Parashat Vayigash: "And He Saw the Wagons"
by Rav Itamar Eldar
Yeshivat Har Etzion
"And He saw the wagons"
Rav Itamar Eldar
When Ya'akov's sons come and tell
him that Yosef is alive and well in
And they went up out of
Ya'akov sees the wagons that Yosef had sent him, and immediately passes from a state of "and his heart fainted," to a state of "and the spirit of Ya'akov revived."
The midrashim of Chazal and the Chasidic masters in their wake have tried to understand the meaning of these wagons that altered Ya'akov's psychological state. The midrash states:
Rabbi Levi said in the name of
Rabbi Yochanan bar Sha'ul: He said to them: "If he believes you, fine; if
not, say to him: 'When I took my departure from you, was I not studying the
section dealing with egla arufa [the heifer whose neck is
broken].'" This is the meaning of the verse: "And when he saw the
the spirit [of Ya'akov their father] revived. And
(agalot), R. Levi tells us in the name of R. Yochanan, symbolize and
allude to the Torah section concerning the egla arufa that Yosef had
been studying before leaving for his brothers, not to return. This information,
which was known only to Ya'akov and Yosef, would prove to Ya'akov that indeed
it was Yosef who spoke to the brothers in
section concerning the egla arufa, which was given to
R. Levi in the name of R. Yochanan concludes with the following words put into the mouth of Ya'akov: "My son Yosef's strength is great, for various troubles have befallen him, and he has remained in his righteousness, much more than I have, for I have sinned." Ya'akov draws a comparison between himself and his son Yosef. According to Ya'akov, he himself failed the test posed by the many troubles that had befallen him, as he says: "My way is hid from the Lord." In contrast, Yosef's trust in God and in the good that awaited him never faltered.
These two mental states find expression in the verses cited by the midrash. Let us try to understand the context.
Yeshaya's prophecy of consolation that opens with the words, "Comfort My people, comfort them, says your God," (Yeshaya 40:1) continues:
Why say you, O Ya'akov, and speak, O Yisra'el, My way is hid from the Lord, and my judgment is passed over from my God? Have you not known? have you not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, faints not, nor is He weary? there is no searching of his understanding. He gives power to the faint; and to the powerless He increases strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall; but they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint. (Yeshaya 40:27-31)
With these words and with the words that follow, the prophet Yeshaya tries to convince the house of Ya'akov and Yisra'el to believe that God will eventually redeem them, despite the exile and the difficult situation in which they now find themselves.
The prophet is fighting the despair that finds expression in the words, "My way is hid from the Lord." Later in his prophecy the prophet once again states: "Fear not, you worm Ya'akov, O men of Yisra'el, I will help you, says the Lord, and your redeemer, the holy one of Yisra'el" (Yeshaya 41:14).
This is the feeling that accompanies Ya'akov, as he himself attests, according to the midrash: "For I have sinned when I said: 'My way is hid from the Lord.'"
According to our midrash, Ya'akov learns from Yosef that a different feeling may accompany a person in times of trouble. This feeling finds expression in the words: "And I am confident that I have [a share in that] about which it is said: 'O how great is Your goodness.'" Once again a careful examination of the context of the verse may sharpen the feeling finding expression in these words.
Let me not be ashamed, O Lord; for I have called upon You: let the wicked be ashamed, and let them be silent in She'ol. Let the lying lips be put to silence; which speak arrogant words, proudly and contemptuously, against the righteous. O how great is Your goodness, which You have laid up for those who fear You; which You have performed for those who trust in You in the sight of the sons of men! You hide them in the covert of Your presence from the plots of men; You shall keep them secretly in a pavilion from the strife of tongues. Blessed be the Lord: for He has shown me His marvelous love in a strong city. For I said in My haste, I am cut off from before Your eyes; nevertheless You did hear the voice of my supplications when I cried to You, O love the Lord, all his pious ones; for the Lord preserves the faithful, and painfully repays him who acts haughtily. Be of good courage, and let your heart be strong, all you who hope in the Lord. (Tehilim 31:18-25)
The underlying assumption that serves as the foundation of the mental state expressed in this psalm is: "O how great is Your goodness, which You have laid up for those who fear You." Sometimes this goodness is "laid up," but eventually it will break forth and appear.
In a moment of loss of concentration, "in his haste," the psalmist lets out, "I am cut off from before Your eyes," expressing a feeling similar to that which underlies the words: "My way is hid from the Lord." Here, however, we are dealing with a strange feeling that does not typify the pure trust that accompanies the tzaddik, that even when he is surrounded by enemies, he is in a state of "Let me not be ashamed, O Lord, for I have called upon You."
Ya'akov learns about this position of trust from Yosef who lived in exile, without ever losing his hope and trust that God remains with Him wherever he goes.
This is the transition from "My way is hidden from the Lord" to "O how great is Your goodness," which Ya'akov undergoes, according to this midrash, as he compares himself to his son, Yosef the tzadik.
The prophecy in Yeshaya reads: "But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint."
And the psalm in Tehilim reads: "Be of good courage, and let your heart be strong, all you who hope in the Lord."
Let not troubles cause you to despair and become weak. Hope and trust in God will provide you with the strength to continue.
Circles as opposed to straight light
R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchov tries to connect the two parts of the midrash. The wagons that convince Ya'akov to believe and to go down to see his son Yosef, on the one hand, and the mental state that Ya'akov acquires in the wake of Yosef's firm stand, on the other.
"And when he saw the wagons which Yosef had sent." He alludes [here] to Ya'akov that he should not worry about the exile, for it is all the cause of redemption, evil being the cause of good. Now, agalot ("wagons") has the sense of igul, "circle." A cause is referred to as being something round, whereas simple mercy is straight light, while causes are circles. (Kedushat Levi, Vayigash)
to R. Levi Yitzchak, Ya'akov is worried about going down to
R. Levi Yitzchak's draws a profound distinction between a circle and straight light, which is also an expression of rachamim peshutim, "simple mercy."
This distinction is based upon the difference between a circle and a straight line. Let us try to understand this difference.
It may be suggested that a straight line symbolizes continuous progress and advancement. Walking in a straight line indicates clear direction and a clear destination. Each point along that line brings a person closer and closer to that destination. When walking along a straight line, there is no retreat and no return.
A circle, in contrast, symbolizes finiteness and periodicity. Over and over again, we return to our starting point, and every step forward is also a step backward.
The causality in life is part of its finiteness. The wagons/circles that Yosef sends Ya'akov symbolize the recognition that over the course of life there may be retreat which is itself the cause of further advance.
From this perspective, Ya'akov expresses the totality that seeks a perfect world in which progress is evident in each and every step. He is not ready to accept the circularity of life that gives expression to its finiteness.
When a person dies, it is customary to express grief by eating round foods: whole eggs, lentils, and the like. Roundness gives expression to the cycle of life that has once again come to an end; this is what Ya'akov has difficulty coming to terms with. Ya'akov is an ish tam, tam in the sense of perfect, and perfection must be manifest at every stage and at every moment.
Yosef, on the other hand, understands that "the taste of the tree is not like the taste of the fruit," and that the world is constructed of means and goals, and that sometimes the means appear to lack taste, and may even be bitter, and at times even poisonous. This means, however, will give rise to a fruit for the sake of which the means exists. This is the circularity that allows for survival even in the period of exile.
According to this interpretation, Ya'akov's position is idealistic, whereas that of Yosef is in great measure realistic. The circles symbolizing the causality of the world are what enable Yosef to endure so many years of exile all alone in a foreign country with no help or support. These years may, perhaps, have provided him with this outlook.
On a deeper level, however, the
matter may be understood differently, and to a great degree in a manner that is
just the very opposite of what we have explained thus far. We shall try to
examine the issue by way of another expression connected to R. Levi Yitzchak's
"straight light," namely "simple mercy." Thus writes R.
Menachem Mendel of
These things are apprehension of
the Divine before the creation of the worlds, where there is no choice,
standing or endurance for even a short time, but only as the flash of
lightening. This is the meaning of "He saw that the world could not exist,
etc." Now the tzadikim like them raise with this thought all the gevurot
and sweetening of the judgments at their source above the order of the
creation of the world and of time, which is the attribute of "simple
mercy," which is "abundant in lovingkindness" before the
creation. For these attributes are not evident in the tzadikim. They
accept upon themselves din, rachamim and all the afin as
equal in order to apprehend the truth of the light and view Him through that
curtain. Thus said the Rabbis of blessed memory (Bereishit Rabba 1, 5):
One, "before the creation of the worlds," a state in which there is no choice, standing or endurance for even a short time. This is a state that stands above time, the aspect of a flash of lightening, or the blink of an eye, lacking all substance.
The second state is after the creation of the worlds, belonging to "the order of the creation of the world and time."
The first is called rav chesed, "abundant in lovingkindness," whereas the second is called rachamim peshutim, "simple mercy."
R. Menachem Mendel describes the psychological state of one who successfully raises himself to the level of apprehension of "before the creation of the worlds," that is, the apprehension of the great tzadikim.
When a person merits to reach such a level, din (judgment), rachamim (mercy), and all the afim (all the faces, all the sides of reality are the same. The trait of equanimity is connected to the fact that this world is void of substance and concreteness, and so at the root of all things, in their initial potential, in the spiritual source from which they derive their nurture, everything is good and everything is from Him.
R. Menachem Mendel calls this situation "elevation of all the gevurot and sweetening of the judgment," for what appears to us as evil and judgment is in its true source only lovingkindness. This is similar to a child whose superficial perspective on the world is polar. A caress from his father is good, but a slap from him is bad. As the child matures and acquires a deeper understanding of the root of things, he understands how both the slap and the caress come from the same place the desire to bestow love and benevolence. This is the aspect of "abundant in lovingkindness" that R. Menachem Mendel is talking about, where all is one, and the perfect and absolute goal is to benefit, and all multiplicity is an illusion resulting from the different facets of the same coin. As opposed to "abundant in lovingkindness" stands "simple mercy," which is taken from a world of defined categories where evil is evil and good is good. Mercy is an expression of the integration of judgment and lovingkindness, and it includes the duality and multiplicity of the concrete world.
Straight sefirot and Round Sefirot
R. Menachem Mendel's distinction is connected to two of the ideas mentioned by R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchov: "straight light" and circles. These two ideas are integrated in the following words of R. Chayyim Luzzato:
After having explained in general terms the appearance of the merkava (Divine chariot), we shall begin to explain the main details that must be distinguished. First of all, there is the general form of the sefirot, namely, circles and straight lines A circle represents causal [sovevet] governance that is not divided into chesed, din, and rachamim This is the secret of the figure of a circle, which lacks division into parts, for one cannot talk about a beginning, or an end, or a middle, or right or left A straight line, on the other hand, represents governance divided according to cheder [chesed, din, rachamim] right, left, and middle Then we distinguish measures to know this extension, and the value between them, and the consequences, and all the other things that are distinguished in faces. (Kalach Pitchei Chokhma, petach 13)
R. Moshe Chayyim Luzzatto distinguishes here between two manners in which God conducts the world, by way of circles and by way of straight lines.
In governance by way of circles, which is also called causal [sovevet] governance, there are no distinctions.
This lack of distinctions is significant on two plains on the plain of giving and on the plain of receiving.
First, in this mode of governing the world, no distinction is made between any one of God's creatures and another, between one who is righteous and one who is evil. God's profusion is bestowed upon all of His creatures, irrespective of their actions.
Second, in this mode of governing the world, no distinction is made between lovingkindness and judgment, and so all the distinctions between reward and punishment, between good and evil, and all the other distinctions resulting from multiplicity and extension, also do not exist.
This is the world that R. Menachem Mendel calls "before the creation of the worlds," in which there is no free choice, for the Divine profusion does not correspond to actions, but rather is deterministic and absolute, there being no distinction between judgment and lovingkindness.
In contrast, the mode of straightness, is the world of distinctions, where there is a distinction between judgment and lovingkindness, between reward and punishment, and thus there is also a distinction in the profusion upon each individual, according to the measure appropriate for him, whether for reward or for punishment.
The circle, asserts the Ramchal, has no beginning, middle or end; in this sense it is infinite, void of distinction. For this reason it gives expression to the infinite mode of governing the world that preceded the world of boundaries and definitions.
To the degree that the tzadik elevates himself to this quality and this mode of governance, so is he denied free choice. His cleaving to the infinite provides him with the quality of equanimity in which all judgments are sweetened and rise to their source.
In light of this approach, let us now reexamine the words of R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchov.
Circles are connected to causes (siba), and not just in the sense of sivuv, "rotation, circle."
Relating to a particular thing as the cause of something else significantly alters one's perspective.
That thing is no longer judged and measured according to its objective and independent reality, but according to its function. Judging something according to its function changes the way we perceive it. Let us examine this idea with the help of an amazing parable found in the Zohar:
Outside the palace, however, there lived a beautiful harlot. After a while the king thought: "I will see how far my son is devoted to me." So he sent to the woman and commanded her, saying: "Entice my son, for I wish to test his obedience to my will." So she used every blandishment to lure him into her embraces. But the son, being good, obeyed the commandment of his father. He refused her allurements and thrust her from him. Then did the father rejoice exceedingly, and, bring him in to the innermost chamber of the palace, bestow upon him gifts from his best treasures, and show him every honor. And who was the cause of all this joy? The harlot! Is she to be praised or blamed for it? To be praised, surely, on all accounts, for on the one hand she fulfilled the king's command and carried out his plans for him, and on the other hand she caused the son to receive all the good gifts and deepened the king's love to his son. Therefore, it is written: "And the Lord saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good." "It was good" this is the angel of life; "very good" this is the angel of death, for it is certainly very good, obeying its master's commands. (Zohar, II, p. 163a)
The Zohar tells of a king who had a beautiful harlot living outside his palace. The king commanded the harlot to try and seduce his son in order to see how devoted his son is to him, and the extent to which he obeys him and does not allow himself to be led astray by his passions.
The Zohar continues in its description of how the son withstands the test, how he is not seduced, and how he sends the harlot away. Thus, the son merits all of his father's honor and veneration for having withstood the test and demonstrated his love for his father by obeying him.
Who is the cause of all this, asks the Zohar? And it daringly answers: The harlot.
The Zohar asks again so that there be no mistake: Should we praise the harlot for what she did, or condemn her? And it answers that we must certainly praise her from every possible angle. First, asserts the Zohar, she obeyed the king's command. And second, she was the cause of all the love and good feelings between the king and the son that arose in the aftermath of the test. The Zohar concludes with its exposition of the verse, "And it was very good": "Good" the angel of life; "very" the angel of death who obeys its Master's command.
The Zohar's astonishing approach to the question of evil in the world is the aspect of circles.
The Zohar does not contemplate the actions of the prostitute or the actions of the angel of death in and of themselves, but rather their function what they cause.
When a person merits seeing things from the perspective of "circles," he examines everything according to its function and the objective towards which it is headed.
This is sweetening the judgment at its source, for the source of the evil is the will of the king, just as all of the evil actions of the prostitute are nothing but a fulfillment of the royal command, which is their source.
This perspective turns evil into the cause of good, distress into the cause of redemption. It is precisely the structure of the circle that illustrates this profound idea.
A straight line sets a clear standard; going in one direction constitutes retreat, whereas proceeding in the opposite direction constitutes progress. Everything is dichotomous: there is progress and there is retreat; there is ascent and there is descent; there is mitzva and there is sin.
The circle, on the other hand, causes total confusion. As one distances oneself from any particular point on the circle, one gets closer to it from the other side. Every movement on the circle involves both advance and retreat. Advance is retreat and retreat is advance.
Yosef the tzadik reflects
upon the Egyptian exile through the eyes of his spirit; he does not view the
situation in isolation. He is able to skip over the crushing servitude, the
decree regarding the firstborns, the awful distance from the
He reflects not upon the terrible events that will take place in the exile, but upon the role of exile. He reflects upon the world through the spectacles of "cause"; through this prism, everything rotates around one central point the Divine will working to repair the world. This is the perspective of the aspect of circles.
As opposed to going around in a circle, walking along a straight line involves one of two contradictory mental movements.
On a straight line, the direction is maintained and the orientation is constant. We always know where we have come from, and where we are headed. We can always examine our location and the direction of our movement. Are we going forward or backward? Have we already journeyed far or only a short distance? The answers to these questions are very simple when one is walking along a straight line.
On a circle, with each passing moment, one loses more and more of one's sense of direction. Where are we? Have we already arrived? Are we going forward or backward? Are we getting closer or further away?
The ability to judge reality gradually disappears. The world begins to assume the appearance of great chaos. Things that a person thought would serve him well end up casting him into a pit, while abysmal failures quickly reveal themselves as great salvation. What is good and what is evil? What must one hope for and what must one run away from? Are we dealing with reward or punishment? A person loses control and his ability to choose, confusion rules, and at the height of the confusion, a moment before the collapse, he has a new insight, whose time arrives only after the redeeming confusion succeeds in freeing the person from the chains of the "simple mercy" of the mode of straight governance, according to which everything is catalogued and confined in definitions and drawers.
The new understanding does not draw distinctions or offer definitions. Everything is the reason for something and the result of something, and one process having an inner central point unites all of reality to some primal point around which there are many circles.
Yosef the tzadik lived through many years of confusion that prepared him to apprehend the circles.
From the pit in which Yosef anticipated his end, he saw the redeeming convoy that a moment later shackled him in the chains of Egyptian bondage. His success in the house of Potifar suddenly turned into a tragedy that cast him into prison. And it was from this catastrophic situation, from which for a moment Yosef thought he would never recover, that Yosef eventually merited the status of viceroy.
All the good things that happened to Yosef turned out to be bad, and all the bad things turned out to be good. This difficult life experience cast Yosef into great confusion. Eventually, he recognized that events must be judged not according to their objective nature, but according to their place on the circle their causes and effects.
This new recognition reaches its climax in the following words of Yosef to his brothers: "But as for you, you thought evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it to pass at this day that much people should be saved alive" (Bereishit 50:20).
From the perspective of "straight light," the sale of Yosef is measured in and of itself, and its severity is truly immeasurable.
From the perspective of circles, however, Yosef reflects upon the Divine will that stands behind the events. What is the cause, in which direction is the wheel spinning, and where are the events leading? From what are we distancing ourselves as we proceed along the circle, and what are we coming closer to? "To bring it to pass at this day that much people should be saved alive."
At this moment, Yosef sweetens the gevurot and the judgments. Yosef acquires the trait of equanimity that allows him to look upon those who wish him evil - in the very manner that the king's son looked upon the prostitute - and bless them.
According to this interpretation, the circles depicted by the eggs and lentils eaten when a person encounters death and mourning do not mark the end of life, but rather its cause.
Indeed, death involves moving away from life, but at the same time it also involves drawing near to life of another sort. This is the circle in which every move away is also a move towards, and every severance is also a joining.
These are the wagons that Yosef sent his father Ya'akov. For only one who lives with the consciousness of circles is able to stand up in times of trouble, and rather than cry out, "My way is hid from the Lord," proclaim "O how great is Your goodness, which You have laid up for those who fear You."
The prophet Yeshaya who
criticizes these words of the house of Ya'akov opens his prophecy with the
words, "Comfort My people, comfort them, says your God." Thus, he
attempts to teach
Exile is the cause of redemption, says Yosef to Ya'akov, and from the moment that we see things in this manner, exile becomes sweet, for it too is part of the perfect and infinite whole.
So too thought R. Akiva who, together with the other Sages, saw a fox emerging from the Holy of Holies:
Again it happened that [Rabban
Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva] went up to
Jerusalem. When they reached
R. Akiva sees the prophecy of Uriya, the harshest of prophecies, as the cause of the shining and lofty prophecy of Zekharya. From the moment that Uriya's prophecy turned into a cause, even the fox emerging from the Holy of Holies turned into sweetness that causes R. Akiva to laugh.
"Comfort My people, comfort them." The prophet Yeshaya asks the house of Ya'akov to deepen its perspective on the world and raise it to the level of circles. And R. Akiva's colleagues, thanks to R. Akiva's profound thinking and his elevation, in the manner of Yosef, to the unified reality of Divine governance of the world, respond to Yeshaya's request: "Akiva, you have consoled us! Akiva, you have consoled us!"
 Some draw the connection in a more spiritual and abstract manner: "'The wagons the spirit of Ya'akov their father revived.' And Chazal say: He gave them a sign; when he left him, he had been studying the Torah section regarding the egla arufa. This is what is meant by what is said: 'And he saw the wagons.'" That is to say, Yosef sent to Ya'akov: Why are you upset, why is your face fallen imagining that Yosef had then been torn to pieces. Surely when I left you, we were studying the Torah section regarding the egla arufa. And you performed all aspects of accompaniment with protection to join me to the Shekhina, as it were, and to the accompanying angels. How then could mischief have befallen me? And therefore, "And when he saw the wagons the spirit of Ya'akov their father revived." When he saw that [God's] commandments were performed appropriately and that they yield fruit, that He won't be ashamed before Him in the world-to-come" (Be'er Mayim Chayyim, Vayeshev, 37). [R. Chayyim of Czernowitz (1760-1818), one of the most important disciples of Rabbi Yechiel Michel of Zolochev.]
 We spoke at length about the quality of equanimity in our lecture on parashat Chayyei Sara.
 Thus, this is the very opposite of the first interpretation.
 We have cited selected sections of his teachings. Even these we shall not analyze in a deep and thorough manner. We shall make use of them only for the purpose of defining the concepts of straightness and circles.
 It should be remembered that R. Levi Yitzchak also draws a connection between "cause" and "circle."
 This point is not spelled out in the aforementioned passage, but it does appear in many other places.
[Translated by David Strauss]