Now that Yosef has told his brothers who he really is, it’s time to get his father to join the rest of the family in Egypt. What’s more, when Pharaoh gets word of the connection, he instructs Yosef to tell his brothers to fetch their dad and reunite the family. “Do as follows: take from the land of Egpyt wagons for your children and your wives, and bring your father here” (Genesis 45:19).
When the entourage arrives in Canaan, and the news is delivered to Ya’akov, the old man is stunned. “His heart went numb, for he did not believe them. But when they recounted all that Yosef had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to transport him, the spirit of their father Ya’akov revived” (45:26-27). There are those wagons again!
In a remarkably creative reading, and with their agenda on full display, the rabbis make sense of the wagons with the following teaching: “Rabbi Levi said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan bar Sheolah: [Yosef] said to [his brothers]: if he believes you, great; if not, you tell him that at the time I was separated from him, wasn’t I studying the passage about the calf whose neck is broken? Therefore, Scripture says, ‘he saw the wagons'” (Bereshit Rabbah 94:3). The midrash is relying on the similarity of the Hebrew words for wagon–‘agalah–and calf–‘eglah (same letters, different vocalization). Of course it’s a stretch, and of course it’s a blatant anachronism. There’s no way that Yosef was studying the passage from Deuteronomy 21 back in Genesis 37! But the rabbis are making a point. On Shabbat morning, I want to tease out that point, and connect it to recent events in the American Jewish experience.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise