With little or no fanfare, the Torah describes the reunion of Jacob and Joseph. “Joseph ordered his chariot and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel…”(Genesis 46:29). A closer (and deeper?) read suggests that Joseph “harnessed the horses to his chariot himself” (Rashi). Egypt’s viceroy, who surely has attendants and a staff, saddles his own horse. Why?
The tradition of Joseph’s DIY behavior begins with an early midrash. Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael notes four biblical characters who do their own harnessing – Abraham, Balaam, Joseph, and Pharaoh. Two heroes and two villains hitch their own horses before key moments in their stories. What, if anything, differentiates them? For the Midrash, intent is the outcome. Abraham seeks to fulfill God’s command while Balaam sets out to curse the people of Israel. Pharaoh aims to pursue and re-enslave the Israelites while Joseph hitches his own chariot in order to see and honor his aged father. Purpose matters.
[Jacopo Carucci Pontormo (1518),’Scenes from Joseph Story’ – National Gallery, London]
R Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev pushes the insight of the Midrash a bit farther. “We should each investigate all of our deeds with careful scrutiny, so that we not behave like animals (heaven forbid!). We should weigh everything, so that we might discern some indication of how we might better serve the Holy One, and then do it!” That, says Levi Yitzhak, is the lesson of Joseph’s DIY move in this key moment. Every act has within it a remiza d’hah’m’ta – a hint or indication of deeper wisdom – and the work of awareness is to seek out and identify that hidden meaning prior to acting.
My teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Slater, powerfully and eloquently teases out Levi Yitzhak’s intent. “How can this act that I am about to undertake lead me to see God more clearly in the world? How can my deeds reveal God’s presence, peeling back the garments that obscure the Holy One?”
Joseph harnesses his own horses to his own chariot. Eager to see and do honor to his father, he catches a glimpse of avinu she’bashamayim – our heavenly parent – and knows that his act will enable himself and others to see God more clearly in the world. The physical gives way to the emotional/spiritual reality underneath, if only we take the time to notice it.