In the story of Yoseph’s descent to Egypt and his rise to leadership, we read that during the famine wagons full of supplies were sent to Yaacov in the land of Canaan.
The issue of who sent the wagons to Yaacov is especially relevant since Yaacov says that when he “saw the wagons Joseph sent” he took it as proof that Joseph was alive. However, first it says Pharaoh sent the wagons (Genesis 45:21) then it says it was Joseph (Genesis 45:27). If it was Pharaoh, who sent the wagons how could Yaacov say Joseph sent them?
There are several answers to this question. In my opinion, the most straightforward explanation is found in a Jewish mystical text. The Zohar explains that although Pharaoh gave the command to send the wagons, it was in response to Joseph request, that he made in his role as Pharaoh’s advisor. As it says, “Joseph gave them wagons as Pharaoh had commanded עַל־פִּ֣י פַרְעֹ֑ה.”
How did wagons provide a sign to Yaacov that Joseph was alive? The biblical commentator Rashi says the wagons were a sign because the word for wagons agalaos – עגלות, is like the word for calf eglah – עגלה. This was a reference to the last Torah lesson Yaacov was studying with Joseph before he left. The topic was the laws of the Eglah Arufah. If a slain man is discovered in an open area and the murderer is in unknown, the law requires that the elders of the nearest town, in an act of penitence, slay a young calf and break its neck and testify that they did not contribute to the person’s death (Deuteronomy 21:1-9).
If the Torah hadn’t been given, how could Yaccov teach the laws of Eglah Arufah? Although our sages say (Rashi on Genesis 32:5 and Talmud Yoma 28b on Genesis 26:5) the forefathers keep the entire Torah, they did so by learning and connecting to the underlying spiritual source of the mitzvahs.
The fundamental lesson of the Eglah Arufah is that leaders have moral responsibilities. In this specific instance the elders of a city have responsibilities that included not allowing an individual to travel unescorted. Similarly, Yaacov was explaining to Yoseph that if he is going to become a leader, like his dreams predicted, he needs to take moral responsibility for his actions.
The additional lesson of the responsibility to escort individuals was also taught to Yoseph when Yaacov sent him to find his brothers. According to some sources, Yaacov escorted Yoseph part of the way. This is hinted in Genesis 37:14 with the word “vayishlachahu” וַיִּשְׁלָחֵ֙הוּ֙ מֵעֵ֣מֶק חֶבְר֔וֹן “he sent him from the valley of Hebron.”
In addition to meaning “send” the word Shlach – שלח can mean to “escort.” We see this in Genesis 18:16 when the angels departed Avraham to go to Sodom it says, וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם הֹלֵ֥ךְ עִמָּ֖ם לְשַׁלְּחָֽם “Abraham walking with them and escorted them”
Furthermore, since Hebron is on a mountain, Yaacov must haves escorted Yoseph to the “valley of Hebron” which is the cave of the patriarchs and then sent him on his way.
According to this interpretation, Yaacov was teaching two of the underlying lessons found in the future laws of Eglah Arufah. Leaders need to be morally responsible, and people should not be allowed to travel unescorted.
By sending the wagons, Yoseph was identifying himself as the person Yaacov had taught these essential lessons of conduct.