“Did you eat? What, so little? Here, let me get you a plate.”

“Are you sure you’re warm enough? Here’s another sweater.”

The Jewish mother is legendary—or notorious, depending on how you look at it—for her all-consuming need to nurture. Overbearing as it may seem at times, we know it comes from love, and we wouldn’t want it otherwise.

This instinct to look after others is ingrained in us from the Torah itself. When we host a guest, we are obligated to feed them and offer them shelter for the night or at least accompany them on the road until we are certain they have reached safety.1 We learn this from Abraham, who escorted the angels who came to visit him.2

The devastating effect of not offering a guest shelter is illustrated by the mitzvah of eglah arufah, the “decapitated calf.” If a stranger is found dead in a field and nobody knows who killed him, the elders of the city that is closest to the corpse must kill a young calf and proclaim, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see [this crime].”3 In other words, the people of the city have to testify that they didn’t see this traveler pass through and ignore him and his needs.4

We cannot simply avert our eyes from the needs of another person and assure ourselves that all will be well, that they can take care of themselves, that G‑d will help. It’s our obligation to notice, to worry, to care and to take action.

The topic of eglah erufah makes a surprise guest appearance in this week’s Torah portion.

After Joseph revealed his true identity to his brothers, he sent them back to their father, Jacob, laden with gifts. At first, Jacob refused to believe that Joseph was alive. Then the verse says, “He saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, and the spirit of their father Jacob was revived.”5

What was it about seeing the wagons that caused Jacob’s spirit to revive? Quoting the Midrash, Rashi on the verse explains that the wagons (agalot in Hebrew) alluded to the eglah arufah, the final lesson in Torah that Jacob had taught Joseph before their abrupt separation. When Jacob saw the wagons, he understood the message that Joseph was sending. Don’t worry, Father. I’m still alive. I’m still your son Joseph. The Torah you taught me remains alive within me.

The lesson of eglah arufah kept Joseph going through all his brutal years of enslavement in Egypt. He was a teen, only 17, when he was cruelly torn away from his father. His father’s parting message, wittingly or unwittingly, was that there is no such thing as a Jew who is alone, forsaken, abandoned. If a body is found in the outskirts of a city, then the entire city, including the elders, must gather together to give an accounting. “We had an obligation to provide him with food and shelter, and see him safely on his way. We are accountable not only for his physical needs but his spiritual needs as well.”

This is what Joseph was telling his father. “Abba, you trained me well. You did not send me on my way empty-handed. You fed me, you clothed me in spiritual garments that kept me warm and sheltered for 22 long years. Your parting words gave me the strength and fortitude to withstand all the trials and tribulations in Egypt.”

And Jacob’s spirit revived.

(Based on an address of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Likutei Sichot, vol. 30, p. 222)