Upon returning to Yaakov to tell him the good news that Yosef is still alive, the Torah relates, “Vayagidu Lo Leimor Od Yosef Chai … Vayipag LeboKi Lo Heemin Lahem. Vayidabru Eilav Et Kol Divrei Yosef … Vayar et Ha’agalot … Vatichi Ruach Yaakov Avihem.”
Rashi, quoting Bereshit Rabbah, interprets these Pesukim to mean that although the brothers informed Yaakov that Yosef was alive, Yaakov did not believe them until he noticed the wagons that Yosef sent. The wagons were a sign from Yosef that he had remembered the last Halacha that he learned with his father Yaakov, the Halacha of Egla Arufa, before they had separated. It was when Yaakov noticed the Agalah that he had confirmation that Yosef was indeed alive.
This Midrash is puzzling for many reasons. One problem is that the Pasuk states, “Vayidabru Elav Kol Divrei Yosef.” One can assume then, that the brothers told Yaakov that Yosef, the viceroy, seated them around his table in birth order. They must have also mentioned that Yosef spoke Hebrew (see Rashi 45:12) and that he had been circumcised (see Rashi 45:4). In addition, not one of the brothers even questioned for a moment Yosef’s claim of “Ani Yosef.” If they were perfectly convinced that this was indeed Yosef, why was Yaakov not convinced, and secondly, why did the Agalot remove Yaakov’s doubt?
Rav Nissan Alpert zt”l offers the following interpretation. The theme that emerges from the Parsha of Eglah Arufah is the notion of Arvut, accountability for other Jews. Although we do not fault the Zikainim of the closest city to the corpse for the death of this individual, nevertheless the blame rests indirectly upon them as they were unmindful of their responsibility to see that a person be properly escorted out of the city. Jews are guarantors for other Jews, and if they are neglectful of this responsibility then Kaparah, atonement, is necessary.
Yosef was very scrupulous in the area of Arvut. He protected Bilhah’s children from the degradation they were subjected to by Leah’s children, and he resolved to carry out the command of his father to ascertain the well-being of his brothers and the sheep in Shechem thought he knew that his brothers despised him.
When Yaakov first heard “Od Yosef Chai” he was skeptical because one thing troubled him. How could Yosef, the paradigm of Arvut, remain in Egypt for 22 years and not contact his father? Didn’t Yosef always go out of his way for family because he felt a sense of responsibility? Yaakov’s skepticism was not really based on a lack of belief that Yosef was alive, but rather on his doubt of what kind of Simcha should he really be feeling, if Yosef had not contacted him in all these years.
It was only when Yaakov saw the Agalot, a sign that Yosef really did care and that he was going to take responsibility for the entire family by taking them to Egypt to support them during the years of famine, that Yaakov believed that Yosef was alive. He understood that Yosef’s position in Egypt was Bihashgachat Hashem and that Yosef must have had reason not to contact Yaakov because had Yosef really lost his sense of Arvut, he never would have sent Agalot to take his family to live with him.