Sanguinary Reflections / Parashat Vayigash

Joseph's survival of his ordeal transforms the decapitated heifer from the symbolic depiction of his being sold into slavery into the last cord connecting Joseph to his father.

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After Joseph discloses his true identity to his brothers, he sends them, in accordance with Pharaoh’s instructions, back to Canaan to bring Jacob to Egypt, and also gives them presents for their father: “and Joseph gave them wagons, in accordance with Pharaoh’s instructions, and gave them provision for the way” ‏(Genesis 45:21‏). When the brothers reach Canaan, they tell Jacob the good news: “And they told him, saying: ‘Joseph is yet alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt.’ And his heart fainted, for he believed them not. And they told him all the words of Joseph, which he had said unto them; and when he saw the wagons which Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of Jacob their father revived” ‏(Gen. 45:26-27‏).

When he sees the wagons − which were likely quite lavish and bearing the insignia of the Egyptian ruler − Jacob is convinced that what his sons tell him is true. However, in discussing the dispatching of wagons to Canaan, the sages provide an additional stratum or interpretation in Bereisheet Rabbah ‏(95:2‏): “When Joseph departed, Jacob knew what Torah passage his son had been studying. When Joseph’s brothers announced ‘Joseph is yet alive’ − Jacob’s ‘heart fainted, for he believed them not.’ Yet, Jacob said to himself, ‘I know that Joseph was studying the passage on the decapitated heifer when he left me.’ He told his sons: ‘If you know what he was studying when he left, I will believe you.’ Joseph recalled the passage he was studying when he left Jacob. What did Joseph do? As it is written, ‘and Joseph gave them wagons [Heb: Agalot. Sounds like Egla = heifer].’”

The verses concerning the decapitated heifer are found in Deuteronomy, toward the end of the weekly portion of Shoftim: “If one be found slain in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who hath smitten him” ‏(Deuteronomy 21:1‏). The victim’s body is discovered in a field outside an inhabited area, and the nation’s elders and judges are commanded to determine the location of the city closest to the scene of the crime. These elders must take a heifer, behead it on ground that has never been cultivated, wash their hands over its body and declare, “’Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Forgive, O Lord, thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and suffer not innocent blood to remain in the midst of thy people Israel.’ And the blood shall be forgiven them” ‏(Deut. 21:7-8‏).

In making this declaration, the elders are not abdicating responsibility for the murder victim’s death, but are doing the opposite: They must testify that they did everything possible within the area of their jurisdiction to prevent this stranger from coming to any harm, that they provided him with food and lodging and that they accompanied him when he left their city. Furthermore, the ground on which the heifer is decapitated must forever remain uncultivated.

The declaration, “Our hands have not shed this blood” attests to the fact that the elders are not concealing the act of murder, although they are unable to guarantee that justice will be done as is necessary in such cases.

The anachronistic interpretation of the sages has a double role. First of all, it takes advantage of the fact that the Hebrew word for “wagons” ‏(agalot‏) is written the same as for “heifers.” A symbolic picture is conjured up here, reflecting the story of Joseph’s being sold into slavery by his brothers.

According to the midrash, at the beginning of Parashat Vayeshev, which was read two weeks ago, Jacob and Joseph are studying the passage concerning the heifer when the father sends Joseph off to see how his brothers, who are shepherding the family flock, are doing. It is easy to imagine the symbolism Jacob sees in the fact that his sons have brought him Joseph’s robe, drenched in blood. In Jacob’s mind, perhaps, Joseph is the victim in the field whose murderer is unknown. But Jacob cannot decapitate a heifer and wash his hands over its carcass because he cannot wholeheartedly claim, “Our hands have not shed this blood.” The guilt feelings over having sent Joseph alone into an isolated area are intermingled with the symbolism presented in the verses about the decapitated heifer. The blood remains on the ground, unredeemed and unappeased.

One can also conjecture as to what is going on in the mind of the “murder victim,” Joseph, whose blood is in essence replaced by an animal’s. For Joseph as well, perhaps, the decapitated heifer is the last memory he has of his father, and a chilling symbolic reflection of his brothers’ deed. It is possible that Joseph cannot distinguish between his brothers’ actions and those of his father, and that he even thinks Jacob sent him to his brothers so they could kill him. Moreover, Joseph might even interpret the last study session with Jacob as a sort of cruel farewell blessing.

Unlike other murder cases where the perpetrator is found, in the description in Deuteronomy of the heifer, the elders remain with nothing but a corpse and cannot ensure that justice will be done with respect to the murderer. Indeed, the purpose of the decapitated-heifer ritual is not to conduct a proper legal trial in the strict sense of punishing the offender: The justice here is mythological in nature. The victim’s blood has been shed in a field, far from the juridical “net” an urban center spreads over uncultured space . Violence has claimed a victim, and now the elders of the city nearest the crime scene must declare, “Our hands have not shed this blood” − not in the modern sense, as a denial of responsibility, but in the exact opposite sense: As assumption of responsibility for blood that’s been shed.

In other words, the elders are saying, “We have done the best we can, we provided the stranger with food and lodging, and escorted him out of the city.” Yet at the same time, these men are not denying the fact that someone has been murdered. It is as if the men are declaring war against an incidental, senseless death perpetrated by someone who cannot be found . The heifer’s blood atones for the victim’s blood; it purifies it and may even serve as a form of retribution for the fact that the blood of the victim has been shed.

On a different level, whereas a map that shows urban areas can be seen as a kind of network of coordinates reflecting proper law and order, the field as depicted here is the site of incidental violence that undermines this network and even supersedes municipal power. The ceremony involving the dead heifer is an attempt to use ritual in order to defuse the tense relations between the city and the field, establish municipal sovereignty over nature and make room for the field by creating a plot of land that will never be cultivated.

By means of the wagons/heifers, Joseph in essence calls now upon his father, as the elder of the city closest to the crime scene, to declare: “Our hands have not shed this blood.” Not because someone else shed the blood or because Jacob cared for his son properly, but rather because this time no human blood was really shed, as Joseph tells his brothers, “for God did send me before you to preserve life” ‏(Gen. 45:5‏).

The fact that Joseph has survived transforms the passage concerning the heifer from the symbolic depiction of his being sold into slavery into the last cord connecting Joseph to his father. When Joseph sends Pharaoh’s wagons to Jacob, he is telling his father about everything that passed through his mind during the years that elapsed since he was forced into slavery − about the image of the decapitated heifer that he carried in his heart; about his suspicions, which in the end proved baseless; and about God, who turned the chance journey to Egypt into a meaningful mission. Understanding this message, Jacob rejoices and proclaims: “And Israel said: ‘It is enough; Joseph my son is yet alive; I will go and see him beforeI die’” ‏(Gen. 45:28‏). 

'Joseph Makes Himself Known to his Brethren,' by Gustave Doré (1832-1883).

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