Vayigash - 5778/2017~ “Circling the Wagons”
In a drama worthy of the greatest Hollywood stories, Yaakov is informed that the left-for-dead Yosef is alive and well and in fact rules Egypt (you can’t make this stuff up). Not content with just informing us of this, the Torah (Braishis, 45:27-28) describes the revelation as follows: “And he (Yaakov) saw the wagons-and his spirit was revived”. Rashi picks up on this, and citing the Medrash, explains that Yosef was “reminding” his father of their parting time together, during which they were studying intimate Torah laws that deal with a calf, or an “Egla” (the Mitzva knows as “Egla Arufa”-see Deuteronomy …). As Yosef anticipated, Yaakov would view the connection between the special” Agalot” (wagons) he sent and the Torah learning they last shared together dealing with an “Egla” as a “pun intended” directly from his live and kicking son. This is in fact Yaakov’s response: “And he (Yaakov) said how great! My son Joseph still lives! I shall go and see him before I die”.
The question that I think remains is: why is important for us and for posterity to have a record of the personal codes and passwords utilized between Yosef and his father? What lesson can we derive from the Torah’s taking the time to show us how exactly how Yosef “proved” to Yaakov that he was alive? What difference does it make whether Yosef remembered what they learned or for that matter what Yaakov ate for breakfast the day he and Yosef departed? And if it wasn’t to prove it was truly he Yosef that sent the brothers back with a caravan, why share this information altogether?
I’d like to offer an idea that is borne of an admitted hobby of mine: Mining the Torah for behind-the-scenes Halachic issues that might form the background for otherwise non-Halachic scenarios [One theory behind this endeavor is the conviction that the Torah, the blue print for the creation of the world existed from day 1-long before it was transmitted to us at Mt. Sinai; that our forefathers knew it, and were super-sensitive to every aspect of Torah observance taking no action without a vetting of the Halachic basis and ramifications of their every step; that their very breath was guided by Torah and its Instructions”-the Halacha.]
The Halachic issue was raised in our recent Wednesday night “TOWN HALL” (TOWN=Torah On Wednesday Night), which was: “Knowing that Yaakov kept the Torah, and knowing that there is a widely agreed upon Torah law which prohibits a Jew from leaving Eretz Yisrael, how did Yaakov, almost immediately upon learning of Yosef’s whereabouts, proclaim his intent to go see Yosef in Egypt?
Did Yaakov not know what the Rambam, Maimonides knew, that “It is forbidden to leave Eretz Yisrael for the Diaspora at all times”! (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Melakhim 5:9). To this very day, any Torah Jew’s exodus from Israel must come with some Torah-sanctioned justification for leaving the land that us Jews are intractably bound to!
BUT- let’s look at the same Rambam (Halacha 9). Maimonides continues to say that the prohibition has three exceptions, for which one MAY leave the land: Marriage, livelihood/economics, and Torah Study.
Did these exceptions apply to Yaakov?
To find a wife: Well we know Yaakov had at least 4 wives in his lifetime. Even if he was seeking another wife (it’s unclear how many were still alive at the time) -We are given no reason to believe any great Shidduchim awaited him in Egypt, and his father Yitzchak had already instructed him to limit his search for a wife to his own family back in Charan…
To seek “Parnassa”-livelihood? Well, his children had already taken charge of this and were sent to “buy supplies” in Egypt. Clearly, Yaakov didn’t need to now go himself after already dispatching 10 able agents and “buyers” to scour the Egyptian marketplace…
Torah? Hmmmm… we learned in Parashas Vayeshev that Yaakov was Yosef’s “private Rebbe”-that Yosef was his father’s prize student with whom he shared the vast Torah learning Yaakov learned from the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever (see Rashi, Braishis 37:3). Yet-that learning was interrupted!!!! After leaving home on a temporary mission to find his brothers, at age 17, Yosef’s learning with his Father Yaakov, stopped! Yosef had a 22-year gap in his Torah learning and education!!! Yaakov lost his star pupil (remember Pirkei Avot? – “from my students I learn the most”).
Maybe THAT’S what Yosef was telling Yaakov with the “code of the wagons”-the Agalot. Yosef anticipated that as soon as Yaakov found out his son was alive, he’d want to come, but would immediately wonder: “am I permitted to leave Eretz Yisrael just to fulfill a parental desire to see my long-lost son?”. Being outside of Eretz Yisrael is described in the Talmud as “like being without a G-d”! So, Yosef reminds Yaakov: when we separated we were learning Torah! But that Torah, my learning and your teaching STOPPED. As we all know (and as the Rambam codified), one is permitted to leave Eretz Yisrael for the sake of Torah study. Yosef was giving Yaakov the HETER, the “permission”, letting Yaakov know that his trip to Egypt would not be a simple family reunification, but that Yaakov still had a willing Talmid, a Torah student sitting and waiting to get back to his studies…!
And it appears that Yaakov listened-as we see later in our Parasha (Braishis, 46:28), before going down to Egypt Yaakov sent Yehuda in advance. “And he sent Yehuda ahead of him to “teach” in Goshen. Says Rashi: he had Yehuda set up a Yeshiva, a Beis Medrash and study hall, to be established and in place well in advance of his arrival. Why didn’t Yaakov wait to build his shul when he got there? Because the “raison d’être”, the HETER and basis for going down to Egypt, was to be ensconced not in the Egyptian palace, but in the Beis Medrash, learning with his children, grandchildren, and all of us-the future generations.
Friends, whether you accept this Chiddush or not, it highlights what I believe is a most powerful lesson. We may ask ourselves, especially in the midst of this “Holiday” season where our minority status is most felt, “why has Hashem placed us, now and throughout the past 2000 years in the midst of some of the least Torah-conducive and spirituality-enhancing environments? Why not allow us the ability of easy access to a true Jewish life by keeping us in our home-back in Eretz Yisrael? What is our mission here in exile away from the center of G-dliness? And the answer is: we are here to impact all those Josephs, all those lost sparks, those souls that need and seek teachers, examples, models of behavior, lights to the world.
**And if you wonder whether this is something we are capable of, just take a look at the lesson the entire world learned about the meaning of brotherly love, unity and togetherness just this week, where, after the tireless efforts of so many Jews across the entire spectrum of religious and ideological belief, and with the support of a cross-partisan network of politicians, justice for a fellow Jew and human was achieved through the hand of the leader of the free world… (my mother shared with me last night how every single day from day 1 of the incarceration she included “Shalom Mordechai Halevi Ben Rivka” in her daily Tefillin). I believe it is this display of unity and “Achdus” that tipped the scales towards justice in this matter.**
So, my fellow “Yehudans”, Circle the Wagons! let’s get to the business of “setting up our study halls”-right here in our homes, in our offices, in the streets of our “Egypt”. I’ll see you in the Bet Medrash-and soon enough we’ll be on our way back to Jerusalem for sure.