Friday, December 29, 2006

What Message Did Yosef Send His Father?

Unfortunately, a technical difficulty caused me to lose this post just before publishing it last week. I had to regenerate and now, with the passage of time, it is slightly "outdated" but hopefully still interesting....

In Parashat Vayigash, Yosef finally reveals his true identity to his brothers. Almost immediately after this dramatic event, Yosef instructs his siblings to return to the Land of Canaan, apprise their father Yaaqov of the situation and bring the Patriarch and his family down to Egypt. Not surprisingly, the elderly Yaaqov is initially hesitant to accept the report that Yosef is alive and well in the Land of Egypt. However, the Torah tells us:

And they told him [Yaaqov] all the words of Yosef that he had spoken to them, and he [Yaaqov] saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to carry him - and the spirit of Yaaqov their father was rejuvenated.

Rashi, quoting Midrash Tanhuma, explains that the wagons that Yaaqov saw had a deeper symbolic significance:

Yosef gave the brothers a sign to communicate to their father - the subject he had been studying [with Yaaqov] at the time of their separation was the laws of the Decapitated Calf (the Eglah Arufa, a play on the word "agalot", wagons).

The Midrash indicates that, through comissioning wagons - agalot - to transport his father, Yosef intended to make a reference to the laws of the Eglah Arufa. What are these laws, and how are they relevant to the narrative at hand?

The Book of Deuteronomy describes a scenario in which the body of a homicide victim is discovered between two cities. Extensive criminal investigations fail to identify any suspects or leads. When the authorities finally give up any hope of solving the case, the elders of the nearest city are obligated to bring a young calf to an untilled valley and to decapitate it there in the presence of Kohanim. While carrying out the ritual, the elders must wash their hands and proclaim "our hands did not shed this blood, and our eyes did not see it." A prayer is then recited by the Kohanim, in which Hashem is asked to provide atonement to the Jewish people for the loss of innocent life and to prevent the occurrence of any similar tragedies in the future. The guidelines for fulfilling this mitsvah are known as the laws of Eglah Arufah.

It seems peculiar that the Midrash would suggest that, of all mitsvot, this unusual mitsvah was the last subject that Yosef and Yaaqov studied together before their separation. Apparently, the Rabbis saw some connection between the theme of the Eglah Arufah ritual and the story of Yosef. What is it?

In order to answer this question, we must consider the message of the mitsvah of Eglah Arufah more deeply. Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the procedure of the decapitated calf is the role of the elders in the process. The elders are required to make a public statement to the effect that they were not involved in the mysterious homicide in any way. Certainly, we do not suspect them of having participated in the murder. So why does the Torah command them to wash their hands of the crime and declare their innocence?

I believe that, with this commandment, the Torah teaches us a profound lesson about communal leadership. Violent crimes are not perpetrated in a vacuum. They are expressions of the underlying social dynamic that led up to them. In that sense, they are often symptomatic of more pervasive societal ills that need to be addressed. It is the obligation of religious and political leaders to be vigilant about identifying and dealing with aggressive and antisocial trends in their communities so as to prevent the occurrence of murder and assault. When such outbursts do occur, their causes should be quickly traced and their perpetrators brought to justice. Whatever the case may be, it is incumbent upon the elders of a city to be sensitive to the presence of aggression and turmoil among its residents. This enables them to nip problems in the bud when they do emerge.

Thus, when a homicide cannot be solved, we lay the blame at the feet of the leaders. The inability of the authorities to track down any suspects in such a heinous crime is a tragic reflection of their own failings. Because the elders have turned a blind eye to the aggressive trends in their community, they are unable to make sense out of the homicide. They never thought such a thing could happen in their city, and are still at a loss to explain how it did. Because the idealistic elders overestimated the level of peacefulness and harmony in their city, they couldn't see the aggression simmering beneath the surface. And this very naivete on their part is what they must repent for as they take responsibility, at least to some extent, for the homicide that has occurred in their midst.

With this concept in mind, we can immediately see the relevance of the Eglah Arufah to Yaaqov and Yosef. Yaaqov held all of his sons in very high esteem. He never imagined that the brothers could be capable of harming Yosef. He assumed that they would get over their initial feelings of resentment and jealousy, and would come around to seeing Yosef as he saw him - a talented young leader who was destined to become the spiritual and political luminary of the next generation. He certainly never dreamed of the possibility that their aggressive feelings would bring them close to killing Yosef in cold blood.

Tragically, it was precisely the naive perspective of Yaaqov that served to exacerbate the tensions among the brothers. Yaaqov was certain that the special treatment he gave Yosef - the beautiful coat, exemption from manual labor, and private tutoring - would be understood and appreciated by everyone in the long run. In reality, every passing day brought with it an increase in the brothers' feelings of anger toward Yosef and alienation from him. Their perception of Yosef as a slick, egomaniacal demagogue who had Yaaqov under his spell was constantly reinforced. And they feared that their father would soon appoint the young upstart as their master, ruining any hopes they may have had for a pleasant spiritual or material future.

If only Yaaqov had been more honest about the emotional turmoil that the brothers were experiencing, if only he had recognized their aggressive emotions for what they were, if only he had fully appreciated the immaturity of Yosef and the impact his provocative actions were having on the family, he could have prevented the attempted murder of Yosef and his eventual sale into slavery. But he was unable to look past his comfortable, idealistic picture of his sons and to examine what was really transpiring between them. As a result, he unknowingly fanned the flames of sibling rivalry and caused the tension of the situation to escalate to unbearable levels.

Indeed, even after evidence of Yosef's death was presented to Yaaqov, he never suspected his sons' involvement in their brother's murder. Despite the fact that he had heard them express hostility toward Yosef in the past, he simply couldn't allow himself to believe that they would ever do such a thing.

This is the connection that the Rabbis intend to make betwen the mitsvah of Eglah Arufah and the reunion of Yosef and Yaaqov. When Yaaqov saw the wagons and heard Yosef's message, he suddenly experienced an epiphany. Everything fell into place, and he recognized the role he had unwittingly played in the painful and prolonged drama. Like the elders of a city in which an unsolved homicide is discovered, Yaaqov took responsibility at that moment for his naivete, for not allowing himself to see his children for what they were. He realized that turning a blind eye to the aggressive dynamic in his family had cost him dearly. In that sense, he brought his own Eglah Arufah the moment he received word from Yosef.

The Rabbis emphasize that this was not the first time Yaaqov had considered the topic of the Eglah Arufah. In fact, he had been studying it with Yosef right before the latter's disappearance. The Rabbis mean to teach us that deep down, from the beginning, Yaaqov probably had a dim sense of the seriousness of the situation fomenting between the brothers. Yaaqov may already have voiced some of his concerns about the issue to Yosef during their time together. But he didn't complete his study of the mitsvah when he needed it the most - when he still had the power to diffuse the explosive family dynamic he had allowed to develop and preempt its tragic consequences. It was only in retrospect that Yaaqov learned the lesson of true leadership that is represented so powerfully by the Eglah Arufah ritual.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Real Angels?

Whew! Now that I am finished with my final paper for this semester of graduate school, I'm back!

The first verse of Vayishlah seems innocent enough:

And Yaaqov sent messengers before him to his brother Esav; to the Land of Seir, the field of Edom.

However, Rashi, following the Midrash Rabba, offers a startling comment here:

"And Yaaqov sent messengers [malachim]." Real malachim - i.e., angels.

The idea that Yaaqov sent actual angels to communicate with Esav is problematic for obvious reasons. What do the Rabbis mean to teach us with this unusual "twist" on the narrative?

A closer examination of the Midrash reveals that it is playing off of a fascinating juxtaposition in the Torah. At the conclusion of last week's Parasha, Vayetse, we read:

And Yaaqov went along his way, and angels of God encountered him. And, when he saw them, Yaaqov said, "This is a camp of God" - and he called the name of the place "Mahanayim" [camps].

When our Parasha begins with a reference to malachim, then, it is tempting to link them to the malachim who've just been mentioned previously, i.e., the camp of angels revealed to Yaaqov.

Still, though, we must explain the role that angels play in this entire narrative. When Yaaqov left his parents home, he was shown a prophetic vision in which angels ascended and descended a ladder. Upon his return to the Holy Land, angels again appear to him. What purpose do these encounters with angels serve?

In order to explain the function of angels here, we must consider Yaaqov's mindset at the moment he was exiled from Israel. He probably interpreted that turn of events as a sign that he was officially excluded from the Divine plan that had begun to unfold through the lives of his father and grandfather. Like Yishmael before him, Yaaqov may have suspected that he had been cast out of the Abrahamic household for good.

The angels in the dream signify Hashem's reply to Yaaqov's concerns. As Rashi explains, Yaaqov witnessed the angels of Israel symbolically returning to heaven while the angels of the Diaspora descended to accompany him on his journey. The message was clear - although the trip to Haran represented a long, challenging and quite unexpected "detour" in the Patriarch's life, this was all a part of the Divine plan. Living with Lavan had an important role to play in Yaaqov's development, and this itself was directed by Providence.

This theme is also brought out by the angels that greet Yaaqov upon his return to Israel. These, according to Rashi, were the angels of the Land of Israel who came to resume their escort of Yaaqov after more than twenty years of separation. The fact that Parashat Vayetse begins and ends with angelic encounters underscores the idea that everything that occurred to Yaaqov during his exile was a part of the Divine masterplan.

The same can be said regarding Yaaqov's reconnection with his brother Esav. Yaaqov's outreach to his brother was not sentimentally or personally motivated. On the contrary, emotionally speaking, it is unlikely that Yaaqov was enthusiastic about the reunion. However, he recognized that the fulfillment of God's promise to him was contingent upon a rekindling of the relationship torn asunder so many years back. He realized that he would never be able to establish himself as the legitimate successor of Avraham and Yitschaq without the tacit approval of his older sibling. Yaaqov saw this "political move" as yet another necessary step in the implementation of Hashem's plan.

With this in mind, we can understand what the Rabbis mean when they say that the messengers Yaaqov sent were "real angels". They don't intend to suggest that Yaaqov dispatched spiritual beings to communicate with his brother. What they are trying to teach us is that the reconciliation of Yaaqov and Esav was also a crucial component of the Divine agenda.

Although the messengers Yaaqov sent were human beings, the objective they pursued - that of bringing Yaaqov and Esav back together - was a Godly one. In this sense, it is appropriate to say that they were "angels" dedicated to executing a holy mission.