Part I. An Eternal Act
The Great Reunion
In this week’s reading we read about how Yosef (Joseph) revealed himself to his brothers and then sent them back to Eretz Canaan with a message to his father asking him to come down to Egypt in order to be safe during the famine that was then plaguing the land.
“Take your father and your households and come down to Mitzrayim (Egypt)and I will support you with food and all good things” (Vayigash 45:18). And that’s what happened: “Yaakov said, ‘I will go down to see my son before I die’,” and then finally, after weeks of traveling, “Yaakov and his family were approaching the land of Egypt” (ibid. 45:28, 46:28).
The Torah states that when Yosef was informed that his father’s caravan had arrived in Mitzrayim so וַיֶּאְסֹר יוֹסֵף מֶרְכַּבְתּוֹ וַיַּעַל לִקְרַאת יִשְׂרָאֵל אָבִיו – Yosef harnessed his chariot and he rode out to greet his father (Bereishis 46:29).
It means that he left the palace, took horses from the stable, harnessed them to his coach and he headed out to fulfill the mitzvah of honoring his father.
The King Forgets His Role
The Sages point out that what happened on that day was quite unusual. Yosef, after all, was the mishneh l’melech, the second in command of Egypt, and he had servants aplenty at his beck and call who did every chore for him. He could have called his right-hand servant and given the order, “Prepare my chariot,” and the word would have quickly come down to the servant in charge of the stable who would have harnessed the mishneh l’melech’s chariot. It would have been done immediately! That’s how it was done always and this day should have been no different.
And so you understand how strange it must have been in the eyes of Yosef’s servants when they saw him running into the stable in his royal garments and his crown. There’s no question that they looked askance at the lord of the house opening the stable door with his own hands and harnessing the horses to the chariot.
The servants were looking on – they wanted to do their job – but Yosef brushed them off. “Never mind,” he said, “I’ll do it by myself.” They must have shrugged their shoulders or raised their eyebrows but what could they do? Their boss didn’t allow it.
So why did he harness his carriage with his own hands? That's the question our Sages ask. And they explain (Bereishis Rabbah 55:8) that at that time Yosef forgot himself; he forgot propriety. Yosef’s great love for the mitzvah of greeting his father, caused him to forget the correct procedure. He was so happy at the opportunity to honor his father – especially after so many years when he had been deprived of this mitzvah – that now, when it finally presented itself to him, he couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. And so, he hurried out of the palace, unlocked the stable door himself, took out the horses, harnessed them to his coach and rode out to greet his long lost father.
Now we’ll fast forward 210 years. We are now more than two centuries after this incident and the Bnei Yisroel are finally leaving Mitzrayim. After suffering so many plagues, makkos, Pharaoh finally yielded and set them free and now they were marching away from Egypt towards Eretz Canaan.
And yet as soon as he did that, he regretted it. מַה זֹּאת עָשִׂינוּ כִּי שִׁלַּחְנוּ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵעָבְדֵנוּ – “What is this we have done?” said Pharaoh, “We just sent out such a multitude from serving us!” (Shemos 14:5). When he came to his senses and realized that he had just lost a tremendous workforce that labored on his behalf day and night for nothing he immediately had second thoughts. He was foaming with rage: “It’s preposterous what I just did! To let that scum go free and also take our money with them?! So many slaves! So much wealth! What did I do that I sent them out?! Did I go mad?!”
At that moment Pharaoh was overcome by such anger that he decided to bring them back. He was so eager to recoup his loss that he ran out of the palace. אָמַר אוֹיֵב אֶרְדֹּף אַשִּׂיג אֲחַלֵּק שָׁלָל אָרִיק חַרְבִּי – The enemy said, “I’m going to pursue, I’ll overtake them and I’ll draw my sword. He was picturing himself speeding in his chariot chasing his escaped slaves. He was already imagining that he’d draw some blood from them and then, whichever ones remain, he’d drive back into slavery. And so, he took his army and began to chase the Israelites, Am Yisroel.
Now, we all know the outcome; we know how Pharaoh suffered an ignominious defeat: טֻבְּעוּ בְיַם סוּף –They were drowned in the sea. וּמִבְחַר שָׁלִשָׁיו – The best of his officers were drowned and all of their equipment went under. The mighty force was laid low and after that Egypt didn’t raise its head for many years. The Am Yisroel was saved in such a spectacular way that we don’t hear anything about Egypt for hundreds of years after that.
The Sages Search
Now, our sages understood the principle that everything Hashem does has some reason and therefore they wanted to find what zchus, what merit it was that Bnei Yisroel had to be saved like that. They were in grave danger after all! They were caught between a large Egyptian army and the sea and a great miracle was necessary to save them. What was it that helped Am Yisroel at this perilous moment?
And so the Sages, the chachomim studied the words of the Torah to find the answer. After all, Hakodosh Boruch Hu always gives clues. He writes things in the Torah in particular ways so that capable people can study certain events and see why they happened. It’s not for amateurs, but the chachomim, the Tanaim and Amoraim, were specialists and they were capable of studying the events of Tanach and looking for hints to understand why things happened in a certain way.
The Sages began to look for something in our past that would give a hint to what gave our people the merit that Pharaoh should have such a downfall. Maybe there’s some place we can find a hint, a remez and tie one thing to another. And yagata matzasa – If you search, then you’ll find. And so, when our Sages searched, they found.
When Pharaoh’s heart smote him and he decided to lead his army in the chase after the Bnei Yisroel something remarkable happened. The king of Egypt ran to the stables, opened up the door, pulled out his horses and he harnessed them to the chariot himself!
His servants surely ran to do it for him but Pharaoh waved them aside! And his servants looked on in amazement. This was the first time in their lives they had seen such a thing! A monarch should go out and pull the horses out of his stable and harness them? I don’t know if a Pharaoh ever harnessed a chariot in the history of all the Pharaohs! It’s remarkable. But that’s what the possuk says: וַיֶּאְסֹר אֶת רִכְבּוֹ – And he harnessed his own chariot (Shmos 14:6).
Ooh! Those are familiar words! In Yosef's story we also saw words like that: וַיֶּאְסֹר יוֹסֵף מֶרְכַּבְתּוֹ – Yosef harnessed his chariot. And because the language of the Torah is always measured with precision, our sages understood that there’s something here.
That’s the principle behind what is called gezeirah shaveh – when you find an expression in one place and a similar expression in another place it’s a hint that there’s a connection there. And so, because the chachomim learned Torah with a magnifying glass, because they inspected every letter, when they came across these two parallel expressions “and Yosef harnessed his chariot,” “and Pharaoh harnessed his chariot,” they understood that it wasn’t in vain that the Torah inscribed these two parallel sentences with the same terminology.
Effect of a Mitzvah
And so, here's what the chachomim said about this subject: Tavo asarah she’asar Yosef Hatzaddik – Let the harnessing that Yosef HaTzaddik did on his own because of his eagerness to greet his father, let it come, v’ye’akeiv al yad asarah she’asar Pharaoh – and overcome the efforts of Pharaoh who harnessed his chariot in order to overtake Bnei Yisroel and avenge himself on them.
Our Sages are telling us that the parallel expressions teach us that Yosef’s mitzvah had something to do with preventing Pharaoh from carrying out his wishes; the mitzvah had such an effect that it saved Am Yisroel.
Now, we have to know that the story with Pharaoh occurred 210 years after Yosef’s act of harnessing his chariot. Yosef was already long dead and probably nobody remembered anything of this episode. They knew that Yaakov Avinu had come to Egypt and Yosef had come out to greet him, but it’s probable that nobody remembered that detail of how Yosef had harnessed the horses himself. It could be they never even knew about it – we only know because we have the Torah. And even if they did once know, it was probably long forgotten.
Two hundred and ten years is a long time after all! Who remembers a little and seemingly unimportant detail of a story that happened to his great great grandfather two hundred years ago?
I’ll tell you who remembers such a detail.
Hakodosh Boruch Hu remembers; He remembers everything.
That’s what it means when it says, “Let the harnessing that Yosef did himself come forward, and it will overcome the efforts of Pharaoh who harnessed his chariot himself.” When Yosef went out to the royal stable to harness his horses, it wasn’t an act that stopped when he climbed onto the chariot.
The deed never died out. It was hovering, so to speak, in the air; it was hovering and waiting.
Years passed. Yosef passed away and then va’yakam melech chodosh, a new king came to power. And then there was the shibud, the years of slavery, and then finally the plagues came and Am Yisroel left Mitzrayim.
All those 210 years the mitzvah was hovering in the air.
And then finally the day came when Pharaoh was harnessing his chariot to chase Am Yisroel. What happened then? Yosef’s deed came and pounced upon Pharaoh’s deed and wiped it out. Yosef’s harnessing overpowered Pharaoh’s harnessing; it destroyed its effect and it frustrated the plan of Pharaoh.
What we have here is an example from the Torah of a mitzvah accomplishing forever and ever; of a mitzvah that continues to work for the people who achieved them. Mitzvos continue to afford us the greatest happiness because once something is done, it’s forever.
It might help you one day; it might even help the entire nation two hundred years from now.
You never know what it might do because it’s there. It doesn’t go away; every mitzvah you do is alive forever.
Credit for this article goes to Toras Avigdor, an organization dedicated to disseminating the Torah hashkafa of Rav Avigdor Miller ztz"l. Subscribe for free content by sending an email to [email protected], or visit the website.