The Painful Truth
Sometimes the midrash takes up a difficult verse and offers an interpretation that is even more opaque. This week’s Torah portion contains an example of this. We are told that initially Jacob refused to believe the brothers when they told him that Joseph was still among the living. However, “when they recounted all that Joseph had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to transport him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived” (Gen. 45:27).
It is not clear why the sight of the wagons led Jacob to believe that Joseph was still alive. Perhaps if he only had the brothers’ assurance that Joseph was still alive he would have refused to believe them. However, once he saw the wagons sent to transport him and his family to Egypt, he realized that only someone who both wielded great power and who cared about him deeply could and would have arranged this transport. In fact a number of medieval commentators understand the verse in this fashion.
However, Rashi cites a midrash asserting that the wagons or agalot were a sign sent by Joseph to Jacob. When Jacob last saw Joseph, says the midrash, they had been studying the laws of the eglah arufah, the broken-necked calf, found in Deuteronomy 21:1–9. The Torah teaches that when a corpse is found in an uninhabited area and the murderer is unknown, the elders of the city closest to the corpse go to the scene of the crime and perform a ceremony. This includes breaking the neck of a calf in a streambed that has been neither sowed nor plowed. Hoping that Jacob would be struck by the orthographic and phonic similarities between the words eglah and agalah, Joseph was attempting to remind Jacob that he remembered what they had been studying before he was sold, something that no one but Joseph would know.
This midrash is clever in its way but also bizarre and mystifying. While the midrash often retrojects the intense rabbinic devotion to study onto biblical figures, one has to ask why this is done in this instance. The midrash also asks us to believe that simply by seeing the wagons Jacob would have understood the arcane message that Joseph intended to convey. We have to consider the possibility, therefore, that rather than simply engaging in word play the midrash is telling us something of substance.
To unravel the mystery of the midrash, we must address a difficulty in the Joseph narrative. In the entire story, there is no indication that Jacob was ever told what happened between Joseph and his brothers in Dothan on that fateful day. Jacob no doubt wondered how it was that although his sons had told him that Joseph had been torn apart by beasts, he was alive and well in Egypt. Even before Joseph’s reappearance, there are hints that Jacob suspected his sons of lying to him. Was Jacob in fact told of the brothers’ sale of Joseph? If not, was this the result of a conscious decision on the part of the brothers or did Jacob, sensing that he might be devastated by the answer, choose not to inquire?
The midrash provides one possible answer to this question: it was Joseph who, without speaking a word, convinced Jacob that he would be better off remaining ignorant of the circumstances surrounding Joseph’s disappearance. The eglah arufah ceremony is performed when the murderer is unknown. At the end of the ceremony the elders of the town literally wash their hands of the matter, declaring, “Our hands did not shed this blood” (Deut. 21:6–7). Joseph was responding to Jacob’s misgivings by saying: Treat the mystery surrounding me as a case of an eglah arufah,where the facts are not known and all the parties involved can walk away claiming clean hands and ignorance of the crime. What you suspect about your sons may be true, but no good cause is served by pursuing this matter.
In urging this course of action upon his father, Joseph was showing compassion toward his brothers in response to his brothers’ newfound ability to put responsibility before envy. As a youth, Joseph was constantly bringing news of his brothers’ misdeeds to his fathers. Now, as an older and wiser adult, he kept their most terrible secret away from his father’s ears. Of course, Joseph was also protecting his father. The truth can sometimes be destructive. In Joseph’s estimation the relationship between his brothers and his father would not survive a revelation of the brothers’ heinous act. Better to keep the truth a secret and preserve family harmony.
The brothers themselves could have chosen to confess their crime to Jacob but not surprisingly they chose silence. It must have been more difficult for them to keep their secret in Joseph’s presence than in his absence. With Joseph around they had the added burden of knowing that he might choose at any moment to betray them to Jacob. At times the tension must have been so great that the brothers longed to unburden themselves of their terrible secret. To do so, however, would only have alienated them from their father and would have caused him endless pain. And so, like most families, Jacob and his sons did not live happily ever after; yet they were again one family.
In most families there is a price to be paid to remain part of the clan, sometimes small and other times significant. You have to laugh at your father’s jokes if you want to stay in his good graces; or, you must put aside years of parental neglect or abuse to be able to sit at a Seder with him. Sometimes, particularly in marriages, the price of a relationship is silence about one’s own betrayals. A remorseful husband may feel compelled to tell his spouse about a past infidelity, but he is often motivated more by the desire to unburden himself of guilt than by a sense of integrity. Sometimes what we owe the ones we love is to bear the unbearable knowledge of our own sins. Our penance comes not through confession but through changing the direction in our lives.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.