VAYIGASH: Wagonloads of Poetry

רַב עוֹד־יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי  (Gen 45:28)

The story of Joseph and his brothers is one of the most novelistic passages in the Bible, filled with hidden motives, deep emotion, staged revelations, ambiguous plots and a happy – if portentous – ending. After Joseph finally reunites with the eleven brothers in Egypt after their kabuki, he can’t wait to see his father, so he sends his brothers back to fetch him.

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The Bible lavishes ten verses on Pharaoh’s and Joseph’s eagerness to get all of the Hebrews to Egypt. They load donkeys and wagons with clothing and goods and gold to bring back the families and Joseph’s father, Jacob.

To sweeten the deal, they reserve the fattest part of Egypt to settle the whole tribe when they come – the land of Goshen down river towards the Nile delta where the soil is rich. We can spend a lot of time delving all their motives. The plain sense is that Joseph wants to see his father and secure the future of his family in Egypt, especially as they face a famine in Canaan also. Pharaoh is all too eager to secure the permanent service of his magical CEO Joseph and, perhaps, genuinely wants him to be completely comfortable. But we know how that goes for the Hebrews. We read the scene a little like a horror story when we know the ghost is lurking in the closet and we want to shout to the characters, “No! Don’t!”

Nonetheless, when the brothers return to Canaan and tell Jacob the good news, his “heart goes numb.” The brothers give him CPR with reassurances, Joseph’s fabulous story, and showing him the wealth Joseph sent. When Jacob sees all the stuff and hears their story, his first reaction is, “רַב עוֹד־יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי.”

The Hebrew has so much feeling and hidden meaning it should be a song, maybe a Jewish anthem, and I want to pay it tribute. While the usual translation captures the sense –  “Enough! My son Joseph still lives!” – the poetry and depth is lost. The Hebrew eye might immediately notice the repetition of three words for abundance in a row:

  • rav רַב – is translated as an exclamation “enough,” but it really means much, many, great
  • ohd, עוֹד – an adverb that seems to modify “live” as in “Joseph still lives” but beyond continuance (still) also implies besides, again, more and directly modifies Joseph as in “more (still, yet) Joseph …”
  • Yosef יוֹסֵף – Joseph’s name is prophetic. It means He will add.

Together the three words express “much more greater enlargement.” This is gobbledygook, but it seems to be calling for our attention.

Much more greater enlargement

Jacob knows the wagons are symbolic of Joseph’s essence and exclaims it. His favorite son’s very presence, even as a young boy, seems to make life bigger and more extravagant. His lavish coat is just outward expression of his unrestrained charisma. He brings fantastic dreams to life and they become true. Joseph’s whole life is the story of bursting the bounds of one adversity after another: snake-filled pits, slavery, jail, marooned in a strange country. Everywhere he goes, he expands the borders of life itself. He brings fabulous fantasies into reality. He is the source of survival and abundance for his adopted nation, Egypt, and his own tribe, the Hebrews. The wagonloads of goodies symbolize his lavish success.

Jacob evokes this enlargement of reality that Joseph brings to the world: “My son adds so much more life.” Jacob sees the spiritual reality, not the material illusion. He isn’t swayed by the lavish riches in front of him. He’s not toting up the wealth in front of his earthly senses, but what it evokes in his heart. He is rich in material things, but the loss of his beloved son has dug a pit of loss in his soul.

And then, in case we thought we were just kanoodling around with wordplay, there’s a clincher: the prior verse calls Jacob by his birth name when he’s resuscitated: “the spirit of Jacob revived.” But here in the next verse he is “Israel,” the prophetic name gets after winning a wrestling match with an angel. Israel is the father of the twelve sons who go down to Egypt as a tribe of seventy and emerge two hundred some years later as a mighty nation of literate slaves bearing his name. In short, the verse is altogether prophetic. Jacob suffers a mini-death and is resurrected as Israel by his son Joseph’s spiritual largesse. He must know the prophecy of exile that awaits his family and their descendants, yet immediately embarks on the fateful journey.

Now if we read it sideways, the whole verse says, “And he said, ‘Israel to have much more life must go down to my son before I (Israel) die’.” They will go to Egypt to survive the famine as a re-united family, endure a spiritual famine, and emerge as Israel.

Rashi reads the poetry of the scene

Then Rashi tells us there’s yet another secret message encoded in the wagons. The word for wagons – ahgalot – contains a pun for eglot – calves. They may even be etymologically related at a deep level to the primitive root for turning, circling, wheeling (as Strong and Brown-Driver-Biggs dictionaries tell us).  Just as calves cavort by running in circles, wagons run on wheels that turn round and round. In that pun, Jacob sees the last law in the Torah father and son studied before Joseph disappeared: the eglah arufah.

On the surface, Rashi’s neat detective work forms a nice sermon (never mind the anachronism of father and son reading the Torah before Moses brings it down from Sinai, a tradition of the Sages).  All those verses elaborating the stagecraft – loading the eleven wagons with stuff – we now see as a double message, one dramatically apparent, the other encrypted –  from prodigal son to grieving father that only the two of them would understand. “These wagonloads prove the existence of the son who enlarges the material world by connecting it to the spiritual world.

To prove this, Rashi’s genius sees more than a mere pun. What is the law of the eglah arufah? If a corpse is found in the wilderness between two cities, one or another city must take responsibility for burial and pursuing justice. (Deut 21:1-9). The priests of the closest town must go into the wilderness, sacrifice a calf by breaking its neck, send it over a cliff, and thus cancel the bill for an unsolved injustice and guilt that would come due to innocent townsfolk.

The Rebbe reads the Rashi

The Lubavitcher Rebbe expands our understanding of this ritual. Though he doesn’t refer to Rashi explicitly, he deepens our reading even more. He calls the neck “the precarious joint.”

In the Torah, he notes, “the neck is a common metaphor for the Holy Temple.” It links “heaven and earth, points of contact between the Creator and His creation. … G-d, who transcends the finite …  chose to designate a physical site and structure as the seat of His manifest presence in the world …. The Sanctuary, then, is the ‘neck’ of the world … the juncture that connects its body to its head and channels the flow of consciousness and vitality from the one to the other.” (See “The Neck,” Chabad.org)

Jacob reading the wagons is a lesson in reading Torah

There’s one more point, a meta-point, about this scene. Just as Rashi says the wagons signify how Jacob taught Joseph to read Torah, Jacob here also exemplifies a lesson about how to read Torah. Layers of meanings and cross-references within the text and outside it deepen rather than interfere with one another. The means to deciphering the scene before us is not only through our senses but by then short-circuiting our rational, empirical senses and opening up to the mysteries inside the poetry, the associative, artistic, aesthetic resonance of the images and words acting together, as in one of Joseph’s dreams-to-become real. The result creates a channel, a precarious joint, from the spiritual realm to the material one. This transcendent punning enlarges the domain of reality and life. The original Hebrew, without vowels or punctuation is Moses’ transcription of God’s one long transcendent utterance atop Sinai and virtually demands that we approach it with openness.

I’m no prophet, but I imagine this is how it must work, and why the prophets are such great poets: they are seized by a sudden flooding expansion of their senses, a wheeling, prophetic perception of past and future unfolding in the fateful moment. We can get some small taste of this if we read the poetry in the Hebrew: Israel, summoned by a secret sign from his son, sings a song of extravagant overflowing joy and in that moment can’t wait to go down to Egypt.

 

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