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 whom 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 – it just couldn’t be. The brothers convinced him that it was true by showing him the wagons that Yosef had sent.
Rashi explains that the wagons were actually a code. The last sugya (Torah issue) that Yosef had been learning with his father was Eglah Arufah, a calf that is killed as an atonement. The Hebrew word eigel, or calf, is similar to agalah, which means wagon. Yosef was using a play on words to refer back to the last issue that 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 that Yosef was alive. “Eigel/Agalah. Our last Torah conversation. No one else could have known this. It’s a clear sign it must be Yosef. He is still alive!”
The problem with this Rashi is that it is difficult to imagine that Yosef would expect his father to vividly recall a conversation that 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 Arufah,” it would be difficult to imagine that Yaakov would remember 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 Arufah. Why did Yosef assume that 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.
Where were you when Kennedy died?
Each generation has its defining moments. If you ask people who grew up in America in the 1960s where they were when President Kennedy was shot, many will be able to describe not only where they were standing when they heard the news, but even the details of the wallpaper of the room they were in.
In more recent times, if you ask someone, “Where were you on 9/11?” many people will vividly recall the exact part of the office they were standing in and who they were talking to when they heard about the Twin Towers going down. 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 upon 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 that 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. To them, their words of Torah and novel understandings of it were earth-shattering. Because they understood the value of Torah and the change that it brought to them and to 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 sugya 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 that 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 their clarity in 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 mashal 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.
Soon the time came for him to go away to yeshivah. Again, in that city, the only karate school he could find was in a third style, so again, he began from the basics with the new stances, kicks, and punches. And in this style, as well, he was awarded a yellow belt. In tenth grade, he switched yeshivos and began the same process again. At the end of five years of training, the young man had attained the rank of yellow belt in five styles – a beginner! Had he spent the same amount of time and effort in one style, he would have attained the rank of black belt – a master. It wasn’t that he wasn’t diligent, and it wasn’t that he didn’t apply himself, but because his focus was changed and he had to begin again from the beginning each time, his advancement was stymied. At the end of it, he hadn’t reached any high rank.
This is a powerful mashal to our lives. Most of our lives are spent with changing priorities – that which is so important at one stage becomes insignificant at another.
To a young boy growing up in America, sports are king. That’s what really counts in his world. But that doesn’t last; it is soon replaced by friends and being popular. As he matures, grades and what college he gets into become the measure of success. Within a short while, his career and making money are all that really matters. Yet this stage also passes, and shortly, he will trade away huge amounts of his wealth to build his reputation. As he nears retirement, his health and his future nursing home become his primary concern. Throughout his existence, that which was precious and coveted at one stage becomes devalued and traded away as new priorities take over. The currency is constantly changing. While at each stage of life, he may have done well, in the totality of what he accomplished, it may not be much. He became a yellow belt in five styles.
When we leave this earth, we will clearly view everything that we did through a different looking glass. The currency then will be different than it is now. The Avos lived their lives with Olam HaBa currency firmly in place, and that value system motivated them in everything that they did. The more that a person shapes his currency on values that are immortal and truly valuable, the more he can attain greatness and shape his destiny.