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Joseph and the eglah arufah.

The longest single story in the book of Genesis is that of Joseph and his brothers (chapters 37-50), and it has been the focus of much parshanut and darshanut throughout the centuries. In this brief article, I would like to explore a small facet of this story, particularly as it is interpreted by the Midrash on Genesis, and formulated by Rashi. This interpretation in turn will be used to reflect upon the psychological trauma experienced by Jacob during the long years of separation from his beloved son.

The method I am adopting in this analysis is comparing elements of the midrash presented by the rabbis regarding a particular action of Joseph, with another part of the Joseph story. This comparison will elucidate the motivation of the rabbis in formulating their interpretation as they did. This method reflects the notion that peshat and derash connect with each other intertextually, and one can be explicated in light of the other. (1)

After Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers, Pharaoh hears the news and invites Jacob and all his sons to join Joseph in Egypt (45:17-18). He instructs Joseph to send wagons (agalot) to Jacob, so that Jacob can load up all his possessions and transport them to his new home (v. 19), an instruction that Joseph carries out (v. 21). When the brothers report back to Jacob that Joseph is alive and is the ruler of Egypt, Jacob is incredulous (v. 26). But then: They told him all the words of Joseph which he had spoken to them, and he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him. [Then] the spirit of their father Jacob was revived (v. 27). It would appear that Jacob believed that Joseph was alive only after having seen the agalot. It should be noted that the Torah specifies that these wagons were sent by Joseph, they are not attributed to Pharaoh, even though Pharaoh gave the order to send wagons. Additionally, Jacob intuited that it was his son who had sent them. Perhaps on this basis, the midrash interprets this gift not as a reference to wagons (the plural of agalah), but rather to heifers (the plural of eglah). (2) This rather strange pun is based on the idea that Joseph sent a signal to Jacob via the wagons that he was alive, by hinting at the last bit of Torah that they had studied together before their separation: the laws of the eglah arufah (the beheaded heifer), which appear in Deuteronomy, chapter 21. Once Jacob understood the allusion, he was convinced that Joseph was alive, and this knowledge revived him.

What does this midrash mean? What is the connection between the Joseph story and the laws of the eglah arufah? In order to answer these questions, we must read the relevant section in the Torah:

If one be found slain in the land lying in the field, and it be not known who hath slain him. Then thy elders and thy judges shall come forth, and it shall be, that the city which is next unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take a heifer. And the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer unto a rough valley and shall strike off the heifer's neck there in the valley. And all the elders of that city shall wash their hands over the heifer that is beheaded in the valley. And they shall answer and say, 'Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Be merciful, O Lord, unto thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and lay not innocent blood unto thy people of Israel's charge.' And the blood shall be forgiven them (Deut. 21:1-8).

One way of connecting the Joseph story and the eglah arufah is by noting that both deal with a body that is either dead (Deut. 21:1) or presumed dead (Gen. 37:33), and in each case the identity of the murderer is unknown (by the elders on the one hand, by Jacob on the other). In the case of the anonymous body that is found in the field, the elders are required to declare their innocence: they neither spilled his blood, nor had they seen him. Why would one suspect them of guilt in the death of this individual? The midrash, presented by Rashi, has the elders saying: we were not aware of this man and that he was travelling alone to another place; had we known, we would have provided him with food and an escort. By implication, had the elders known that this man was passing through and not taken care of him, they would have indeed been held accountable for his death. Commentators on the midrash (cited by the Torah Shelemah on 45:27) connect this idea with the situation described in Genesis 37:12, where Jacob sends Joseph off on his own to see how his brothers are faring in Shechem. They add the following details to the biblical story: Jacob is concerned for Joseph's safety, and wants to escort Joseph to his brothers, but Joseph insists that it is not necessary. So Joseph goes off unescorted to his brothers and 'turns into' a corpse, as declared by his father (37:33). Now that Joseph sends a signal of an eglah arufah to his father, Jacob knows that his son is alive, for only Joseph would know that this was the lesson that they had last studied together.

Clearly this midrash is not to be taken literally, for the Torah was not yet given to the nation of Israel, and indeed there is no nation of Israel as of yet. What might the midrash be intimating? For one thing, the picture of Jacob and Joseph learning Torah together, as a havrutah, reinforces the idea that there existed a special bond between father and son, based on a commonality of values and ideas. Jacob can decipher the shorthand that Joseph employs and understand its meaning. Beyond this, one can infer from the midrash that Jacob was plagued by terrible guilt throughout the period of Josephs absence: why did I send Joseph off alone to his brothers? Why did I not accompany him? By sending an eglah arufah, so to speak, to Jacob, Joseph is hinting that Jacob, like the elders, is not responsible for Joseph's death. Fortunately, in this case, there is a happy ending, for there really is no corpse. Jacob can set aside whatever guilt feelings he harbored over the years, because it is clear that Joseph was divinely chosen to save his family from famine, and he could not have done so without going down to Egypt. Accompanying Joseph to his brothers might have only postponed the inevitable, or even gotten in the way of progress.

But perhaps there is another way to connect the two situations, in which it is not the elders and Jacob who are compared, but rather the elders and the brothers. Just as the elders declared that Our hands have not shed this blood (Deut. 21:7), so did Reuben declare, Shed no blood (37:22). The elders slaughter a heifer, and Joseph's brothers slaughter a goat in order to dip Joseph's special coat in its blood (v. 31). The latter comparison highlights the contrast between the two sources: whereas the elders have not committed any crime, the brothers have. And Jacob may have suspected all along that the brothers were involved in Joseph's disappearance; when they wish to take Benjamin with them down to Egypt, Jacob hesitates, for he does not trust the brothers, and declares: It is me that you bereave: Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you would take away Benjamin (42:36).

When Joseph sends the sign of the eglah arufah, he may be saying in essence: yes, I was sacrificed, but unlike the real eglah arufah, I am alive. And even though the brothers were responsible for my disappearance, they did not shed my blood. Therefore, we, the family of Jacob, can hope to achieve redemption and forgiveness, much as the elders prayed for forgiveness at the end of the sacrificial ceremony (Deut. 21: 8).

Both interpretations of the midrash suggest that Jacob suffered terribly during the long years of Joseph's absence: beyond the loss of his beloved son, Jacob blamed either himself or his sons for what had happened. When Joseph sends the sign of the eglah arufah, it is a way of offering his father the opportunity to start afresh, to rid himself of the guilt and blame that has haunted him for years, much as the eglah arufah cleanses the community of guilt for the death of the anonymous man. In this way, Jacob can truly be revived.


(1.) For a recent example of this method, see: Nathaniel Helfgot, "Unlocking the Riddle of Abraham the Iconoclast: A Study in the Intertextuality of Peshat and Derash", in: Tradition, 43:3 (Fall 2010) pp. 9-16.

(2.) BereshitRabbah, Vayigash 94:3.

Ruth Walfish has a Ph.D. in Jewish Education from Hebrew University and heads the Department of Bible at Efrata Teacher's College in Jerusalem. She is an associate editor of the Jewish Bible Quarterly.
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Author:Walfish, Ruth
Publication:Jewish Bible Quarterly
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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