“[Symbolism] seeks to clothe the Idea in a tangible from … Accordingly, in this art, scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena will not be described for their own sake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideas.” – Jean Moréas, the Symbolist Manifesto.
Following the climactic revelation of Joseph to his brothers, “I am Joseph, is my father yet alive”, the brothers return home to tell their father the good news: “Joseph is yet alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt” (Genesis 45:26). For Jacob, however, who lived with the loss of his beloved son for so long, the news was incomprehensible: “And his heart fainted, for he believed them not.” But then something wondrous occurred:
“And they told him all the words of Joseph which he had said unto them, and he saw the wagons which Joseph had sent to carry him, and the spirit of Jacob their father revived” (45:27).
To explain this rather loaded verse, Rashi quotes the Midrash (Genesis R. 94:3) as follows:
He [Joseph] gave them a symbol of what subject he was engaged when he separated from him (Jacob) – and that was the section dealing with the beheaded heifer (egla arufa) (Deut. 21:6); and this is what Scripture says, “and he saw the wagons (agalot) that Joseph had sent,” and it does not say, “that Pharaoh had sent.”
The Midrash, through a play on words between wagons (agalot) and heifer (egla), makes a symbolic association which imbues the text with important depth. Whereas the plain reading of the text suggests that there was something about the physical wagons that “revived Jacob’s spirit”, the Midrash contends that there was something deeper.
The Talmud (Berachot 31a) teaches that one should never part from his friend “with ordinary conversation, or joking, or frivolity, or idle talk, but with some matter of halacha (divine law)…. so that he should remember him thereby.” That is, when one engages his friend in words that transcend time – as opposed to words of ephemera – their relationship will, correspondingly, transcend time. The relationship between Jacob and Joseph, indeed, transcended time, and their learning served not only that they remember one another when about to part but that they identify one another when about to meet. “And the spirit of Jacob their father revived.”
Now, while the association between wagons (agalot) and heifer (egla) is certainly legitimate on the symbolic level it is untenable on the literal level; for, though the words share common letters they are entirely different words. Moreover, the context of the verse is clearly argues “wagons” and not “heifer”. And if that wasn’t enough, the esoteric law of egla arufa was surely unknown to Jacob and Joseph, it being introduced in the Torah that was not yet given. All of this makes the Midrash’s “esoteric affinity” border on the outrageous. But then again, this is precisely the method of the Midrash, much like that of the nineteenth century Symbolist movement, wherein the idea is conveyed through the use of “fantastic” depictions and “anti-naturalistic exaggeration”. For in so doing, the symbol is readily understood as but a means and not an end, thus urging us to discover the primordial idea secreted within.
Before we seek to understand the Midrash for what it is, a classic example of Symbolist literature, we must ask how Rashi, whose explicit objective is to explain the straightforward meaning of the text (see Genesis 33:20), could bring such a blatantly Midrashic explanation that grates on the simple meaning of the words?!
The answer is in the words of the text he is coming explain (dibbur hamatchil) – for, unlike the Midrash that comes to explain the words, “and he saw the wagons”, Rashi employs the Midrash to explain: “all the words of Joseph”. Rashi notices that the text could have sufficed with the words: “And they told him that which Joseph said …” What “words”, asks Rashi, are secreted in “all the words of Joseph”? Answer: egla arufa. To understand, let us now delve into the idea clothed in the tangible form of the egla arufa:
If one be found slain … and it be not known who hath smitten him; … [then] all the elders of that city, who are nearest unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley. And they shall speak and say: ‘Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Forgive, O Lord, Thy people Israel, whom Thou hast redeemed …’ And the blood shall be forgiven them (nichaper). (Deuteronomy 21:1-8).
This “halacha”, then, is not just any “halacha” but one of great relevance to Joseph and Jacob. Tellingly, our Midrash does not say that the two were learning the case together, but rather that Joseph himself was “engaged” in it – in the unsolved murder – for indeed, Joseph himself was the subject. And if Joseph was the unsolved murder, then Jacob, as patriarch, would be the “elder” held accountable.
Yet why would the elder(s) be held accountable? The Talmud (Sotah 46b) explains that, in making the statement, “Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it”, they, at one and the same time, acknowledge responsibility for communal safety yet absolve themselves of wrongdoing – saying, in effect, that the man found dead “did not come to us for help that we dismissed him without food, nor did we see him that we let him go without escort.” Conversely, Jacob held himself responsible without absolution, for he, explains the Zohar (Vayigash 210b), sent Joseph without food and without escort.
Now Joseph, for his part, is sensitive to all the guilty feelings in the family. He first assuages the dismay of his brothers by stating – no less than three times – “God hath sent me” (45:5,7,8). He then gives them “a symbol of what subject he was engaged when he separated from Jacob” – in words, “all the words”, words of egla arufa, words of forgiveness and atonement for an unsolved murder. It was to these redemptive words that “the spirit of Jacob was revived”; for, it was these words that both resolved Jacob’s guilty conscience and neutralized the burning question of whodunit.
The wagons, then, are a symbol of the egla arufa which in turn is a symbol of forgiveness. And whereas the Midrash makes the symbolic association between wagons and egla arufa, Rashi employs the egla arufa as symbol of forgiveness to explain “all the words of Joseph”. As such, it could be said that the Midrash interprets the text symbolically, while Rashi explains the text symbolically. In this, it seems, that Rashi has achieved precisely what Symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé called the “the perfect use of mystery which constitutes the symbol” – that is, “to choose an object and glean from it an emotional state by a series of decipherments.” And so, while Rashi’s manifesto is the literal meaning of the text (peshuto shel mikra), this does not, as many erroneously assume, preclude him from applying the Symbolist manifesto when doing so serves his goal.
Now, if this is the explanation of “all the words”, what role, we must ask, did the “seeing the wagons” play in reviving Jacob’s spirit? The answer is in the brothers’ initial statement to Jacob wherein they told him two things: “Joseph is yet alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt”. What convinced him of the former were “all the words of Joseph”, what convinced him of the latter were the royal wagons that, according Lekach Tov, would never have left Egypt other than by royal edict. “And the spirit of Jacob their father revived.” And so it was because the wagons symbolically carried the profound message of forgiveness that they could literally carry that most precious of cargos: the family of Israel.