass through their city, without offering lodgings for the night and an entourage to protect them on their journey.
When Ya’akov sent Yosef to his brothers before they sold him the Torah states, “He sent him from the valley of Chevron” (Genesis 37; 14). This means that Ya’akov accompanied his son part of the way to Shechem in an attempt to prevent any danger befalling him. This is what the Talmud means when it states that the last portion they studied together was the egla arufa. Ya’akov was involved in teaching his son the importance of accompanying someone on a journey in order that they arrive at their destination safely. Rabbeinu Bachaya explains that Ya’akov never found out that it was the brothers who sold Yosef, and assumed that Yosef had become lost on the journey, and was kidnapped by others. So when Ya’akov saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to bring him to Egypt he understood that Yosef was offering him safe passage - the message of the egla arufa. It was more than a play on words, Yosef was literally giving his father the same message that he had learnt from him when they last saw each other.
The first person in the Torah who made a point of sending an entourage to accompany a traveller was the Pharaoh of Avraham’s time (probably an ancestor of Yosef’s Pharaoh). “Pharaoh put men in charge of Avram, and they sent him on his way along with his wife and all that was his.” (ibid. 12; 20). This then is the paradigm for the message of the egla arufa. Even though it was Pharaoh who instructed the wagons to be sent to Ya’akov, he was continuing with his family tradition of accompanying travellers. Therefore the Torah uses seemingly redundant words, “Yosef gave them wagons according to Pharaoh's instructions.” This too was what Yosef was telling his father. The new Pharaoh is like his grandfather, and provides protection for those who come into his realm.

Shabbat Shalom

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