It couldn’t be any worse for Yaakov.
His family, his children, are suffering from famine.
His beloved Rachel is dead.
His second son, Shimon, is trapped in an Egyptian prison. His other children are on an impossible, maybe even suicidal, mission to rescue him.
And of course, the pain of losing his most favorite son, Yosef, continues to rip him apart.
The epic of Yaakov’s life seems to be drawing to a tragic, failed close.
Then, suddenly, his sons return from their mission to Egypt in good spirits and with the craziest, most impossible, totally unbelievable, news: Your son Yosef is alive, and he rules over all of Egypt!
Yaakov’s response? וַיָּפָג לִבּוֹ כִּי לֹא הֶאֱמִין לָהֶם: And Yaakov’s heart was weakened, for he did not believe them.
Not only does he not believe them, and who can blame him, would you believe such a tale? but hearing this news harms his already weakened heart. We can imagine him almost at the the point of death.
His heart failing, Yaakov’s sons press on, telling the fantastic story. Nothing. Then, something changes in Yaakov.
וַיַּרְא אֶת הָעֲגָלוֹת אֲשֶׁר שָׁלַח יוֹסֵף לָשֵׂאת אֹתוֹ וַתְּחִי רוּחַ יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם
And Yaakov saw the (agalot) that Yosef sent to bring him, and Yaakov’s spirit lived.
Rashi asks: Yaakov’s life is saved by… the sight of wagons? What about the wagons had such a powerful effect? He cites a midrash (BereishitRabbah 94:3), that suggests that the wagons symbolized something much deeper. The midrash notes the similarity between the word for the agalot– עגלות sent by Yoself and the world eglah – עגלה, or young calf. What’s the connection? The midrash says that Yaakov and Yosef used to sit and learn Torah together, they had a chevrusa, and the very last thing they learned together before Yosef’s disappearance were the laws of the eglah arufah – עגלה ערופה, the decapitated cow, found in Sefer Devarim. By sending עגלות, wagons, Yosef was sending a coded message to his father that he was still alive, referencing their last time together when they learned the laws of the עגלה eglah. This secret reference to their learning, teaches the midrash, is what actually convinced Yaakov that he was alive.
But there is a deeper level, a deeper message from Yosef to Yaakov.
The eglah arufah isn’t a random law. It’s a deep, fascinating ritual loaded with meaning for Yosef and Yaakov.
The eglah arufah is a ritual done when the body of someone נֹפֵ֖ל בַּשָּׂדֶ֑ה, who has falled in the field and the identity of the killer is not known. Familiar?
The leaders of nearby communities, upon learning about the murder, must come and break the neck of a young cow and wash their hands over its neck, reciting: “Our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see.”
The Mishna understands this ritual as forcing the elders to take some degree of responsibility to reflect on what they could have done to prevent this murder that they did not directly cause, but might have prevented. Ultimately the eglah arufah seems to be about acknowledging a failure of leadership and protecting the vulnerable.
According to the Zohar on Vayigash, Yaakov was keenly aware that even though he did not kill his son, he was responsible for many of the conditions that led to his death/disappearance. The Zohar claims that Yaakov held himself responsible for not sending Yosef with food and an escort. More broadly, perhaps Yaakov felt that he failed to protect Yosef from his jealous brothers, and his dreamy self.
The agalot, then, become a symbol not just of recognition from Yosef to Yaakov, but of accusation! Father, you and I both know the halachot of the egla arufa, you know that if someone is sent off into the wilderness and is killed that the the responsibility falls upon those who maybe could have done more. You failed to protect me. You could have stopped this. The responsibility falls on you.
But if the agalot-eglah connection reminded Yaakov of his failure, why did it revive his spirit? Why didn’t it kill him?
Because there was more riding on that wagon than blame. There was also hope. The eglah arufa ritual is not just about looking backward at mistakes that might have been made.
At the end of the Torah’s description of the ritual ends with this charge:
וְאַתָּ֗ה תְּבַעֵ֛ר הַדָּ֥ם הַנָּקִ֖י מִקִּרְבֶּ֑ךָ כִּֽי־תַעֲשֶׂ֥ה הַיָּשָׁ֖ר בְּעֵינֵ֥י ה’׃ (ס)
“abolish the shedding of innocent blood and do what is upright in the eyes of God.”
The ritual of elgah arufah allows for the village elders to both acknowledge that they hold responsibility, and to move forward and do what is right.
By sending the agalot, Yosef sent his father a message: you had a part to play in the wrong that happened to me. You screwed up. But you weren’t responsible alone, and you have hope. The way for you to take responsibility and move forward (eglah-arufah) is to figuratively (and literally) get back on these wagons (agalot).
And with this message, Yaakov’s spirit was revived.
The mistakes of the past are real, but they don’t determine the future. Accepting responsibility for ways in which we have failed in the past is the way towards a better future.
Each of us had allowed wrongs to happen, each of us has refrained from speaking up, or spoken too much. Each of us has turned a blind eye and caused pain to those we love. But we are not solely responsible for those wrongs, and being dragged down and paralyzed by them won’t help us make change in the future. In order to accomplish what we must accomplish in the world, we need to see the agalot that Yosef sends us – to confront and recognize suffering we’ve allowed to happen, and then use that confrontation to re-energize and re-inspire us to the work we are here to do. This is the story of Yaakov. This is of course the story of Yehuda and Yosef. This is the story of Bereishit: the story of the formation of the Jewish people. I bless you and me the strength of heart to make it ours.