> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > M'oray Ha'Aish


Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn


The brothers return from their mission with spectacular, perhaps unbelievable news: Yosef is alive!

And they told him, 'Yosef lives, and he rules over all of Egypt. And (Yaakov's) heart skipped a beat, for he did not believe them. They relayed to him the words Yosef had spoken to them, and Yaakov saw the carriages Yosef sent to transport him, and their father Yaakov's spirit came to life. (Bereishit 45: 26-27(

Yaakov, who had experienced so much pain in his life, did not wish to be set up for yet another disappointment. How can Yosef be alive? And if he is alive, can he really be ruler over Egypt? Yaakov dismisses the idea, fights off the news. Only upon seeing the wagons does Yaakov believe his ears and eyes. What changed his perspective? What convinced him? The straightforward meaning of the text would seem to be that Yaakov was convinced only upon seeing the impressive wagons of Pharoh; perhaps seeing a physical indication of the might of the Egyptian empire1 was what made Yaakov accept the news, for only someone with great power or influence could arrange for the royal fleet to come to this distant land, to his own doorstep, and transport Yaakov and his family to Egypt. Rashi explains:

By sending the wagons (agalot), Yosef sent him a sign. What was the (topic) they had studied before he (Yosef) left? The topic of the beheaded heifer (egla arufa). Thus the text states, "when he saw the agalot which Yosef sent," and not which Pharoh sent. (Rashi, Bereishit 45:27)

Rashi combines the seeing of the visual image of physical agalot with the words of Yosef: both contain a message, a secret shared by father and son years ago. No one but Yosef and Yaakov could have known the topic of their private conversation.

Rashi's explanation is not without problems, for although Rashi's comment refers to the phrase "all the words of Yosef," Yaakov is only convinced when he sees the agalot. Furthermore, the "secret sign" which could only be known by Yaakov and Yosef, the last topic of instruction they studied before Yosef's disappearance, was the egla arufa, the beheaded calf. To Yaakov's ears, this is linguistically connected to the agalot, the wagons sent for him. However these words do not share a common root; they are in fact two different words.2 Moreover, the idea to send the wagons was Pharohs, and not Yosef's:

And Pharoh said to Yosef, Say to your brothers, Do this; load your beasts, and go to the land of Canaan; and take your father and your households, and come to me; and I will give you the good of the land of Egypt, and you shall eat the fat of the land. Now you are commanded to take your wagons out of the land of Egypt for your little ones, and for your wives, and bring your father, and come. Also give no thought to your goods; for the good of all the land of Egypt is yours. And the people of Israel did so; and Yosef gave them wagons, according to the commandment of Pharoh, and gave them provision for the way. (Bereishit 45:17-21)

While the text in Verse 27 attests that Yaakov had thought the wagons were sent by Yosef, it was Pharoh's idea - indeed, he commanded Yosef to send the wagons. Verse 21 stresses that Yosef sent the wagons because of Pharoh's command.


Why would Rashi seek, in these wagons, the communication of a secret message? Furthermore, by making the imaginative association between agalot and egla, Rashi introduces an element which is not an organic part of the discussion; namely a calf - egel. The very word sounds a problematic chord, resonating throughout Jewish thought with overtones of the Egel HaZahav, the Golden Calf. The web of negative associations this element dredges up entangles Yosef himself,3 and his most infamous descendent, Yerovam.4 Rashi could have avoided all these entanglements had the text been left unembellished by the agalot/egla association.

Rashi's comment in this case, as is most cases, is based on a rabbinic tradition, which in this instance makes the connection between agalot and egla arufa.5 What remains to be seen is how this comment can be reconciled with Rashi's clearly-stated mandate, to explain the straightforward, "plain" meaning6 of the text.7


There would seem to be a deeper meaning which is being communicated within these sources. What is the egla arufa? When is it used?

If one is found slain in the land which the Lord your God gives you to possess, lying in the field, and it is not known who has slain him; then your elders and your judges shall come forth, and they shall measure the distance to the cities which are around him who is slain; and it shall be, that the city which is nearest to the slain man, the elders of that city shall take a heifer, which has not been worked with, and which has not pulled in the yoke; and the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer to a rough ravine, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall strike off the heifer's neck there in the ravine; and the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come near; for them the Lord your God has chosen to minister to him, and to bless in the name of the Lord; and by their word shall every controversy and every assault be tried; and all the elders of that city, which is nearest to the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer that is beheaded in the valley; and they shall answer and say, Our hands have not shed this blood, nor have our eyes seen it. Be merciful, O Lord, to your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, and lay not innocent blood to your People of Israel's charge. And the blood shall be forgiven them. So shall you put away the guilt of innocent blood from among you, when you shall do that which is right in the sight of the Lord. (Devarim 21:1-9)

The law of egla arufa was instituted as a ritual of responsibility when a murder takes place. A lifeless body is found in a field, and the text of the Torah outlines the halachic responsibility, determined by a ritualistic measuring of the proximity to the scene of the crime.

The Talmud stresses that the Torah law has a moral component, requiring introspection. Moral responsibility is what should be measured: "What could the town have done to prevent the murder?" This is what the leadership should be taking stock of. In fact, in Talmudic literature, the egla arufa is used in a dramatic speech in a case in which the actual application of the halacha was precluded, being that the victim was not quite dead yet, and the perpetrator was known:

Our Rabbis taught: It once happened that two priests were equal as they ran to mount the ramp and when one of them came first within four cubits of the altar, the other took a knife and thrust it into his heart. R. Zadok stood upon the steps of the Hall and called out: "Our brethren of the House of Israel, hear ye! Behold it says: 'If one be found slain in the land...' On whose behalf shall we bring the egla arufa, on behalf of the city or of the Temple Courts?' The entire People wept. Then the father of this young priest came and found him in the throes of death. He said, 'Here is your atonement, and my son is not yet dead...' But does [the community of] Jerusalem bring an egla arufa? Surely it has been taught: Ten things were said concerning Jerusalem and this is one of them - it does not bring an egla arufa. Furthermore (Devarim 21): 'And it is not known who has smitten him,' - but here it is known who has smitten him! Rather, [R' Zadok's question was rhetorical] to increase the weeping. (Talmud Bavli Yoma 23a)

Given the near-murder almost perpetrated upon Yosef, the reference to egla arufa is chilling. Yosef seems to be calling for a careful measurement of responsibility; is he blaming his father? Is he blaming his brothers? Or is Yosef asking all involved to take the required steps and find the responsible party?


While this explanation may be compelling, most commentaries prefer a more technical association, with a particular law derived from egla arufa: One of the legal responsibilities which emerge from this law is the obligation to accompany a guest out of one's home and send them off with provisions for their journey.8 Numerous commentaries see the allusion to egla arufa as Yosef's way of reassuring his father that he was not to be blamed for what had happened: Yaakov had, indeed, fulfilled his halachic obligation by accompanying Yosef to the Hevron city limits.9 When Yosef attempted to persuade his father to return home, Yaakov taught him the law of egla arufa, and the importance of accompanying someone at the outset of a journey.

The backdrop for this explanation is a subtle term used as Yosef is sent on his mission:

And Israel said to Yosef, 'Are not your brothers feeding the flock in Shechem? Come, and I will send you to them.' And he said to him, 'Here am I'. And he said to him, 'Go, I beg you, see whether it is well with your brothers, and well with the flocks; and bring me word.' So he sent him out from the valley of Hevron, and he came to Shechem. (Bereishit 37:13-14)

Hevron, the town where Yaakov now lives, is situated up in the hills. Why, then, does the text say that Yaakov sent him from the "valley of Hevron"? This curious phrase is what leads some commentators10 to understand that Yaakov accompanied Yosef down from the hill area, walking with him out of city limits, where he taught him the law of egla arufa.

Interestingly, Rashi's comments on this verse take a different approach. "Valley" is seen to denote spiritual, rather than geographical or topographical depth. In Rashi's comments on this verse, the valley relates to something deep (amok) in Hevron, specifically the Covenant between God and someone who now lies buried deep in Hevron: Avraham. This Covenant spelled out the impending exile, slavery and eventual salvation,11 and at the very moment that Yosef is sent along his way, the elements are in place for the exile to begin. While Yaakov surely thought that Yosef was traveling northward toward Shechem, little did he know that Yosef was in actuality heading south. The time had arrived for the Divine plan to be set in motion, and nothing would hold it back. The Covenant would be fulfilled. Exile was now beginning.

Yaakov, for his part, was none too keen to see this part of Jewish history come to fruition at this particular juncture. Just prior to Yosef's departure, we are told that Yaakov had finally settled down. Understandably, after a life full of twists and turns and too much "excitement", Yaakov hoped for some peace and quiet.12

Commenting on the words, "These are the generations of Yaakov," Rashi tells us that the destinies of Yaakov and Yosef were intertwined. Rashi concludes with an additional comment: Yaakov wished to settle in tranquility, and he was "ambushed" by the anger of (the) Yosef (episode). Yaakov wanted peace, but the vicissitudes of his life were enough for many lifetimes. He would have been happy to put the next chapter on hold, to slow the pace of events, to wait a bit. The next chapter was exile, and the Talmud tells us that Yaakov was supposed to be actively involved:

R. Hiyya b. Abba said in R. Yohanan's name: It would have been fitting for our father Yaakov to go down into Egypt in iron chains, but his merit spared him, for it is written, 'I drew them with the cords of a man, with bands of love; and I was to them as they that take off the yoke on their jaws, and I laid meat before them.

Yaakov was meant to descend in iron chains,13 but instead he arrived on a royal convoy, with love in his heart, anticipating the reunion with his son.14 Be that as it may,15 he was now in Egypt and the exile could begin. The seeds of the Covenant, from the depths of Hevron, had begun to take root.

Unlike Yaakov, Yosef is not spared. Their destinies are linked; even if Yaakov looks away from his historic role at this juncture, Yosef must fulfill it instead. It is Yosef who is brought down to Egypt in shalshela'ot barzel, iron chains.


The Ariza"l teaches that barzel (spelled bet resh zayin lamed) is an acronym of Bilah Rachel Zilpah and Leah, the mothers of the 12 tribes. The implication is that had Yaakov come in chains of barzel, his family would have been united, they would have come together as one. Instead they come via the hatred of Yosef, fractured.

For the Jewish People, the Egyptian experience is known as the smelting furnace (cor barzel),16 a place where Jewish character was distilled, refined, where impurities were burned off. The number of times the Torah instructs us to remember that we were slaves in Egypt is almost too many to count.17 The Egypt experience creates morals as an imperative, and we are given no choice in the matter.18 Perhaps this is why it was appropriate that the sojourn in Egypt began in chains of iron.

Aside from building Jewish character, the mystics19 saw the purpose of exile as the liberation of holy souls trapped in non-Jewish bodies. The goal of the Exile in Egypt was liberation - of the Jews as well as the souls of some non-Jews. That may be the reason that Moshe took out the mixed multitude, yet that seems to have had negative results.

The Arizal,20 commenting on Yaakov's blessing to Yosef, makes reference to Rabbi Akiva, whose was skinned alive by the Romans, who used "combs of iron" - barzel. According to tradition Akiva is one of those holy souls that makes his way over to Judaism.21 While the barzel is used to kill, Rabbi Akiva accepts his role. He accepts his chains. He is ready for the next chapter to unfold. He teaches his students the importance of love and ethics, and embraces his role in history. He is Akiva ben Yosef, he is a son of Yosef, and the name Akiva is an alternate form of Yaakov. He is Akiva the son of Yosef, accepting the role thrust upon Yosef by Yaakov's desire for tranquility. He embraces the barzel.

Had the descent to Egypt taken place in an atmosphere of love, as one united family, perhaps the results would have been different. The Exile had indeed been fore-told, but the cruelty, the death, the despair, were not necessarily preordained. Instead, jealousy and discord lead them down to Egypt. One brother was rejected, almost killed. Had they had enough love for one another, they would have come to Egypt as a galvanized spiritual force. They would have been capable of uplifting the holy souls that were lost in Egypt. Perhaps it was the lack of love that Yosef was referring to when he made mention of the egla arufah.

A Blessing of Love

When the Torah speaks of the egla arufah, the role of the Kohanim is stressed alongside the role of the Elders. The Tribe of Levi are singled out as peacemakers:

"And the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come near; for them the Lord your God has chosen to minister to him, and to bless in the name of the Lord; and by their word shall every controversy and every assault be tried."

Not only is their mandate the creation of peace, they are described here as those who bless in the name of God. As we know, the essence of the Priestly Blessing is peace, and before bestowing this blessing upon the congregation, the Kohanim invoke their mandate to bless the People of Israel with love. Ironically, it is the sons of Levi (together with Shimon) who fight against and annihilate every last inhabitant of the city of Shechem. Moreover, they are identified as the instigators of the plan to kill Yosef.22 What a long way they come to symbolize brotherly love and responsibility! In the case of the egla arufa ceremony, God Himself inserts the Kohanim into the equation; it is they, specifically, whom the Torah commands to take a role, to take responsibility. We can only surmise the extent that Yosef's near-murder at the hands of his brothers impacts the egla arufa ceremony.

The path taken to Egypt was one of hatred, jealousy and deceit. Far from unified in love, the tribes were guilty of hate.

Perhaps a little more love could have made a huge difference.

  1. Perhaps this is the meaning of the passage in Moaz Zur which refers to Egypt as Malchut Egla. However, see Yirmiyahu 46:20, and see Netiv Bina, R' Yissachar Yaacobson, vol. 2, p. 373 who associates Egla with calf.
  2. See Daat Zikanim L'Baalei Tosfot 45:27.
  3. See Rashi on Sh'mot 32:4,where the emergence of the Golden Calf from the smelted gold is associated with Yosef.
  4. See Melachim 1 12:28 where Yerovam makes not one but two Golden Calves, in an attempt to create a pagan alternative to Jerusalem.
  5. For example see Midrash Sechel Tov (Buber edition) chapter 37 section 13.
  6. See Rashi's commentary to Bereishit 33:20.
  7. See comments of the Kli Yakar 45:27 who expresses amazement at Rashi's apparently uncharacteristic commentary to this verse. Later in his commentary Kli Yakar offers an alternative explanation of Rashi.
  8. See Rashi Dvarim 21:7, based on Talmud Bavli Sotah 45b.
  9. See comments of Hizkuni 45:27.
  10. See Hizkuni op cit. who cites the Targum as translating "he sent" as "he accompanied". This translation is not in Targum Unkolus 37:14 or Targum pseudo Yonatan, see Rabbi Menachem M. Kasher in Torah Shelyama page 1411 note 107, where he cites others who have the same tradition and a possible source.
  11. See Rashi Berishit 37:14, based on Talmud Bavli Sotah 11a.
  12. See my book Explorations Parshat Vayeshev, where I cite a teaching from Rabbi Soloveitchik, that Yaakov had thought that the details of the Covenant with Avraham had already been fulfilled through Yaakov's own exile in the house of Lavan.
  13. See comments of Bat Ayin parshat Vayeshev, who connects Yaakov's desire for tranquility, with his potential destiny of descending in chains.
  14. The Midrash Tehilim, Psalm 105, brings the opinion that Yaakov was to come down in chains, and then adds that this is comparable to the parable: If you want a cow, first bring the calf - the cow will follow. It is interesting that it uses a calf (egla) in the analogy.
  15. See comments of the Siftei Cohen 37:14.
  16. Devarim 4:20, 1 Melachim 8:51, Yirmiyahu 11:4.
  17. In fact, the exact number is 36 times!
  18. See Megale Amukot on Parshat Vayeshev, who links the furnace of steel, with the chains of steel, with Yaakov's desire for tranquility, and the cow following the calf (egel) to Egypt.
  19. See Pri HaAretz Vayigash.
  20. Sefer Haliquitim Vayeshev chapter 48.
  21. Most likely his father had converted.
  22. Rashi Bereishit 49:5.


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