Divrei Azriel: What's With the Wagons?

This week's Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Assaf Bednarsh. Divrei Azriel is edited by Gidon Schneider.

YU RIETS Israel Kollel,

Jacob, whose spirit has been crushed and depressed throughout the long twenty-two years since Joseph's disappearance, finally receives the joyous tidings that Joseph is alive and well in Egypt.  However, the Torah tells us that this news report alone was not enough to lift Jacob's spirits.  Only after he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to bring him down to Egypt did Jacob recover his vitality. 

The Medrash Rabbah (94:3), wondering why these wagons should make such a crucial difference to Jacob, explains that the wagons, called agalot in Hebrew, hinted at the other meaning of the word agalot, calves, and specifically the mitzvah of  eglah arufah, the ritual killing of a calf performed on the occasion of an unsolved murder.  Joseph sent not only actual wagons, but a secret message to his father, that the last sugya, topic, that they had learned together before their separation was that of  eglah arufah.  When Jacob heard this piece of information, which no impostor could possibly know, he believed the brothers, and his spirit returned.

This medrash, while answering the problem it set out to solve, leaves even more perplexing questions in its wake.  Why didn't he believe any other evidence, even the firsthand testimony of his beloved Binyamin, until he received the message of the  eglah arufah?  What is the particular significance of  eglah arufah, as opposed to any other sugya?  And is there any real connection, other than a play on words, between the physical wagons that Joseph sent and the theoretical sugya of eglah arufah?

Perhaps we can answer our first question based on the very next medrash, which explains Jacob's comment of  "my son is alive"  as marveling at the greatness of Joseph himself, who remained observant and kept his faith throughout all the tribulations that he suffered.  This may be the hidden meaning of the agalot as well.  Jacob believed that Joseph was alive and the viceroy of Egypt based on the brothers' eyewitness testimony, but he knew nothing of Joseph's spiritual state.  What good was it to be reunited with a Joseph who had assimilated into Egyptian society and become the opposite of everything his father had hoped he would be?  What comfort is there in hearing that he need not sit shivah for Joseph's death, if he instead must sit shivah for Joseph's intermarriage and assimilation?  It was only when Jacob heard about the sugya of eglah arufah, when he heard that Joseph was still "holding" in Torah and mitzvos after all those years in Egypt, that he knew his dreams had come true, and his spirit could once again soar.

If we look further into the mitzvah of eglah arufah, we may be able to answer our remaining questions as well.  The Torah tells us that when the spiritual leaders of the town pray to be cleansed of the guilt of an unsolved murder, they must attest that they themselves did not commit the murder.  Chazal explain, in Talmud Tractate Sotah, that we do not actually suspect the rabbis of homicide; rather, we are concerned that they may have been indirectly responsible for the tragic crime because they let a visitor travel on a dangerous road without provisions and proper escort. 

Only if the communal leaders can attest that they in fact looked after the safety of wayfarers to the best of their ability can they perform the mitzvah of eglah arufah.  Based on this understanding, we can suggest that the medrashic interpretation of the incident of the wagons is not wholly distinct from its literal meaning.  Joseph sent the wagons al pi Paro, under special license from Pharaoh. 

These were not just regular vehicles, but a special escort provided by Pharaoh himself.  Joseph may have been afraid for his father's safety while travelling the treacherous desert road from Israel to Egypt, so he sent special wagons as a sign of royal protection, to scare off any bandits who might be tempted to attack Jacob's caravan.  Joseph's wagons represented his fulfillment of the mitzvah of eglah arufah, and by sending these wagons he not only hinted at the last sugya that he had learned with his father, but also demonstrated that he was committed to the practical implementation of the theoretical sugyas he had learned in his youth.  No wonder that this unique combination of learning and practice brought joy to Jacob's heart.

Continuing in this line of thought, we can posit yet another layer of meaning to this medrash.  If Jacob and Joseph were learning the sugya of eglah arufah when Jacob sent him to check on his brothers on that fateful day, we can imagine that Jacob was concerned to fulfill this halakhah, and wary of sending Joseph on his way without proper escort.  But no doubt Jacob reassured himself that since he was sending Joseph to meet his own brothers, they themselves would protect him from any danger, and he was not obligated to send a special escort.  When Joseph subsequently disappeared, Jacob must have been beset by feelings of guilt, questioning his judgement and wondering if perhaps he was responsible for Joseph's death, for the brothers did not provide the protection that he had anticipated. 

Jacob may have wondered if the eglah arufah was relevant to Joseph's fate at all.  For the eglah arufah is brought only in a case where it is not known who committed the crime, and in this case Jacob suspected that he well knew the identity of the perpetrators, that his own sons had cold-heartedly murdered their baby brother.  (See Rashi on 42:36.)  With these horrifying thoughts on his mind, how could he ever be comforted?

Joseph, knowing how much it would pain his father to know the true story of his abduction, and witnessing the sincerity of his brothers' teshuvah, repentance decided not to extract his ultimate revenge on his brothers, and resolved to keep the secret to himself.  (He followed the halakhah that it is permissible to bend the truth for the sake of peace; see Rashi on 18:13.) 

By sending the message of eglah arufah, he told his father that in fact, the brothers need not bear any guilt for his abduction, and that Jacob himself was not negligent and should not feel guilty for Joseph's suffering.  Rather, it was the hand of Hashem that insured that Joseph would be sent down to Egypt in order to fulfill the Divine plan of Jewish history.  When Jacob understood this message, when he saw his family reunited in a state of forgiveness and harmony, his spirit was truly freed from the worries which had shackled it for so many years.