What did Yakov know, and when did he know it?
It is a disturbing conversation to overhear in the last chapter of Bereishit. (Br. 50) Yosef and his brothers return from their father’s funeral, and the brothers say to him, “'Thy father did command before he died, saying: So shall ye say unto Joseph: Forgive, I pray thee now, the transgression of thy brethren, and their sin, for that they did unto thee evil. And now, we pray thee, forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of thy father.”
So many questions arise. Why would Yakov have not told Yosef himself? Are the brothers making this up, as Rashi suggests? But also troubling is the piece of information that we did not have until now. Yakov knew! At least towards the end of his life he knows much of the story of Yosef’s sale by his brothers. We do not know what details he has access to, but he knows the brothers are culpable. Until now, we could have thought that the sons had made up a complicated story to explain Yosef’s decades long absence, but the brothers imply to Yosef that Yakov knew the ugly truth.
When did he know it? One would assume that after discovering that Yosef is alive, Yakov demanded the truth, and finally learned it. There are hints in the text, however, that this truth may have been suspected, and did not come as a complete surprise to Yakov.
When Yakov sees Yosef’s torn coat, (Br. 37) he assumes the worst saying, “It is my son's coat; an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn in pieces.” However, when Yehuda explains why Yakov did not want to send Binyamin down to Egypt, (Br. 44) he quotes Yakov as saying, “Ye know that my wife bore me two sons, the one went out from me, and I said: Surely he is torn in pieces; and I have not seen him since”. That is a strange formulation. If Yakov still believed the cover story, he should have been quoted as saying, “one went out from me and was torn in pieces.” Period. The words, “I said”, imply that Yakov does not believe it anymore, (or at least isn't sure) and “I have not seen him since”, implies that such a thing should have been possible, i.e. Yosef is alive. These clues indicate that Yakov at some point began to suspect that there was more to the story of Yosef’s disappearance even before the truth was revealed to him.
If so, why would he have not pursued that full truth? It seems that Yakov still engaged in the policy of knowing of trouble, but not acting, (Br. 37) that he showed during Yosef’s tensions with his brothers. ( ואביו, שמר את-הדבר “His father observed the matter”) To some degree, Yakov may therefore feel culpable and guilty, as well as mournful. This is the point of and often misunderstood midrash.
When the brothers return to Canaan to tell Yakov that Yosef is alive, (Br. 45) “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.” What is the relevance of the wagons? On the level of plain meaning (pshat) the impressive and bounty laden caravan proved that a high level Egyptian official was behind this. If we stood in Hopkins airport, and saw a stream of Hercules transport planes with huge Jewish stars on the side landing, we would know that the Israeli government was behind this supplying of Cleveland. Yakov saw the Egyptian supply train, and knew that the mighty Egyptian kingdom was sending for him. This proved that the story he was hearing was true. This is the plain meaning of the text.
Rashi quotes a midrash that reads it differently. Although not an explanation of what was actually going on in Yakov’s mind, this midrash teaches a powerful lesson. He says that Yosef sent Yakov a sign with his brothers by identifying the last Torah topic he had studied with his father. (presumably, this was inside information that only the two of them would know) The topic happened to be egla arufa, the ceremony of breaking the neck of a calf. By the pun of seeing the wagons (agalot) from Egypt, Yakov would associate to calves (eglot) and realize he was being sent a message by Yosef.
What is this midrash coming to teach us? What idea does it seek to convey? I think the meaning may lie in the mitzva of egla arufa, (Dv. 21) which the midrash is connecting to the Yakov and Yosef story. “1 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... 3 And it shall be, that the city which is nearest unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take a heifer of the herd, which hath not been wrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke. 4 And the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer unto a rough valley, which may neither be plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer's neck there in the valley... 6 And all the elders of that city, who are nearest unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley. 7 And they shall speak and say: 'Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. 8 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. 9 So shalt thou put away the innocent blood from the midst of thee, when thou shalt do that which is right in the eyes of the LORD.”
This purpose of this strange mitzva is discussed by many commentators. It may be an attempt to prompt people to turn in new evidence. But is also seems to be partially concerned with expiation. To quote the Netziv, in his Ha'amek Davar: "This affair of the egla arufa, which is done publicly with the help of the High Court which comes to measure [to the city closest to the murder scene], leads to inquiries regarding the past and enactment for the future." The elders are taking a measure of responsibility for the communities failure, through inattention and inaction, to protect the murder victim and prevent the crime.
What is the relevance of this mitzva to our story? Had Yakov been both attentive and active, he could have prevented Yosef’s troubles from occurring. Yakov was silent and allowed this disaster to occur, just as the elders and community allowed a murder to occur near their city. The midrash is pointing out Yakov’s guilt in allowing the toxic dynamic between his children to continue until violence erupted.
Returning to the approach that Yakov found the cover story of Yosef’s disappearance at least somewhat suspicious, as a father he would be burdened by many emotions. He would mourn the loss of Yosef, and feel deep guilt both over allowing the tragedy to occur, and failing to educate his sons to have been better people. This could have prevented him from pursuing a resolution, and he remained passive until the truth was revealed to him.
Hillel says, in Pirkei Avot, that we must be students of Aaron, lovers and pursuers of peace. Any rapprochement that occurs in the family happens so late in life. Perhaps it is better to err on the side of action in trying to resolve tension in our relationships.