The Torah states that Yaakov receives the news of Yosef’s survival in a unique fashion: “VaYar Et HaAgalot Asher Shalach Yosef LaSeit Oto, VaTechi Ru’ach Yaakov,” “[Yaakov] saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to carry him, and Yaakov’s spirit was revived” (BeReishit 45:27). A famous comment of Rashi (ad. loc. s.v. Et Kol Divrei Yosef), based on BeReishit Rabbah 94:3, explains that the wagons are integral to Yaakov’s recognition that Yosef is alive, as they constitute a very specific missive from Yosef. The last thing Yosef and Yaakov learned together was the topic of Eglah Arufah, the “broken-necked calf.” Since the word Agalah, wagon, shares the same Hebrew letters as Eglah, Yaakov understands that it is indeed Yosef who is sending him a message. But besides for the very fact that Yosef is alive, what else does his message carry?
First presented in Parashat Shofetim, the case of Eglah Arufah is rather complex. A body is found between two cities, and the killer is unidentified. The Beit Din must get involved to figure out which city is responsible for the death. The Zekeinim and Shoftim (elders and judges) from the city closest to where the body is found must bring a calf that has never performed work and decapitate it in a valley. Following an assessment performed by the Kohanim, the Zekeinim of the closer city wash their hands over the calf and recite the following phrase, “Yadeinu Lo Shafchu Et HaDam HaZeh, VeEineinu Lo Ra’u,” “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see [the crime]” (Devarim 21:7). Following this procedure, the Kohanim pray that Hashem should forgive Bnei Yisrael’s sins and that He should not let innocent blood be shed among Bnei Yisrael. Following all of this, the Torah states that the blood of the calf functions as an atonement for the crime.
But for what exactly does the blood act as an atonement (Kaparah), and why would the Zekeinim even require atonement at all, as they state their innocence through the aforementioned formal declaration (21:7)? Rashi, quoting the Sifrei and the Gemara in Masechet Sotah 45a, explains that the case refers not to a deliberate murder but rather to a death by starvation while travelling, for which the Zekeinim take responsibility. They “did not see” the man leaving their city without food and water, and so they indirectly caused his death to occur. However, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Rosh HaShanah 3:1) takes a different approach, understanding the Pesukim in Shofetim as referring to the Zekeinim’s lack of immediate action in identifying the murderer; the murderer’s anonymity yields a lack of justice for which the Zekeinim must be atoned. In fact, even after the Zekeinim are atoned, if the murderer is discovered, the Gemara (Bavli Sotah 47b) explains that justice must still be carried out. The institution of Eglah Arufah does not override the pre-existing judicial process, and the murderer must be executed. Regardless, the approaches provided by the Bavli and Yerushalmi both highlight the fact that Eglah Arufah deals with shortcomings in the community’s institutions.
There is a debate as to whether or not Yaakov ever discovers that the brothers sold Yosef. Once Yaakov passes away at the end of Parashat VaYechi, the brothers fear that Yosef will take revenge on them for selling him. They therefore tell Yosef that Yaakov commanded him to forgive them for their wrongdoings (BeReishit 50:15-17). According to the Gemara (Yevamot 65b), this is a lie, and the brothers only say this to “maintain peace.” Similarly, the Ramban (BeReishit 45:27 s.v. VaYedabru Eilav Et Col Divrei Yosef) explains that the brothers’ claim is false, as they would have asked Yaakov to directly speak to Yosef before Yaakov’s death if they wanted to ensure that Yosef would not take revenge on them.
However, Rashi (50:16 s.v. Avicha Tzivah) understands that Yaakov does know about the brothers’ involvement in the sale. However, he does not command Yosef to refrain from taking revenge on the brothers, as he knows that Yosef would never even contemplate such an action.
If we interpret these Pesukim according to Ramban and the Gemara in Yevamot, Yosef’s message of the wagons becomes all the more clear. The perpetrator of the crime is unknown to Yaakov. He has no idea as to who sold Yosef! As such, Yosef decides to notify Yaakov using a medium which connotes an established Halachic principle that deals with anonymity in sin—Eglah Arufah, as established by the Yerushalmi’s approach. In a certain sense, Yosef is providing Yaakov with judicial closure by showing that he is alive through the Eglah Arufah. As previously noted, if the murderer is discovered after the calf is decapitated, the murderer is executed to ensure that the judicial process is completed, but the judicial process is also completed if the murder never happened in the first place! The identity of the “murderer” is irrelevant if the murder never took place. In Parashat VaYeishev, the Torah notes that Yaakov “refused to be comforted” after he was notified of Yosef’s death by the brothers (BeReishit 37:35). This was due to a lack of closure. Yosef, in sending the message of Eglah Arufah, is finally able to provide Yaakov with closure regarding his fate while implying that, because he was not murdered, no vengeance should be visited on his brothers. The case was finally closed, and Yaakov was finally revived.