HaRav Zev Leff: Parshas Vayigash

(Thursday, December 20th, 2012)

The Wagons of Assimilation

. . . and he [Yaakov Avinu] saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to transport him, then the spirit of their father YauLov was revived” (Bereishis 45 27).

From this verse it would seem that Yosef sent the wagons to 1 Yaakov. And indeed the Midrash relates that Yosef used the wagons to remind Yaakov of the last topic they were learning when he left home that fateful day twenty-two years previously-eglah arufah-the calf that is beheaded by the elders of the city closest to where a murdered body is found without any clues pointing to the murderer. The word calf, is hinted to in wagon.

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But this is highly problematic, for the Torah explicitly states that it was Pharaoh who commanded Yosef to send wagons to transport the family and that Yosef sent wagons “according to the word of Pharaoh.” Although the Midrash says that the wagons Pharaoh sent were bedecked with idolatry and Yehudah burnt them and Yosef sent other wagons, this too presents difficulties, for the Torah later refers to the wagons in which Yaakov’s family was transported as those sent by Pharaoh.

If the wagons were sent at Pharaoh’s behest, where was there a hint to eglah arufah? And since the wagons were needed to transport Yaakov’s family, where did Yaakov see an added hint linking the wagons with calves? Upon closer analysis of Pharaoh’s command to take wagons and Yosef’s response, the answer to all these questions will become evident.

Pharaoh told Yosef: “And now I command you to do the following Take for yourselves from the land of Egypt wagons for you and your wives and transport your father and come here. And do not be concerned about your possessions, for the best of the land of Egypt will be yours” (Bereishis 4519). Pharaoh greatly desired that Yosef’s whole illustrious family come to live in Egypt, especially after witnessing the great benefit brought to the kingdom by Yosef.

Pharaoh sought to remove any barriers to Yaakov’s coming. He reasoned that Yaakov might be deterred by the difficulties of acclimating to a new culture and society, and therefore told Yosef to tell his father not to worry about bringing his wardrobe, furniture, or utensils from Eretz Yisrael. He would be furnished with the best Egypt had to offer so that he could blend comfortably into Egyptian society. Therefore Pharaoh instructed Yosef to send wagons for the people but not for their possessions.

Yosef, however, knew that if this plan were conveyed to Yaakov, he would never descend to Egypt. On the contrary, Yaakov would need assurances that every precaution was being taken to combat the possibility of assimilation. Thus Yosef sent wagons ‘according to the word of Pharach” – not exactly according to the command of Pharaoh, but in accord with Pharaoh’s intention of enticing Yaakov to Egypt. Yosef added wagons for their possessions so that they could recreate totally the environment of Eretz Yisrael in Egypt and remain insulated from Egyptian society and culture. Thus, Yaakov’s family went down to Egypt with all “their livestock and all of their possessions which they acquired in the Land of Canaan . . .” (Bereishis 46 6).

When Yaakov saw the wagons that Pharaoh had sent and was informed of the extra wagons that Yosef added for their possessions, it revived his spirit. He recognized that Yosef understood the importance of guarding against possible assimilation and the need to remain insulated from Egyptian culture.

It was no coincidence that the last subject Yaakov and Yosef were discussing was eglah arufah. Both Da’as Z’keinim and Maharal explain that when Yaakov sent Yosef to check on his brothers, he bid him farewell and began to escort him as the halachah dictates. Yosef, a boy of seventeen, begged his father, then one hundred and eight years old, not to accompany him down the steep hill from Hebron, which would necessitate a difficult climb back up. Yaakov replied that levayah (the mitzvah of escorting people on a journey) is of great importance.

We learn the importance of levoyah from the mitzvah of eglah arufah. As part of the mitzvah of eglah arufah, the Elders of the city proclaim that they did not shed his blood. The Gemara (Sotah 45b) asks Could anyone have really suspected the Elders of the city of having shed his blood? The Gemara answers that the meaning of the Elders’ oath is that they did not knowingly permit the deceased to leave the city without an escort, since such an escort is a protection for the person embarking on a journey.

Maharal explains that although one is halachically required to accompany his friend no more than four amos (approximately eight feet), even that levayah suffices to show the one being accompanied that he is not alone but is connected to others. This spiritual connection gives the one accompanied the merit of the tzibbur (public), which is a potent protection against harm.

The mitzvah of levayah shows us that a person’s physical location is not as significant as the spiritual locus to which he is attached. One can be physically alone yet spiritually connected to the body of Klal Yisrael through his connection to the one who escorts him on the beginning of his journey. Similarly, one may physically be in galus, far from Eretz Yisrael, but spiritually connected to it. Yaakov’s realization that Yosef still lived in accord with this concept caused his spirit to revive.

When Yosef coached his brothers prior to their first meeting with Pharaoh, he told them to emphasize that they were shepherds from time immemorial so that they would be sent to live apart in Goshen, for shepherds were an abomination to the Egyptians. Instead of bidding them to conceal that they were shepherds so that they would be more readily accepted, Yosef emphasized that fact. He realized that their ability to survive the Egyptian exile depended on their capacity to remain apart, and Goshen was well-suited to that purpose. Yosef told his brothers that he was going to inform Pharaoh, “My brothers and my father’s household, who are in the Land of Canaan have come to me,” hinting to them that they were not from the Land of Canaan, but still in the Land of Canaan, despite temporarily residing in Egypt.

Before actually descending to Egypt, Yaakov sent Yehudah ahead to prepare the way. Chazal say that his function was to establish a yeshivah in Goshen. Seemingly this task should have been given to Levi, the Rosh Yeshivah of Klal Yisrael, not to Yehudah, the King. But this yeshivah was not merely a place of Torah study, it was the means of transferring the holiness of Eretz Yisrael to Egyptian soil. Goshen was to become a spiritually sovereign region within the environs of Egypt. Areas adjacent to Eretz Yisrael conquered in war take on some of the spiritual status of Eretz Yisrael. Thus the King, Yehudah, was needed to conquer Goshen as a spiritual extension of Eretz Yisrael.

It was Yehudah who exercised his royal power by bringing the extra wagons back to Yaakov for all their possessions. He thereby nullified Pharaoh’s purpose of promoting Yaakov’s assimilation. When Chazal say Yehudah burnt the avodah zarah (idolatry) of Pharaoh’s wagons, they mean that he destroyed them by negating their intended function.

Chazal tell us that the study halls and shuls in galus are parts of Eretz Yisrael transplanted to foreign soil. It is in them and around them that we must build a temporary physical dwelling place that is spiritually rooted in the holiness and purity of Eretz Yisrael. As long as one is physically prevented from being in Eretz Yisrael, he must transplant Eretz Yisrael to foreign soil. In this way the Jew insulates himself from assimilating into the host society and culture!

May we strengthen our Houses of Prayer and Houses of Study in chutz la’aretz, so that they can all be soon transplanted to their proper location in Eretz Yisrael.

1. The fast of Asara B’Teves always falls in close proximity to Vayigash. One of the lessons of the fast is that when Jews do not contain themselves within the spiritual confines of Jerusalem, the Holy City, then the nations will confine us to Jerusalem, as in the sieze of Jerusalem that began on Asara B’Teves.

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