The Wagons of Assimilation

June 24, 2009

5 min read


Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27 )

Transferring the holiness of Israel to Egyptian soil.

"...and he [Jacob] saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to transport him, then the spirit of their father Jacob was revived." (Genesis 45:27)

From this verse it would seem that Joseph sent the wagons to Jacob. And indeed the Midrash relates that Joseph used the wagons to remind Jacob of the last topic they were learning when he left home that fateful day 22 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 for calf (egel), is hinted to in wagon (agala).

But this is highly problematic, for the Torah explicitly states that it was Pharaoh who commanded Joseph to send wagons to transport the family, and that Joseph sent wagons "according to the word of Pharaoh." Although the Midrash says that the wagons Pharaoh sent were bedecked with idolatry and Judah burnt them and Joseph sent other wagons, this too presents difficulties, for the Torah later refers to the wagons in which Jacob'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 Jacob's family, where did Jacob see an added hint linking the wagons with calves? Upon closer analysis of Pharaoh's command to take wagons and Joseph's response, the answer to all these questions will become evident.

Pharaoh told Joseph:

"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." (Genesis 45:19)

Pharaoh greatly desired that Joseph's whole illustrious family come to live in Egypt, especially after witnessing the great benefit brought to the kingdom by Joseph.

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

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

When Jacob saw the wagons that Pharaoh had sent and was informed of the extra wagons that Joseph added for their possessions, it revived his spirit. He recognized that Joseph 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 Jacob and Joseph were discussing was eglah arufah. The commentators Daas Zekeinim and Maharal both explain that when Jacob sent Joseph to check on his brothers, he bid him farewell and began to escort him as Jewish law dictates. Joseph, a boy of 17, begged his father, then 108 years old, not to accompany him down the steep hill from Hebron, which would necessitate a difficult climb back up. Jacob replied that the Mitzvah of escorting people on a journey is of great importance.

We learn the importance of escorting people 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 Talmud (Sotah 45b) asks: Could anyone have really suspected the elders of the city of having shed his blood? The Talmud 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 required to accompany his friend no more than four amos (approximately eight feet), even that suffices to show the one being accompanied that he is not alone but is connected to others. This spiritual connection gives the one accompanied a communal merit, which is a potent protection against harm.

The Mitzvah of escorting 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 the Jewish people through his connection to the one who escorts him on the beginning of his journey. Similarly, one may physically be in exile, far from Israel, but spiritually connected to it. Jacob's realization that Joseph still lived in accord with this concept caused his spirit to revive.

When Joseph 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, Joseph 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. Joseph 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, Jacob sent Judah ahead to prepare the way. The Sages say that his function was to establish a Yeshiva in Goshen. Seemingly this task should have been given to Levi, the teacher of the Jewish people, not to Judah, the king. But this Yeshiva was not merely a place of Torah study, it was the means of transferring the holiness of Israel to Egyptian soil. Goshen was to become a spiritually sovereign region within the environs of Egypt. Areas adjacent to Israel conquered in war take on some of the spiritual status of Israel. Thus the king, Judah, was needed to conquer Goshen as a spiritual extension of the Land of Israel.

It was Judah who exercised his royal power by bringing the extra wagons back to Jacob for all their possessions. He thereby nullified Pharaoh's purpose of promoting Jacob's assimilation. When the Sages say Judah burnt the idolatry of Pharaoh's wagons, they mean that he destroyed them by negating their intended function.

The Sages tell us that the study halls and Shuls in exile are parts of Israel 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 Israel. As long as one is physically prevented from being in Israel, he must transplant Israel 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 study in the Diaspora lands, so that they can all be soon transplanted to their proper location in the Land of Israel.

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