A study in the role and value of tradition – Vayigash 5775

 

Context

Pharoh instructs Yoseif and his brothers to go back to Canaan and bring their father and his household to Egypt where, thanks to Yoseif’s strategies, there is no famine. He instructs them to take government carriages and use them to transport their father and his entourage. When the brothers get to Canaan, Yaacov at first does not believe them. Then, the Torah says, they told him all of Yoseif’s words (but it does not tell us what these words were) and after noticing “the carriages that Yoseif sent to lift him, his spirit came alive.”

Midrash

בראשית רבה, פצ״ג ס׳ ג׳:
וירא את העגלות, אותן עגלות ששלח פרעה לשאת אותו, היתה עבודת כוכבים חקוקה עליהם, עמד יהודה ושרפן. למוד הוא השבט, להיות שורף עבודת כוכבים.
ר’ לוי בשם ר’ יוחנן בר שאול, אמר להם: אם יאמין לכם הרי מוטב, ואם לאו, אתם אומרים לו: בשעה שפרשתי ממך לא בפרשת עגלה ערופה הייתי עוסק?! הה”ד: וירא את העגלות ותחי רוח

Translation
“…and he (Yaacov) saw the carriages that Pharoh had sent to lift him…” Emblems of idolatry were engraved into the carriages. Yehudah, the founder of a tribe that was accustomed to destroy idolatry, burned them. Rabbi Levi in the name of Rabbi Yonattan bar Shaul said: He (Yoseif) said to them (his brothers) “if our father believes you (that I am alive and a leader in Egypt) then it is well; but if he does not, say to him that that when I separated from you, was I not studying the section (in the Torah) that deals with the Eglah Aruffah?” This is what it means when it says “and the spirit of Yaacov came alive.”
Bereishit Rabbah 93:3

He’arot – Observations

The Midrash explains:

  1. Why the Torah says that Yaacov saw the carriages that Yoseif sent and not the carriages that Pharoh sent.
  2. What the words of Yoseif were that the brothers told to Yaacov and which gave credibility to their story.

Meaning

Yoseif couldn’t see the carriages that Pharoh had sent because those, carrying emblems of idolatry, were destroyed by Yehudah. The carriages he did see that not only gave credibility to his sons’ story but revived his spirit were a metaphoric play on the word agallot (carriages). The Hebrew word for ‘carriage’ shares a common root for the word “eigel” which means a calf. In this case referring to the unique calf sacrifice (Eglah Aruffah) brought when a person had been mysteriously murdered between two cities, the culprit and his place of residence being unknown. This was the passage Yoseif was studying when he was separated from his father.

The words of Yoseif that the brothers shared with their father were the words by which Yoseif related the precise topic of his study at the time of his separation. For a moment, the elderly father saw the calf (referred to in that passage), the eglah, (same word as ‘carriage’) and he instantly reconnected with Yoseif. Referring back to that intimate moment of father and son studying gave a new life to Yaacov. His reconnection with his son Yoseif at a deep soul-level, assured him of the truth of his sons’ story.

I have always been intrigued and puzzled by the correlation of these two ideas that happen to share a common root: Carriages (that Pharoh sent) and the calf (of the Eglah Aruffah). We have mentioned before that Midrashic metaphor is not a mere figure of speech but a vehicle by which to convey many layers of deep meaning. What meaning is the Midrash highlighting in this particular metaphoric correlation?

The purpose of the carriages that Pharoh sent were to transport Yaacov from an ancient, decaying world to a new progressive civilization, the land of Egypt. The carriages represent an Egyptian attempt to secularize and assimilate these Jewish refugees (Yaacov and his household). It is this intention that the Midrash (in part metaphorically) refers to as the idolatrous emblems engraved on the carriages.  This endeavor to s at assimilate the Jews was almost anomalous with the attempts of  so many people after the holocaust to flee the ghetto and create a new, progressive civilization in the US, Israel and other parts of the world. In many cases, attempts were made to eradicate any manifestation of the “old life” in these survivors as they chartered a new life in modern societies. Many were encouraged to abandon their practice of Torah and Mitzvot. The aggalot, the carriages that Pharoh sent are the metaphor for this emigration from archaic Judaism to progressive and modern Egyptian civilization. It is for this reason that Yehudah destroyed (this too might be just a metaphoric destruction) the carriages, and is the reason why it is not the carriages that convinced Yaacov that his son Yoseif was truly alive. There was nothing of Yoseif’s value system in the carriages whose mission was an idolatrous one – to transport Yaacov away from his ghettoic heritage to the New World.

What did transport Yaacov was the vision of the last study session he had had with Yoseif nearly twenty years earlier. This transport  was not chronologically progressive; it was retrogressive,it took him backwards in time, not forward. The vision of the Eglah Aruffah was also a carriage, but one that transported Yaacov from one time to another rather than from one place to another. It is this time carriage that gave new life to the old man. This is the meaning of the correlation between the two terms, one for ‘carriage’ and the other for ‘calf’. Both, in this context were vehicles of transport; one in space and the other in time.

Learning

To reconnect two divergent paths it is necessary to go back to source, back to the root, to the point before they diverged. We do this when we study Torah, for example: When two ideas seem irreconcilably different we track both ideas to their source to explore a possible common origin. We do this with every Holiday we celebrate: When our lives have diverged from the lives of other Jews and from the lives of our teachers, we take the time-carriage back in history to reconnect there with our ancestors, with our brethren and with our heritage.

Scientific and technological progress travels in the opposite direction from spiritual progress. To progress scientifically, society needs to move forward. However, to make forward strides in our spirituality we need to retrace our steps back to our source. There we find an aliveness of spirit that eludes us when we travel spiritually forward. When we study the same Torah that we received at Sinai and that our ancestors have studied throughout the ages, and when we practice the mitzvot in precisely the same way our ancestors did with no changes or modifications, we reconnect with them and with our source. And when we do go back to source, we discover a level of aliveness that is capable of transporting us forward into the most progressive and modern places we can get to, without adulterating the essence of who we are and what we stand for. This is Jewish tradition, this is our mesorah.