David Walk

Cardiac Arrest

The Yosef Saga has it most poignant and moving moments in this week’s Torah reading. We have the reconciliation with his brothers, also his erstwhile competitors, and, of course, the tearful reunion with his beloved father. But in this article, I’m going to discuss the complicated scene when the brothers return to Ya’akov Avinu with the astounding news that Yosef lives, and is the viceroy of the world’s greatest superpower. It’s complicated.

When the brothers declared those momentous words OD YOSEF CHAI! (Yosef still lives! Breishit 45:26), Ya’akov’s heart stopped, at least according to Professor Robert Alter. The Hebrew is VAYAPAG LIBO. This has been variously rendered as his heart was numb, fainted, was stunned, stood still, nearly failed, awoke as it were from a deep sleep (actually that’s a cool rendition). The problem facing the translators is that the word PAGA is not a common term. Its only other appearance in TANACH is in Eicha 3:49, My eyes flow down, without HAFUGOT. There it seems to mean without cessation in the negative, but here it seems to mean his heart stopped or at least missed a beat, hence my title up there.

This violent reaction is immediately explained, ‘because he didn’t believe them’. Or maybe it should be ‘he couldn’t believe them’. Let’s be honest this turn of events is unbelievable. The Sforno avers that his heart stoppage was out of joy, but most believe that he just couldn’t believe the enormity of it all.

This brings us to the next verse where Ya’akov gets the proof of Yosef’s continued existence among the living. This proof comes in two clear parts. First, we are told quite repetitively: And they spoke words of Yosef that he had spoken (verse 27). The short Hebrew clause contains the root DABER (speech or words) three times. Clearly, there was something about the words themselves which convinced Ya’akov of their veracity. The content obviously smacked of the style and spirit of Yosef. To, Ya’akov it was unmistakable.

Secondly, there were the wagons. The wagons had a double message. First of all, they demonstrate importance and wealth. These were not donkeys or camels, the normal caravan transport. Regular travelers didn’t have wagons. It’s actually possible that Egypt normally forbade the exit of wagons and their horses from Egyptian territory. It has been suggested that they bore the Pharoah’s royal seal. The wagons scream wealth and power.

But there’s a famous Midrash that the wagons carried another secret communique for Ya’akov. It is claimed that Ya’akov and Yosef were studying the laws of EIGAL ARUFA (the executed calf, Devarim 21:1-9). This law was about the elders of a community near where a murder took place swear that they weren’t involved in the crime, and then execute a calf as an atonement for the deceased. The Hebrew word for wagons (AGALA) is a cognate for the word for calf, EIGEL. Thus QED, only Yosef could have sent the message, and, therefore, still lives.

Only after both proofs of Yosef’s continued existence does the verse record: the spirit of Ya’akov their father revived. Ya’akov only recovered from the shock to his cardiovascular system with both pieces of evidence. Why?

Ya’akov was convinced that Yosef lived with the words only he could have spoken. What’s the need for the wagons? Ya’akov wasn’t totally satisfied with just the evidence that Yosef survived; he wanted proof that Yosef was still Yosef Ha ZADIK, his beloved, righteous Yosef. Ya’akov knew from painful personal experience that long sojourns far from one’s spiritual roots can have devastating ramifications on one’s spiritual wellbeing.

Ya’akov could feel his spirit revive, which included the renewal of his prophetic power after 22 years of total silence from God, when he saw the wagons because they convinced him that Yosef was still the spiritual force he had been before his kidnapping and incarceration. Perhaps, the wagons did allude to the learning he had done with him. But they could hint at another, greater truth.

We were informed in last week’s Torah reading that when Yosef saw the brothers in the royal court of Egypt, he remembered the dreams. The dreams of his ascendance over his siblings. I believe that Ya’akov also remembered the dreams at this critical moment. Remember, we were told that Ya’akov filed away the contents of the dreams (SHAMAR ET HADAVAR, 37:11).

Yosef’s survival in the hostile environment of Egypt is the fare of fairy tales. Who would or could believe such stuff? Well, a believer in the power of prophecy. The sight of the wagons awakened deep inside Ya’akov Avinu the image of first the brothers bowing to Yosef, already having been accomplished, and now the mental picture of his own descent to Egypt to fulfill the second dream, his own bending of the knee before Yosef. Now, we can also understand the very next verse, when Ya’akov enthusiastically announces: ‘Enough!’ said Yisrael. ‘My son Yosef is still alive! I must go and see him before I die’.

Also, I must go down to Egypt to complete Yosef’s’ dreams, because I now acknowledge that this dream is the fulfillment of the covenant of Avraham, my grandfather. This is my destiny! And Yosef’s.

Ya’akov needed both parts of Yosef’s message to get on board for the plan. The words convinced him that Yosef lived; the wagons persuaded him that this was the Divine Plan. He was revived and rejuvenated by the prospect of seeing his son and by renewed enthusiasm for fulfilling God’s Covenant with the Patriarchs and the Jewish people. I hope and pray that this enthusiasm is eternally contagious.

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
Related Topics
Related Posts