Joseph’s brothers were already haunted with decades of guilt about their murder conspiracy against Joseph and his mysterious disappearance. Even after Joseph’s dramatic rise from the seemingly dead, ascending to nearly supreme authority over a world-class power, and an apparent reconciliation among them, the brothers are terrified about something else – the dreaded anticipation that Joseph will take mortal revenge upon them now that their father, Jacob, has died. And so, they concoct a new deception, because that is what they are good at.
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!” So, they sent this message to Joseph, “Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father’s house.” And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him. (Genesis 50:15-17)
So, the brothers are liars; not a shock. They suppressed the truth before, when they allowed Jacob to believe that a wild animal tore Joseph to shreds. And after all, what’s a lie compared to attempted murder?
But this time they were not lying. It’s likely that, unknown to the brothers, Jacob eventually learned the full truth about Joseph’s fate and shared his awareness with his sons. And while Radak (12th century), Sforno (16th century), and Birkat Asher (21st century) also think that Jacob knew, no one has explained how Jacob knew.
I’m going to tell you how Jacob knew, and also suggest that the brothers’ plea to Joseph ascribed to their father from his deathbed may not have been a total fabrication.
We need to roll back to last week’s Parasha of Vayigash and while there, to reconsider one of the biggest midrashic stretches of all time, a commentary offered during the recounting of Joseph dispatching a caravan loaded with abundant goods to persuade Jacob to come down to Egypt,
The sons of Israel did so [they prepared to travel from Egypt to Canaan to bring Jacob]; Joseph gave them wagons as Pharaoh had commanded, and he supplied them with provisions for the journey…And to his father he sent the following: ten he-asses laden with the best things of Egypt, and ten she-asses laden with grain, bread, and provisions for his father on the journey…They went up from Egypt and came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan. And they told him, “Joseph is still alive; Yes! He is ruler over the whole land of Egypt.” His heart went numb, for he did not believe them. But when they recounted all that Joseph had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to transport him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived. “Enough!” said Israel. “My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die.” (Genesis 45:21, 23, 25-28)
The brothers’ declaration that Joseph lived was not enough to convince their father that such a thing could be true. It was only “when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to transport him” that Jacob’s spirit revived, and that was also when his Israel persona overtook him, carrying him to see his long-lost, beloved son.
What was it about the wagons that convinced Jacob of Joseph’s well-being? Rashi (11th century) and Hizkuni (13th century) say that the wagons were a hint sent by Joseph to his father referring to the last piece of Torah that they learned together before Joseph went missing: that would be the enigmatic process of the “eglah arufah.”
As recounted in Deuteronomy 21:6-8, should a corpse be discovered on a path between two cities in Israel, a heifer (eglah) is brought, decapitated and…
Then all the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer (eglah) whose neck was broken in the wadi. And they shall make this declaration: “Our hands did not shed this blood! Nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, Hashem, Your People Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your People Israel.” And they will be absolved of bloodguilt.
Joseph sent wagons – a wagon is an agala in Hebrew. The aural connection between the agala/wagon and the eglah/heifer that Jacob and Joseph learned about together would be clear to Jacob, and this would be understood as Joseph’s private message that he was alive and awaiting his father in Egypt.
I must admit that ever since I learned about this “agala-eglah” connection as a younger student, I found this association to be farfetched. Of all the Torah that father and son ostensibly learned together, why did Joseph pick this particularly obtuse passage as his unique and indisputable proof of life? He chose it, I believe, because there is much more encoded here than any of the commentaries have revealed.
Here is the eglah arufah text once again, now embedded with the sub-text that I posit Joseph intended and that his father understood,
Then all the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi. And they shall make this declaration: “Our hands did not shed this blood! [My brothers have not spilled my blood!] Nor did our eyes see it done [They did not see that I was kidnapped]. Absolve, Hashem, Your People, Israel, [Israel, the name that the Torah shifts to from Jacob when he learns that Joseph lives] whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent [Do not let any feelings of guilt about me] remain among Your People Israel.” [At this time the brothers are the entire People Israel – Remove the feelings of guilt that burden them]. And they will be absolved of bloodguilt. [I do not hold them in blame, and neither should you.]
Conveying a secret message constructed from the words of Torah that they learned together, Joseph is telling his father that the sons of Israel shed no blood; they have repented. He urges him to cast off any guilt associated with them; they should be forgiven. Jacob/Israel understood this message. And based on Joseph’s entreaty, he, too, forgave his sons and likely assured them that Joseph would not seek revenge.
Now, a word about the title of this essay. There is a well-known Torah maxim that goes like this: “Justice, Justice – You shall pursue!” In Hebrew, Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof! (Deuteronomy 16:20)
In our tradition, Joseph is referred to as “Yosef haTzadik,” Joseph the Righteous.
What was so special about Joseph that justifies this unique designation? Many would say that he deserves this honorific in recognition of the superhuman strength it took to resist the advances of Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:5-20). And that would be true.
There is a second reason. Despite what his brothers did, despite their conspiracy to murder him, he broke down in tears when he finally saw them again. That is what a brother might do. But then he did something only a Tzadik could do – Joseph loved them so much that he forgave them. That is the unique strength of The Righteous.
And he asked Jacob to forgive them, too. We can now complete the eglah arufah text to understand the final sentence and Joseph’s message to his father this way:
Thus you (Jacob/Israel), remove from within you the guilt (of my brothers) for (my) innocent blood, and you will be doing what is right in the sight of Hashem. (Deuteronomy 21:9).
Love your brothers. Forgive your brothers when they seek forgiveness, and encourage others to join you in loving them.
Tzadik, Tzadik tirdof – strive to be like the one who is a two-fold Tzadik.