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Joseph’s Calf

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“If a dead body shall be found … fallen in the field, and it not be known who has slain him … And the city that is closest to the body, the elders of that city shall take a calf that has never been put to work, that has never drawn in the yoke. And the elders of that city shall take the calf down to a rough ravine, which shall not be worked nor sown; and they shall decapitate the calf there in the ravine… And they shall proclaim: “Our hands have not spilled this blood; our eyes have not seen. O G-d, absolve Your nation Israel, whom You have redeemed … may the blood be forgiven them…”

Deuteronomy 21:1-8

Our sages tell us that the law of eglah arufah (“the decapitated calf”) was the last law that Jacob and Joseph studied together[9] before Joseph went off to check up on his brothers and was lost to his father for twenty-two years.

When Joseph’s brothers returned from Egypt and told their father that Joseph was alive and is the ruler of Egypt, Jacob’s “heart rejected [the news], for he could not believe them.”[10] It was only when “they spoke to him the words that Joseph spoke to them” and showed him “the agalot that Joseph had sent,” that “the spirit of Jacob was revived” and he hurried to Egypt to see his beloved son.[11] What were “the words that Joseph spoke to them”? And what were the agalot he sent? The word agalot literally means “wagons.” But the wagons to carry Jacob and his family to Egypt were sent by Pharaoh,[12] not by Joseph; and why would the sight of some wagons revive the spirit of Jacob? The agalot, explain our sages, were an allusion to the eglah arufah: Joseph was reminding his father of the last Torah law they had studied together. Yes—said Jacob upon seeing the agalot—the viceroy of Egypt is my long-lost son, and he has not forgotten the Torah he has learned in his father’s home.[13]

Out In The Field

We all acknowledge our responsibility for things that are in our control, for whatever occurs within our “jurisdiction.” But what about those things that are outside of our domain? Things over which we have no authority and only a limited influence?

This is the lesson of eglah arufah. The elders of the city nearest the murder must clarify that “our hands have not spilled this blood.” “Would it occur to anyone,” asks the Talmud, “that the elders of the beit-din are spillers of blood? But [the elders have to affirm that]… ‘We have not sent him off without provisions … we have not sent him off without accompaniment.’”[14] The city elders are obviously responsible for everything that transpires within their jurisdiction. But the murder occurred “out in the field,” outside the domain of all the surrounding cities. Yet the city elders must proclaim their non-culpability, and then seek atonement and forgiveness for the deed.

This is the deeper significance of the message Joseph sent to Jacob. Father, he was saying, I have not forgotten the law of eglah arufah. True, I have been exiled from the sacred environment of your home to depraved Egypt. But I have not sent off my soul to this spiritual no-man’s-land without provisions and accompaniment. I have not abandoned it to a spiritual death with the justification that “this is outside of my domain. I have no way of dealing with this.” After twenty-two years of slavery, imprisonment and political power, I am the same Joseph who left your home on the day that we studied the laws of eglah arufah.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Tevet 5, 5747 (January 6, 1987)[15].

Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[9]. Our forefathers studied the Torah many centuries before it was “officially” given at Sinai. See Talmud, Yoma 28b; Rashi, Genesis 37:3; et al.

[10]. Genesis 45:26.

[11]. Ibid., v. 27.

[12]. See ibid., 45: 21, 46:8.

[13]. Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 94:3; Rashi, Genesis 45:27.

[14]. Talmud, Sotah 38b.

[15]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXX, pp. 222-224.

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