A silver goblet is central to the story of Joseph and his brothers in this week's Torah portion, Parashat Vayigash. As the vizier in Egypt, long after he had been left for dead by his brothers and ransomed by desert traders, Joseph dangles the very fate of his family like a bucket and rope in a deep well. On first reading, his purpose seems to be to wring repentance from the siblings who abandoned him. As a precocious lad, Joseph was too much for his brothers to bear in their youth; and now, unrecognizable by them, he has come into his own and made himself into a formidable man. He is described in the midrash as wise and learned, as Joseph the righteous, and indeed the power he has gained in Egypt is deserved. To our current generation of readers, Joseph is an example of a materially and morally successful Diaspora Jew.
In his classic work Legends of the Jews, Louis Ginzberg compiles a sequence of midrashim that put the festive meal Joseph shares with his brothers - and, most important, the silver goblet that will be used to ransom Benjamin from his brothers-at the center of the narrative. When reading this collection of legends, we are struck by Joseph's not-so-hidden desire to reveal to his brothers his extensive knowledge of Jewish life and ritual. We learn that Joseph not only prepared the meal in front of his brothers to show off his knowledge of the kosher laws, he also planned for their celebration to be a Shabbat meal. Clearly it is important to Joseph that his brothers know that he hasn't forgotten how to be Jewish. Once seated at the table, Joseph is immediately struck by how much his younger brother Benjamin looks like their father Jacob. And this visceral link to their lineage is but one of a string of events that inspires Joseph and his brothers to drink wine together out of a silver goblet, an occurrence that Rashi reminds us had not taken place in more than twenty-two years.
Thus the goblet itself, soon to be used as a means to ransom Benjamin and to exact the final demonstration of repentance from Joseph's brothers, is rendered by the rabbinic imagination into a cup of reconciliation and as a means of developing stronger individual and family Jewish identities. Joseph's choice of a silver goblet is a clever way of maintaining his identity as a non-Jew while identifying with an obvious Jewish object, a Kiddush cup. And with this allusion, Joseph seems to be saying something not only to his brothers but to all Jews for all time, namely, that the family line-and, therefore, the Jewish people-can only continue to exist through the next generation's ability and desire to possess "the cup," bless its contents, and drink from it.
This incident evokes a contemporary image of the Jew who acts outwardly in line with the dominant culture but who inwardly maintains traditional religious priorities, for example, a college student who is religiously trained but whose instincts may be quelled stemming from a desire not to appear "too Jewish."
Like the goblet in our portion, which had the power to connect Joseph to family and tradition, something as basic as a Kiddush cup, perhaps received as a bar mitzvah gift and now residing on a dorm room shelf, can link a student with his lineage. On a Friday night, he sees it peering back at him, nearly animated by its own inherent significance. The cup cries to be filled, to be lifted up. It demands the obligation of blessing.
With perhaps no one around to witness the sight, the young man takes the cup from the shelf along with a prayer book and, amidst the restless tumult of a Friday-night dorm scene, challenges himself to recite Kiddush. The familiar melody rises to his lips in a moment of daring. He has opened a window into the past, into his very own soul. Like Joseph seeing his father's face in that of his younger brother, he sees parents and grandparents standing around him and friends snickering with amusement and beaming with admiration. He might even see his rabbi. He has transported himself into the past while standing in the present. And the source of his divination is the cup-a silver goblet presented to him as a gift.
And there the cup rests, in the hand of a college student, alone or with friends; in the hands of young adults making their way back toward tradition; in the hands of Jews everywhere for whom the sacred moment of reciting Kiddush has always been a practice. Each, like Joseph, sees the faces of the past in the faces of the younger generation. In such moments, our life as a people is not only preserved but raised, renewed, and sanctified.
Rabbi Andrew N. Bachman is the Skirball Director of the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life: Hillel at NYU in New York, NY.