At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Yaakov is in dire straits. His family is suffering from famine, his sons are begging for the release of their brother from an Egyptian prison, and Joseph is presumed dead. 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 most un-believeable 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. His heart failing, Yaakov’s sons press on, telling the fantastic story. Nothing. Then, something changes in Yaakov. He sees a group of wagons – agalot:
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 (Bereishit Rabbah 94:3), where the rabbis note the similarity between the word for the agalot– עגלות sent by Yoself and the worldeglah – עגלה, or young calf. The midrash says that the last thing Yaakov and Yosef learned together before Yosef’s disappearance were the laws of the eglah arufah – עגלהערופה, the decapitated cow. 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.
Nice… but there’s more than clever worldplay going on here. The eglah arufah isn’t any old law about decapitated cows. It’s a deep, fascinating ritual loaded with meaning, done when someone is found murdered in the wilderness and no one knows who is responsible. The leaders of the surrounding communities lament, atone and assume responsibility for a terrible act they did not directly cause, but might have prevented. It’s about acknowledging a failure of leadership and protecting the vulnerable.
So then what are Yosef’s agalot all about? 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. He failed to protect Yosef from his jealous brothers, and his dreamy self. That failure, plus a famine and another lost son, led to his despair – his “weakened heart.” But if the agalot-eglah connection reminded Yaakov of his failure, why did it revive his spirit? Why didn’t it kill him?
I’d like to suggest the ritual of eglah arufa is not just about blame. It is about also about hope. The end of the Torah’s description of the ritual ends with this charge: “abolish the shedding of innocent blood and do what is upright in the eyes of God.” Fight the darkness. Move forward. Act. Lead.
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).
There are many wrongs that in hindsight I helped allow to happen. Times I didn’t speak up, or I spoke up for but didn’t back up my words with action.Good fights I didn’t fight, or the times I turned a blind eye to something I knew was wrong. But I’m not solely responsible for those wrongs, and being dragged down by them won’t help me make change in the future. In order to be a successful agent of change in the world, we need to see the agalot that Yosef sends us – to confront and recognize evil we’ve allowed to happen in the world, 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, but also Yehuda and Yosef. It’s the story of the end of Bereishit: the story of the formation of the Jewish people. I bless you and me the strength of heart to make it ours.