Parashas Vayiggash

In this week’s parashah, Yosef reveals himself to his brothers and tells them to bring their father Yaakov to Egypt. He sent them with wagons for the entire family. The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 94:3 notes that the wagons (agalos) alluded to the law of the axed heifer (eglah arufah), concerning a corpse found between two cities (Devarim 21). Yosef had been studying this law with his father just before he went out to seek his brothers, and ultimately was sold to traders who took him to Egypt. The Midrash relates:
Yosef said to them: “If he [Yaakov] believes you [that I am alive and in good condition], well and good. And if not, tell him: ‘At the time I left you, was it not the chapter of the axed heifer that I was studying?’” It is written (Bereishis 45:28): “And Yisrael said: ‘It is great – my son Yosef still lives!’” He was saying: “Great is the fortitude of my son Yosef, for he suffered several major hardships and still maintained his righteousness. His fortitude is greater than mine, for I sinned and said, ‘My path is hidden from Hashem.’”
The Maggid explains this Midrash as follows. When a corpse is found between two cities, the Torah dictates that the men of the city closest to the corpse should perform the ceremony of the axed heifer. This law is not based on a presumption that the person whose body was found had been murdered by someone from the closest city. Rather, the fact that this person’s death had taken place in the proximity of that city, as opposed to somewhere else, indicates that the person had borne the Divine retribution for that city’s sins. The men of the city are therefore obliged to atone for his death through the axed heifer ceremony.
It is written (Eichah 4:20): “The breath of our nostrils, Hashem’s annointed one, was caught in their traps.” The Talmud Yerushalmi, Shabbos 15:1, relates that R. Yehudah HaNasi, R. Chiya, and R. Yishmael of the house of R. Yosse were studying Megillas Eichah, and afterward R. Yehudah HaNasi injured his finger. R. Yehudah HaNasi attributed the injury to a sin on his part. R. Chiya disagreed, telling R. Yehudah HaNasi that he was suffering for the sins of the generation, and quoting the verse we just mentioned. R. Yishmael remarked: “Even if we had not been dealing with this topic, it would have been proper for us to explain the matter in this way. All the more so, seeing that we were were dealing with the topic.” R. Yehudah HaNasi and his colleagues had just been studying the principle that a righteous person can undergo suffering for the sins of others. R. Yehudah HaNasi’s study of this principle foreshadowed his serving as an example of it.
Similarly, just before Yaakov sent Yosef to the Hebron valley to search for his brothers, they had been studying the topic of the axed heifer. Afterward, when Yosef was assaulted by his brothers and sold as a slave, he understood that this course of events was in line with the topic he had been studying: Hashem had cast severe judgment upon him for the benefit of others. Years later, when he arranged for Yaakov to join him in Egypt, he wished to communicate to Yaakov that he had maintained his righteousness. He therefore sent the message: “At the time I left you, was it not the chapter of the axed heifer that I was dealing with?” He was telling Yaakov that his faith had held firm – he had always kept in mind that his suffering was a means Hashem was using to bring good to the world. Yaakov understood what Yosef was saying. He thus declared:  “Great is the fortitude of my son Yosef, for he suffered several major hardships and still maintained his righteousness. His fortitude is greater than mine, for I sinned and said, ‘My path is hidden from Hashem.’” Yaakov rated Yosef as better at handling suffering than he was; he had lamented troubles that befell him, whereas Yosef accepted all his suffering with love.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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