Every year around this time, Yosef’s ascension to power in Egypt raises the same question at our Shabbat table: “Why didn’t he call home?” Why didn’t Yosef let his father know he was alive? Of course, to change the plot might have interfered with the divine plan, but this question torments any and every Jewish parent. Yaakov was left tormented and bereft all of those years and when the plot of the story finally calls for Yaakov to receive news from his son, Yosef, he is left cold, not knowing how to respond:
“And they went up from Egypt and they came to the land of Canaan to Jacob their father. And they told him, saying, ‘Jacob is still alive,’ and that he was ruler in all the land of Egypt. And his heart stopped, for he did not believe them. And they spoke to him all the words of Yosef that he had spoken to them, and he saw the wagons (agalot) that Yosef had sent to convey him, and the spirit of Yaakov was revived. And Israel said: ‘Enough! Yosef my son is still alive. Let me go see him before I die.’ (45:25-28)
What made Yaakov change his mind? The story, as told by the Torah, does not answer that question but a fabulous rabbinic story comes to fill in the gap: “When Yosef’s brothers came and said to Yaakov that Yosef was still alive, his heart stopped and he did not believe them. But then Yaakov remembered the last subject in Jewish law that he had learned together with Yosef before Yosef’s disappearance, and said to himself: ‘I remember that the last thing Yosef and I studied was about the rite of the beheaded heifer – eglah arufa (a ceremony performed over an unsolved murder). And Yaakov said to them: ‘When Yosef sent for me, he gave you a sign when he sent wagons (agalot) to remind me of the last thing that I studied together with him. Now I believe you!’” (adapted from Tanhuma Vayegash 11)
This anecdote comes to explain what caused the quick change in Yaakov’s disposition from shock to acceptance of the fact that his long-lost son was still alive. It assumes a familiar rabbinic presumption that the patriarchs and matriarchs shared the practices and concerns of rabbinic Jews. And so, while it is anachronistic, they presume that Yaakov, being a good Jewish father, studied Torah with his son Yosef and it just so happens that the last thing they studied together were the laws governing the ritual practiced upon finding the victim of an unsolved murder. The rite involved the ritual killing of heifer (an egel). In our story, when Yosef sends his father wagons (agalot) to take him to Egypt, Yaakov “poetically” links “egel” to “agalah” and sees in it a message from his long-lost son.
This storyline is not without a message. My teacher, Rabbi Simon Greenberg z”l, used to remind us that one studies Jewish stories and amasses Jewish knowledge, in part, not only because these associations shape who we are as people both also because they serve to connect us to each other through shared memories. In this story, Yaakov and Yosef shared such a link. Can we say the same?