"They went up from Egypt and came to the land of Canaan to Jacob their father. And they told him, saying, 'Joseph is still alive' and that he is ruler over all the land of Egypt; but his heart rejected it for he did not believe them. However, when they related to him all the words that Joseph had spoken to them, and he saw the wagons that Jospeh had sent to transport him, then the spirit of their father, Jacob, was lifted." (1)
When the brothers returned from their momentous reunion with Joseph, they told Jacob the astounding news that his beloved son was still alive. However, he was not convinced by all their efforts to persuade him. He only accepted the news when they showed him the wagons that Joseph had sent. What was so special about the wagons?
Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanchuma that explains that the wagons were a siman (sign) of the mitzvah of Egla Arufah,(2) which was the final thing that Jacob had taught Joseph. This sign finally convinced Jacob that his son was really alive.(3)
The author of Darchei Mussar asks that Joseph could surely have given any number or proofs that he was not an impostor. Why did he choose to give this particular sign?(4) Furthermore, why did this evidence supersede everything that the brothers could say to prove that this was really Joseph?
The Darchei Mussar answers with a fascinating story involving the Vilna Gaon. There was a woman whose husband had been lost for many years and she was in the status of aguna.(5) Suddenly, a man returned claiming that he was the missing husband. He gave many proofs that seemed to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that he was indeed her husband. But she remained uncertain of his true identity. Unsure what to do, the people involved came to the Vilna Gaon to ask him the course of action.
He advised them to bring this man to the shul that the husband had attended, and test him by telling him to sit in the place where this man would regularly sit during prayer (makom kavua). The man did not know where the makom kavua was and admitted that he was not this woman's husband. Evidently, he had met the husband at some point and found out many private details about him as part of his plan. The Vilna Gaon explained that he realized that it was conceivable that this man had met the true husband and asked him questions about his life that enabled him to convincingly pose as the husband himself. However, if this man was really an impostor who was planning to commit such an evil act of deceit, then it was impossible that he would think to ask the true husband about something related to holiness such as where the man would sit while praying. It was inconceivable that such an evil person would have thoughts of holiness because they were so distant from his headspace.
With this story, the Darchei Mussar explains why Joseph sent his father a sign of the last piece of Torah that they learnt together. If the Egyptian Viceroy was an impostor of Joseph, he would never think to have asked Joseph a matter pertaining to spirituality. Thus, Joseph knew that only something relating to the spiritual would convince his father that he was the same Joseph that left so many years earlier. The Darchei Mussar continues further that this sign also served as an excellent proof that Joseph had maintained his high spiritual standing because had he been negatively influenced in Egypt he never would have thought to send a sign relating to Torah.
We learn from this explanation that the things that occupy a person's thoughts and make up his speech give a very strong indication of his spiritual standing. An example of a person whose level was indicated by what he spoke about was the great Chafetz Chaim.(6) It is said that he was a very talkative person; what did he talk about? Torah and matters pertaining to the welfare of the Jewish people.
We learn from Joseph's signs that that which occupies a person's minds is a great indication of where he is holding. May we all merit to think and speak words of true spiritual depth.
1. Vayigash, 45:25-27.
2. Literally translated as the 'axed calf.' See Parshas Shoftim, 20:1-9 for details of this Mitzva.
3. Rashi, Vayigash, 45:27.
4. Darchei Mussar, Parshas Vayigash, p.92. (Darchei Mussar was authored by Rav Yaakov Neimann zt"l).
5. This is a married woman who is unable to remarry until she receives a divorce document (get) from her husband or if there is conclusive proof that her husband is no longer alive.
6. His real name was Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, but hew as universally known as the Chofetz Chaim after his famous work of that name about guarding one's speech.