For 22 years Yaakov Avinu was in a state of mourning. His beloved son, the one who most closely followed in his ways, the one he envisioned as the leader of the next generation, had been taken from him while still a youth. For all those years Yaakov was inconsolable. Now the brothers came back with the news, “Yosef is still alive!” At first Yaakov could not believe it. The brothers convinced him it was true by showing him the wagons Yosef had sent.
Rashi explains that the wagons were actually a code. The last sugyiah (Torah issue) Yosef had been learning with his father was eglah arufah, a calf that is killed as an atonement. The Hebrew word egel, or calf, is similar to eglah, which means wagon. Yosef was using a play on words to refer back to the last issue they were discussing in their Torah studies. Once Yaakov saw the wagons, his mind was taken back to their last Torah discussion, and he knew Yosef was alive.
The problem with this Rashi is that it is difficult to imagine Yosef would expect his father to vividly recall a conversation they had 22 years before. Even if Yosef had sent back a clear message, “Abba, do you remember the last time we spoke in learning? It was about the eglah arufa,” it would be difficult to imagine Yaakov recalling a conversation that far back. But that isn’t what Yosef did. He sent wagons as a cryptic hint to remind Yaakov of the eglah arufa. Why did Yosef assume his father would recall their conversation? And how, in fact, did Yaakov make the connection?
The answer to this question lies in understanding the significance of certain events. Each generation has its defining moments. If you ask people who grew up in America in the 1960s where they were when Kennedy was shot, many will describe not only where they were when they heard the news, but even the details of the wallpaper of the room they were in.
Similarly, many people vividly recall the exact part of the office they were standing in and whom they were talking to when they heard about the Twin Towers going down on 9/11. The same person who can’t recall what he had for breakfast yesterday can clearly recall an event that happened long ago.
The reason for this is that certain events make an indelible impression on us. Because of their significance and deep meaning, they become permanently etched into our minds. If we didn’t understand the implications of the moment, or if we didn’t view them as monumental, they would pass as any other of millions of events we live through. Because we see these events as world changing, as moments in history, they become part of us forever.
This seems to be the answer to this Rashi. The Avos lived with a very different value system than we do. Because they understood the value of Torah and the change that it brought to them and the world they lived in, they recognized learning as one of the most significant things a human can ever engage in. And so they lived those Torah discussions as epic moments in time.
For that reason, the sugyiah they last discussed was ever-present on Yaakov’s mind. It wasn’t just another detail in his day – it was a defining moment. That is why Yosef took it as a given that one of the first things his father would think about when recalling him was their last Torah discussion – that of eglah arufah – and so the play on words would not be distant from his mind. One of the secrets to the success of the Avos was the clarity of their values. They knew what was truly precious and how valuable it was.
This concept has great relevance to us in the sense that most human beings live with an ever-changing system of values, and because of this they never attain their potential.
A Yellow Belt in Five Styles
A mashol to this would be the story of a young man who set out to study martial arts. As a sixth grader, he went to a karate school and learned the stances, kicks, and punches. When he took his test for the yellow belt (the first rank), he passed. But as things worked out, his family moved to a different city, and in that city the only karate school he could find practiced a different style. So he began again from the basics with new stances, kicks, and punches. Again he progressed and took his yellow belt test – now in the new style – and passed.