“Parsha and Purpose” – Vayigash 5781

“Parsha and Purpose” – Vayigash 5781
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Secret Signs: Passing on Judaism’s Code of Conduct”

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“Secret Signs: Passing on Judaism’s Code of Conduct”

Is there a mandated moral course of action to take in situations where there is no explicit ruling in the Torah?

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayigash, we find assurances of how this responsibility is part of the Jewish halakhic mandate.

When Yosef reconciles with his brothers, he sends them back home with gifts and food for his father and family – including something which, on the surface, is puzzling:

‎וַיִּתֵּ֨ן לָהֶ֥ם ‎יוֹסֵ֛ף עֲגָל֖וֹת ‎עַל־פִּ֣י פַרְעֹ֑ה

Yosef gave them agalot – wagons, or cows, depending on the translation – with the permission of Pharaoh.

And when Yaakov sees these agalot and is told that his son, Yosef, is alive, his spirit is revived because of the message these agalot convey. Immediately, Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains the connection between this gift of agalot and Yaakov’s spirit.

Yosef knew that his father might not believe his brothers when they inform him that he is still alive.

He therefore sent the agalot as a sign, a secret code indicating to his father that he has not forgotten the last topic they studied together before they were separated: the halakhic concept of the “eglah arufah.”

According to the laws of the eglah arufah, residents of a own are supposed to escort visiting guests to the outskirts of the town in order to protect them.

If a traveler is murdered in the area between one town and the next, the town leaders must take responsibility for not keeping him/her safe.

This happens through the medium of the eglah arufah ritual.

On the one hand, sending the agalot to Yaakov is Yosef’s way of telling him that he is, in fact, alive.

But at the same time, it is also Yosef’s way of sending his father an underlying message: perhaps Yaakov is not completely free of responsibility for Yosef’s life of tragedy. After all, Yaakov sent Yosef alone from Hebron to his brothers.

There is also a larger narrative highlighted by Yosef’s gift of the agalot that we MUST extrapolate from the text.

Mentioning the study session between Yaakov and Yosef reminds us that our patriarchs’ and matriarchs’ lives were consumed with discussing ideals that would eventually make up the moral and thical fiber of the Jewish people.

We see this throughout Bereishit.  Another example is in the famous debate between Avraham and God over Sodom and Amorah; Avraham reminds God, “Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” – would not the Creator of the universe want ethics and righteousness to be part of His conduct with Sodom and Amorah?

This ethical and moral foundation is emphasized several times within the Book of Bereishit and it is why our Sages call it ספר הישר – “The Book of Righteousness,” for it animates an ethos that will shape Judaism and its worldview. 

Baked into the Jewish tradition is an elastic clause that demands from us to do good and right in all times and in all situations. 

A responsibility to be a moral and ethical people.

When we read the story of the agalot through this prism, we learn that Yosef is sending his father Yaakov an important message. He is saying, “Abba, your lessons were not lost on me. I acted ethically and morally even in Egypt.”

May we merit to successfully pass on our spiritual genetic makeup to future generations and conduct ourselves according to the ethics embedded in Judaism.

Shabbat Shalom.

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