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Home » Education, Vayigash

Vayigash: Know It All

Submitted by on December 8, 2018 – 6:45 pmNo Comment | 82 views

What do you do when you know it all? Life is only interesting when there is mystery. When we have questions to answer, theses to research, frontiers to explore, peaks to climb, depths to plumb, curiosities to quench, and knowledge to acquire, life has thrill and excitement. But what do you do if you know it all?

What can quicken your pulse if you can’t be thrilled by the unknown? What can give you goosebumps, if every mystery has been solved? What can give you a reason to wake up if every piece of knowledge is already known? If you know it all, you are left with nothing—nothing to live for.

Joseph’s Wagon
Before being sold as a slave in Egypt, Joseph spent seventeen short years studying Torah with his father, during which time Jacob taught Joseph the entire Torah.[1] There was not a manuscript, he had not studied, a law he had not researched, and a subject he had not perused. He literally knew it all.

He was then sold as a slave and Jacob, who continued to believe in his heart of hearts that Joseph was alive, wondered what would become of all this knowledge. What would Joseph do in Egypt, now that he knew everything? Would he find reason to wake up in the morning? He would have no family, no curiosity, no career, and no goals. Life would be a constant drudgery. Would he survive? Would he thrive? What would he do, how would he spend his days?

Twenty-two years later, Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers and sent them home with wagons to transport his father to Egypt.[2] When Jacob saw the wagons, his gloom lifted, and his spirit returned. Somehow the wagons reassured him and answered his nagging questions.[3] How?

The Hebrew word for wagons, agala, also means a calf. By sending an agala to Jacob, Joseph sent him a coded message: I remember the calf. What is the mystery of the calf? Twenty-years earlier, Jacob’s last lesson to Joseph was about a calf, and this is how it came about.

Jacob had dispatched Joseph to seek out the welfare of his brothers in Shechem. Jacob accompanied Joseph for part of the way, and Joseph kept reassuring Jacob that he could return home. But Jacob taught him about the calf to explain why he insisted on accompanying Joseph.

When a cadaver is found beyond the city limits and no one knows who slay him, said Jacob, the Torah commands the elders of the nearest city to slaughter a young calf to atone for the death of the cadaver. The elders would them proclaim that they had not murdered the person who was found dead. Now, to be clear, no one suspected the elders of murder, but their meaning was that they did not dispatch this traveler after he passed through their city without someone to accompany him.

The idea here is that criminals tend to prey on lone travelers. Thus, when someone leaves the protection of our home, we are required to accompany them and extend them further protection. Thus, with this final lesson, Jacob explained why he was accompanying Joseph.

By sending home the agala, Jacob understood the coded message—I recall the last lesson you taught me. When we parted ways, you knew that you had taught me everything and that my path forward in life would be dangerous. Now that I know it all, there would be little to stimulate and excite me. You traveled with me a part of the way to extend your protection. And I want you to know that your protection stayed with me. I have not strayed from your teachings, and I now send you a wagon to invite you to my home. You may rest assured that my home is conducted precisely as you taught me. I have not lost my way in Egypt. I have grown neither bored nor disillusioned with your teachings.[4]

Review and Ingrain
At this point, we know that Joseph somehow escaped the drudgery that is the daily lot of those who know it all. But we don’t know how Joseph escaped it. What did he do to stimulate himself? The answer that Joseph sent to his father is that he occupied and stimulated himself by constantly reviewing what Jacob had taught him. He still remembered his last lesson because he had reviewed it regularly. When you know it all, your path forward, your next step is to review what you learned.

In the Jewish tradition, when we complete a tractate of Talmud, we declare three times, “we shall return to you.” We do this because we don’t want to forget what we studied. Surely Joseph was in danger of forgetting everything he had studied in his youth. Living in Egypt, where no one knew, let alone supported, Torah Judaism, Joseph could easily have veered from these teachings. Thus his review was crucial. But why should we review everything we learn? We have friends who can remind us if we forget, and we have books that we can consult if we need an immediate answer. Why the emphasis on review?

The answer is that the Torah is not merely a book of information. Torah is a window into G-d’s thoughts. When the Torah presents a case, for example, Ruben wants this, and Simon wants that, we wonder what G-d wants them to do. When we learn the Torah’s verdict, we are invited into G-d’s thought process. The objective in Torah learning is not just to know the answer, but to connect with G-d, whose answer it is.

When you study my ideas, you can walk away from me, but a part of me, namely my ideas, are still in your head. I come along with you wherever you go. When we study Torah, our primary objective is to ingrain G-d’s ideas into our minds. We don’t want to forget these rules, insights, and explanations. They are precious to us. If we forget them, we lose a little bit of G-d that we carried around with us. We, therefore, declare when we finish a tractate that we will return to it and review it again.

We review again and again because we want to hold on to the divine thought that formulated the idea. Joseph reviewed everything his father taught him because He did not want to lose his connection with G-d, especially in Egypt where he was surrounded by G-dless people.

Thought Patterns
Ultimately, it is more than just playing host to a Divine idea. It is about training ourselves to think like G-d. By studying G-d’s thoughts again and again, we slowly learn G-d’s approach to these problems. We learn the underlying principles that drive these laws and they inform our perspective on life. Thus, when questions arise, our instinctual response to them is similar to the Torah’s position. When we check the Torah and discover that our instincts proved similar to the Torah’s approach, we know the Divine ideas have become ingrained in our thought patterns.

When Joseph sent for Jacob to come to Egypt, he was assuring him that everything would be kosher in his home. I have reviewed the entire Torah from beginning to end, down to the very last law that you taught me, again and again. By now, my natural instincts spring from the Torah. Although I live in an immoral land, I have inoculated myself against its influences and have created a kosher and holy home.

We too must review what we learn over and over again. Not only will it protect us against forgetfulness, it will ingrain G-d’s way of thinking into our thought patterns until we come to think a little bit like G-d.[5]

[1] Rashi based on Unkelos, Genesis, 37:3.

[2] Toras Moshe (Chasam Sofer) discusses whether the wagons were meant for Jacob or for the women and children.

[3] Genesis, 45:27.

[4] See Rashi and Kli Yakar, ibid.

[5] This essay is based on Tanya chapter 5.

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