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Yosef's Departing Lesson

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“They went up from Egypt, and they came to the land of Canaan, to their father, Yaakov. And they told him, saying, ‘Yosef is still alive,’ and that he ruled over the entire land of Egypt, and his heart turned away, for he did not believe them. And they told him all of Yosef’s words that he had said to them, and he saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to carry him, and the spirit of their father Yaakov was alive.”

After 22 years of separation, Yosef dramatically reveals himself to his brothers and sends them to inform their father, Yaakov, that he is alive. The verses seem to indicate that, at first, Yaakov did not believe them. Only after the brothers told Yaakov all of Yosef’s words, and Yaakov saw the wagons, did Yaakov believe that Yosef was indeed alive. How did the brothers relaying Yosef’s words and the sight of the wagons change Yaakov’s mind?

The simple interpretation is that Yaakov was initially unable to comprehend that Yosef could still be alive. After hearing the brothers’ words and seeing the royal Egyptian wagons, Yaakov absorbed that Yosef was alive. Rashi, however, quotes Midrashim with a different interpretation. Yosef sent a sign to his father, to assist his father in identifying him. Yosef told his brothers to show their father the wagons (עגלות in Hebrew). Doing so would remind their father of the subject matter that they had studied before Yosef departed, the subject of the Eglah Arufa (עגלה ערופה). Eglah Arufa is the Torah section dealing with a corpse found in an uninhabited area. The Torah commands the elders of the closest city to perform a ritual with a calf (an עגלה), and to declare that their hands have not spilled the blood of the corpse. The Hebrew word for a calf and the Hebrew word for a wagon share the root Hebrew letters עגל. This was Yosef’s way of indicating to his father that he remembered what they studied when they last saw each other, information that only Yosef would know. This is how Yaakov realized that Yosef was, indeed, alive.

Why was it particularly the section of Eglah Arufa that they were studying at the time? Maharal suggests that when Yosef left home to seek his brothers, his father accompanied him out of the city. Yosef told his father to return home, but his father refused and explained that we learn the importance of accompanying someone from the Torah portion of Eglah Arufa. When the sages of the closest city declare that they do not have blood on their hands, they mean to say that they did not allow a traveler to leave a city without accompaniment. Accompanying a person at the beginning of their journey protects them on the journey. Yaakov explained to Yosef why he had accompanied him out of the city.

Maharal explains further that Yosef only sent a hint to his father but did not explain to his brothers the meaning of the hint. Yosef didn’t want to upset his brothers by making them feel that, in his eyes, they were murderers, and that he was only saved from them as a result of the spiritual protection afforded to him by his father’s accompaniment. We learn from this that Yosef had finally forgiven his brothers and, due to his caring nature and sensitivity, did not want to upset them. Yosef wanted his family to be reunited in harmony. During these difficult days, we must follow Yosef’s example. We must strive to forgive our brethren, be sensitive toward others, and, thus, reunite Yaakov’s home. Our unity will enable us to usher in an era of peace and tranquility for all mankind.