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Grab the Cup

  • Grab the Cup

    Vayigash, Genesis 44:18−47:27
D'var Torah By: 

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.

Accepting Responsibility in the Face of Change
Davar Acher By: 
Mandell H. Greene

The story of Joseph reaches a climax in Parashat Vayigash, when Joseph, who is now a vizier in Egypt, reveals his true identity to his brothers. As Judah approaches Joseph, not knowing his true identity-"Then Judah went up to him [Joseph]..." (Genesis 44:18)-we see two men who have made different choices. As Joseph and Judah face each other, they are also facing their pasts. Joseph is initially filled with a desire for revenge against his brothers-a desire that may have increased over more than twenty-two years. This intense feeling, however, turns to a decision to forgive as Judah pleads for his younger brother's, Benjamin's, freedom.

Joseph's decision to make peace with his brothers reflects a pattern of change in his own life. For Joseph, revenge leads to forgiveness, which, in turn, leads to reconciliation with his family. We should remember that Judah was the brother who suggested selling Joseph into slavery (Genesis 37:27), and when he voices his adamant intention to save Benjamin and appeals to Joseph's sense of justice by saying, "Please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy . . . for how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me?" (Genesis 44:33-34), Joseph understands that Judah has undergone a transformation. Whereas Judah once did little to save his brother Joseph, he now puts his heart and soul into trying to save his brother Benjamin. Change has touched the lives of these brothers, and it is change that brings them together again and allows them to reconcile.

Some might argue that fate led Joseph to react the way he did to his brothers. But when Joseph tells his brothers not to blame themselves for what happened to him, we see that he has come to realize that his own actions helped to determine his fate. It is also evident that Joseph believes strongly that God sent him to Egypt to aid his people during the famine when he says: "God has sent me ahead of you to insure your survival on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance." (Genesis 45:7)

We should look at our own lives in a similar fashion. How many times have you been faced with a challenge? If the manner in which you handled it resulted in a response that you did not intend or desire, why not look at your own actions rather than placing blame on others?

Just as Joseph helped to create his fate by his actions, it is often our own behavior, based on the choices we make, that leads to-or at least contributes to-the response we elicit in others. In making our daily decisions, may we be more like Joseph.

Mandy Greene, FTA, currently serves as the assistant administrator at Congregation B'nai Jehudah in Kansas City, MO.

Reference Materials: 

Vayigash, Genesis 44:18-47:27
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 281–297; Revised Edition, pp. 286–301;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 259–280

When do we read Vayigash

2020, December 26
11 Tevet, 5781
2021, December 11
7 Tevet, 5782
2022, December 31
7 Tevet, 5783
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