When the time came for Yaakov and his family to immigrate to Egypt, the spiritual future of the Jewish nation was at risk. Learning how they survived the Egyptian “melting pot” provides valuable guidance for us in our efforts to maintain our religious identity in a spiritually hostile culture.

The news was too good and too astonishing to believe.  After 22 years of mourning and grief, certain that his beloved son had been violently killed, Yaakov hears the news that Yosef is alive, and is in fact the vizier of Egypt.  We could excuse Yaakov for his initial disbelief.  Having seen with his own eyes Yosef’s cloak drenched with blood, and knowing that Yosef hadn’t returned home since that fateful trip to Shechem over two decades earlier, there was no reason to entertain the possibility that his son was still alive, let alone that he was the second-in-command in the world’s leading empire.

As we know, it did not take long for Yaakov to come around and accept the report that Yosef was alive and was now inviting the family to live under his care in Egypt.  What changed his mind?  What convinced Yaakov that this all but impossible news was in fact true?

“They spoke to him all of Yosef’s words which he had spoken to them, and he saw the wagons which Yosef had sent to transport him, and the spirit of their father Yaakov was revived” (Beresheet 46:27).

As our sages comment, it was “the wagons which Yosef had sent to transport him” that brought Yaakov out of his disbelief and led him to acknowledge the truth that Yosef was still very much alive.  Once he saw the transport carriages that his son had sent for him, he realized that Yosef never died.

Why would the sight of the wagons have such an effect on Yaakov?  How did they prove that Yosef was still alive?

Rashi explains that the wagons, or “agalot” in Hebrew, were intended as a veiled allusion to the law of eglah arufah, the ceremony that was conducted when a murder victim was discovered in between cities and the perpetrator could not be found.  The word “eglah,” which means calf and refers to the young cow that is part of this ceremony, resembles the word for carriage (“agalah”), and thus Yosef sent the “agalot” to his father as an indication that he still remembered the last subject they had studied together before he left home for the last time. And thus when Yaakov saw the wagons, and understood the hint to his final study session with Yosef, he realized that Yosef was alive.

The obvious question arises, if Yosef wanted to equip his brothers with proof of his authenticity for his father, why did he not simply tell them that he remembered the final subject he studied with Yaakov?   Why did he resort to a far-fetched allusion, instead of conveying a clear, direct message?  Is the incidental etymological relationship between the words “eglah” and “agalah” enough of a reason to choose this method of proving the news to his father?

Burning Pharaoh’s Wagons

This story of the wagons is enigmatic for another reason, as well.  The Torah explains that Yosef didn’t send these wagons to his father – Pharaoh did.  Pharaoh instructed Yosef to bring his family to Egypt, and said, “You are commanded to [tell your brothers to] do the following: Take for yourselves wagons from the land of Egypt for your children and wives, and transport your father and come” (45:19).  The idea of sending “agalot” for Yaakov was thus not Yosef’s idea, but Pharaoh’s.  Indeed, two verses later, we read, “The children of Israel did so, and Yosef gave them wagons by the order of Pharaoh” (45:21).  Yosef sent wagons “by the order of Pharaoh,” because these were the king’s instructions.  How, then, can Rashi explain that Yosef sent the wagons as a veiled reference to the eglah arufah?

The answer to this question is found in the Midrash, which tells that Yosef burned the wagons that Pharaoh had assigned for his family because there were idolatrous symbols and images engraved on them. Yosef, understandably, deemed such wagons unfit for his father and brothers and therefore destroyed these wagons, substituting them with his own carriages, which were clean of any pagan symbols.

But this, too, requires explanation.  Throughout his tenure as Egyptian vizier, Yosef had to exercise extreme care in tending to his responsibilities.  He had to remain fully faithful to the kingdom and avoid any embezzlement of assets or abuse of power.  It is difficult to imagine Yosef intentionally destroying the royal carriages, loathsome as he may have found their pagan inscriptions.  Did Yosef really burn Pharaoh’s wagons?  Could he have gotten away with committing such a crime against the king’s property?

These questions, among others, strongly indicate that there is far more to these wagons than meets the eye, and that underlying this issue surrounding the nature of Yaakov’s transportation from Canaan is a critical and fundamental question regarding the next phase of Jewish history.

A New Stage, a New Challenge

The family’s relocation to Egypt posed a crucial challenge, one to which we can very much relate in light of our nation’s experiences here in the United States.  In Eretz Yisrael, Yaakov and his family lived as a separate, independent clan, well outside the sphere of influence of other peoples.  This period of isolation was now coming to an abrupt end.  The family was now joining the Egyptian Empire, and would be part of Egyptian society.  The vexing question at this point was how to ensure that they and their offspring would maintain their separate identity while living as part of another country.  Typically, immigrants fully assimilate into their host countries within just a few generations.  Foreseeing a two-century period of exile in Egypt, Yaakov’s family understood the enormity of the challenge facing them.  They would have to do everything possible to ensure that they remained separate and apart from Egyptian society even as they lived within the Egyptian kingdom.  Strategies would have to be devised and implemented to enable them to identify as Israelites even while living within the borders of Egypt.

The primary strategy employed by Yosef was geography.  Right from the outset (45:10), he told his brothers of his plan to have them settle in Goshen, a remote region where they would live separate and apart from mainstream Egyptian society.  And when the family arrived and Yosef brought them to meet Pharaoh, he instructed them to tell the king that they worked as shepherds, and that they and their forefathers have always worked in this industry (46:33-34).  Egyptians viewed shepherding as a lowly, degrading vocation. And thus, introducing themselves as lifelong shepherds helped ensure the brothers’ marginalization within Egyptian society and served to push the family to the social sidelines – precisely where they wanted to be.

Another vital strategy was education: “He [Yaakov] sent Yehudah ahead to Yosef, to teach him the way to Goshen” (46:28).  Our sages interpreted this to mean that Yehudah was sent ahead to establish a bet midrash, a place of Torah study, in Egypt.  There is no more effective assimilation-resistant agent than Torah learning, delving into our sacred texts and traditions.  If Bene Yisrael were to survive as a separate nation within Egypt, they would have to make Torah education a top priority, as learning is an indispensable element in the effort to remain distinct and spiritually intact while living among other cultures.

Sending the Right Wagons

It seems that the nature of Yaakov’s settlement in Egypt was a point of contention between Pharaoh and Yosef.  As we cited earlier, Pharaoh instructed Yosef to send his father and brothers wagons “for your children and wives, and transport your father.”  Pharaoh wanted Yosef to send wagons that would have room only for the people, but not for any luggage.  He thus instructed the brothers, “Ve’einechem al tahos al kelechem – Pay no attention to your belongings.”  Pharaoh’s desire was for the family to leave everything behind in Eretz Yisrael and start a new beginning in Egypt.  He wanted them to leave their books, clothing and all other personal belongings at home so they can replace these with the Egyptian equivalents and thus more quickly and easily integrate into Egyptian society.

This is what the Midrash meant when it spoke of the idolatrous symbols on the wagons.  The wagons did not actually bear any pagan inscriptions, but Yosef understood Pharaoh’s intent in sending these wagons.  These wagons were sent to ensure the family’s assimilation into the pagan society in Egypt, by forcing them to leave everything behind in Canaan.  And Yosef was not prepared to send such wagons for his father and brothers.  He remembered full well how, many years earlier, when Yaakov and Esav reunited, Esav invited Yaakov to join him so they could travel together, and Yaakov delicately, but adamantly, refused (33:12-13).  Yosef understood the importance of separation and distinctiveness, that his family would have to work hard to resist what would otherwise be a natural process of assimilation and loss of identity.

Therefore, Yosef “burned” Pharaoh’s wagons.  This does not mean that he actually set them on fire.  Rather, he rejected them, and deemed them wholly unsuitable for transporting his father and brothers.  He instead sent wagons with plenty of room for their belongings, so they could take their heritage, beliefs, and past with them to Egypt.  The wagons Yosef sent were those which would help ensure the family’s ability to maintain their traditions and identity even while living in a foreign culture, and resist the natural tendency of acculturation.

This is what Yaakov saw when he looked at the wagons, and this is what revived his spirit.  Before seeing the wagons, he must have wondered, how could it be that Yosef, who left home as a teenage boy, was still connected and loyal to his heritage after all these years?  He left home with nothing – with not even his special cloak. There was nothing to remind him of his home, to keep some connection with his family.  How could he have possibly maintained his identity and remained faithful to his family’s beliefs and traditions?   The wagons demonstrated to Yaakov that Yosef ensured to take Eretz Yisrael with him when he was taken to Egypt.  He took along the Torah he studied, the lessons he learned from his father, the values and teachings of Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov.  And he now sent large wagons with plenty of luggage space so that his family can take their heritage with them to Egypt.

The Synthetic Potato

The United States of America is known as a “melting pot,” a place where people from many different countries, societies and cultures come and blend into the fabric of American society. And while this paradigm has served most immigrants well, for many generations of Jews, this “melting pot” process has often been tragic, causing the spiritual destruction of untold numbers of Jews, who, upon reaching these shores, fell victim to the natural force of assimilation and “melted” into the “pot” of American society, losing their Jewish identity.  Many others, of course, learned the lesson of the “agalot” and resisted this process.  Just as Yaakov and his family lived in Goshen, these Jewish immigrants created Jewish enclaves which protected them from outside influences and cultivated a strong sense of religious identity.  And just as Yaakov ensured to set up a yeshivah in Egypt, these courageous immigrants worked hard and donated whatever money they could to build and develop institutions of prayer and study that served to firmly anchor the immigrant communities in the realm of Jewish tradition, so that their religious identity would not be lost to assimilation within a generation or two.

The different spiritual fates of the Jews who immigrated to these shores have been compared to two different kinds of potatoes.  Let us imagine two men who walk into a shop and are shown the various types of potatoes available.  One man’s eyes are drawn to a pile of perfect potatoes.  They are perfectly shaped and colored, their skin is smooth, and they have no unsightly marks or growths protruding from the surface.  He excitedly picks up a bag of these potatoes and makes his purchase.  The second man, however, prefers the ordinary potatoes.  They come in a wide variety of odd shapes and sizes, the texture is not perfectly smooth, and they have marks and growths.

As they leave the store, the first customer says to the second, “Why did you choose those low-quality potatoes?  Why didn’t you buy these perfect, beautiful potatoes, which taste much better?”

”I bought genuine, natural potatoes,” the second man answered, “whereas you purchased synthetic potatoes. True, the synthetic potatoes look more appealing and might even taste better,”  he explained, “but I want to grow my own potato patch.  Synthetic potatoes do not reproduce, while real potatoes can. In order to grow potatoes of my own, I need the real thing.”

Religion works the same way.  Many Jewish immigrants opted for a “synthetic” Judaism, a Judaism that is more appealing, more convenient, and less demanding than the authentic kind.  This brand of Judaism comes without the financial demands of the old brand, allowing Jews to keep their stores open on Shabbat and send their children to free public schools.  It is also more appealing in that it incorporates the popular fads and trends of the general society, so that we do not need to stand out or be forced to defend our ideologies and practices when they become unfashionable.  And this brand is especially “tasty,” allowing its consumers to feel like they are practicing a religion without following the rules and demands of authentic Judaism.

But this synthetic Judaism has a serious drawback – it cannot be reproduced.  Children are not likely to be fooled by an inauthentic replica, nor will they be inspired by it.  A synthetic brand of Jewish observance cannot possibly ignite the passion and energy that authentic Judaism does, and thus it cannot reproduce itself in the next generations.  And so even if the immigrants could justify to themselves the artificial mode of religious observance they took on, it stood little chance of surviving for more than one, two, or perhaps three, generations.  The power of assimilation is too strong to be contained by a flimsy façade of religious commitment.  Only a wholehearted, uncompromising and full-fledged commitment to authentic Torah tradition can provide the resistance needed to avoid assimilation.  And those Jewish immigrants who brought this commitment with them in their “wagons” as they moved to America succeeded in mustering the necessary level of resistance.

Around a hundred years ago there lived an assimilated Jewish scientist in Europe named Dr. Waldemar Haffkine, who discovered a vaccine against cholera.  Dr. Haffkine traveled to India and saved thousands upon thousands of lives by treating cholera patients.  Shortly after he returned to Russia, he embraced Jewish tradition and became religiously observant.  He even established a philanthropic fund to support the Lithuanian yeshivot.  In a letter, he explained how this drastic transformation occurred.  He returned to Russia as a famous and widely-acclaimed figure in his field, and was promptly offered a prestigious professorship in Odessa.  However, as the Russian government did not allow Jews to teach in universities, he was told that he would first have to disavow Judaism and convert to Greek Orthodoxy.  Dr. Haffkine wrote that this choice forced him to explore Judaism, a process which gradually led him to embrace Torah belief and practice.

Ultimately, there are only two options, two directions we can take: strict adherence to authentic Judaism, or complete assimilation.  We cannot hope to preserve Judaism by watering it down to suit our tastes.  If we are unwilling to commit ourselves to authentic Jewish observance, then we cannot expect to maintain our distinct identity in a foreign culture.  The only armor capable of getting us through this American “melting pot” unscathed is genuine Torah observance and education, and uncompromising fealty to our ancestral heritage and traditions.


 [JRC1]This may sound cruel to less learned readers.