Wagons of Wisdom: The Enduring Legacy of Jewish Values©
Rabbi David Baum - Vayigash
December 23, 2023
Take a moment, and think: is there one thing will never do because your parents forbade it? Now, is there one thing you've done even though your parents forbade it?
There is an activity I do with every couple I marry. Most of these couples are in their 20's and moved out of their parents years before our meeting. I ask them, "When your parents turned your childhood room into an exercise room, what did you take with you, and what did you leave behind?"
It is a metaphor for what we take into our adult lives and what we leave behind. Are we obligated to bring anything from our childhood room, or can we start over?!?
Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, one of the most pre-eminent scholars of the 20th century, who was one of the most influential leaders of Conservative Judaism but also created the Reconstructionist movement in Judaism, once famously, or some say infamously said, "Jewish law gets a vote, but not a veto." In other words, Jewish law is to be respected, but when it comes to current issues, those laws will not have the ultimate say in how we live our lives today.
If we think about this more broadly, we see that it is an issue that every generation deals with: does our past get to have a veto for our actions today? Do parents have 'veto' over the decisions their children make, even when they become adults, even after the parents die?
In this week's parashah Vayigash, we see a similar tension as we read about Jacob and his journey to Egypt.
Here is what the text says when Jacob's son inform him that Joseph is still alive:
וַיַּגִּדוּ לוֹ לֵאמֹר עוֹד יוֹסֵף חַי וְכִי־הוּא מֹשֵׁל בְּכָל־אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם וַיָּפָג לִבּוֹ כִּי לֹא־הֶאֱמִין לָהֶם׃
And they told him, “Joseph is still alive; yes, he is ruler over the whole land of Egypt.” His heart went numb, for he did not believe them.
וַיְדַבְּרוּ אֵלָיו אֵת כָל־דִּבְרֵי יוֹסֵף אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֲלֵהֶם וַיַּרְא אֶת־הָעֲגָלוֹת אֲשֶׁר־שָׁלַח יוֹסֵף לָשֵׂאת אֹתוֹ וַתְּחִי רוּחַ יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם׃
But 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.
וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב עוֹד־יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי אֵלְכָה וְאֶרְאֶנּוּ בְּטֶרֶם אָמוּת׃
“Enough!” said Israel. “My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die.”
What is interesting here is that Jacob only believes his sons that Joseph is alive once he sees the wagons. Clearly, there is something significant about the inclusion of the wagons.
Rashi, quoting the midrash, says that the last time Jacob and Joseph studied Torah together, they studied the story of the Eglah Arufah. The Hebrew word for "wagon", agala, is similar to the Hebrew word for heifer, egel, so the wagons triggered Jacob's memory of the last lesson they learned together.
The Eglah Arufah is a story in Deuteronomy (21:1–9) that speaks of an unsolved murder in a field. If a person is found dead in a field, and the identity of the killer is unknown, the elders and judges of the nearest town must measure the distance to the surrounding cities. The elders of the nearest city must then take a heifer that has never been worked or yoked, bring it to a rough valley with a flowing stream, and break its neck there. They declare that they did not shed the blood of the victim: "Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done."
When the text says that Joseph sent the wagons, not Pharaoh, it was a secret message to Jacob: your son Joseph still remembers your teachings and your influence, and despite his separation from his family, he is still a son of Jacob.
I want to share a deeper look at the wagons and the lesson Jacob taught his son Joseph before they separated. The story of the Eglah Arufah is a lesson of responsibility and what it means to be a Jew.
But the act itself was seen as strange, even by ancient eyes. One Rabbinic commentator, Shadal, (Samuel David Luzzatto, Italy; 1800-1865), gives his take on the reasoning of this ritual:
לחזק האמונה המפורסמת באומה שכל ישראל ערבים זה לזה . . .
It strengthens the belief in the Jewish nation that all Jews are responsible for each other . . .
But I want to take it even a step further: every Jew is responsible for not just other Jews but Judaism itself.
I have experienced some interesting battles. For example, early on in my rabbinate, I recall a conversation with a religious school mother struggling with sending her child to school. Halfway into the conversation, I felt like I was the stand-in for this mother’s childhood rabbi, and she was battling with her parents, who made their child go to religious school four days a week (gasp!)! She said, "I don't want to put them through the same torture I went through. Therefore, I am not going to give them a Jewish education."
What I felt like saying but never did was the following: "I'm not that rabbi, and you're not your parents. We are in the here and now; we can bring parts of the past with us, or we can leave them behind, but here's the thing. The things we leave behind may never be picked up again, and the things we pick along the way may remain with us for generations."
A quote is attributed to the American novelist Mark Twain: "When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years."
A teacher at the Conservative Yeshiva, Ilana Kurshan, gave an interesting take on the mindset of Jacob and Joseph at this moment between Jacob and Joseph as a foil for all Jewish parents and children. She writes:
"When Jacob sees the wagons, he realizes not just that his son is still alive, but that he still upholds the values with which he was raised. Jacob's realization is a reminder that generational distance may be not only physical, but also psychological; a parent may feel that a child has abandoned the values that parent sought to inculcate, or a child may feel that a parent has abdicated responsibility. Perhaps there is no greater gift we can bestow upon our parents than the assurance that we, their children, remain committed to their values and will convey them—wagonload by wagonload—to the next generation."
One of the greatest gifts we can give to our children, our children of all ages, is to teach them our tradition, even if we may disagree with certain parts, because although we may think of them as extensions of ourselves, they are not, which makes parenting even that more holy because it is even more selfless than we thought.
All Jews are responsible for one another, but what might be even more important is that each generation is responsible for Judaism, our past, our present, and our future.