A Cherished Chalise

December 13, 2017

7 min read


Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17 )

As a young man, Yosef was a dreamer of dreams. There were those who considered these dreams nothing more than delusions of grandeur, but Yosef knew the dreams would come true.

As a dreamer, Yosef knew how to read symbols; he understood things others often missed, enabling him to see into the future with clarity. From the moment Yosef takes his place on the stage of history, everyone who comes into contact with him - other than his brothers - sees that he is gifted; Yosef is revered, but feared. In at least one instance, this unusual combination saved his life: Yosef's first "home" in Egypt was in the household of the chief executioner, Potifar. Surely a man with such a vocation was neither friendly nor forgiving. Yet when Yosef is (falsely) accused of cuckolding the executioner, somehow he emerges unscathed. Potifar, who killed people for a living, could quite easily have dispatched Yosef with one quick chop of the guillotine; strangely enough, Potifar doesn't lay a finger on Yosef. The executioner was no fool; simply put, he was terrified of Yosef.[1] Potifar saw how his personal fortunes had soared from the moment Yosef arrived. He understood that God was with Yosef, and he was afraid that if he harmed Yosef, not only would he lose his new-found wealth, but he might also be subjected to the wrath of Yosef's God. Perhaps Potifar knew his own wife well enough not to believe her accusation; perhaps he knew Yosef well enough to know that he was an upstanding, trustworthy man and not some sort of Rasputin. Either way, Potifar arrives at a rather elegant resolution of the problem: He incarcerates Yosef in his prison, knowing full well that even from the dungeon Yosef may still be an asset.[2]

Yosef, for his part, displayed nothing but loyalty - both to his master and to the Master of the Universe, to Potifar and to God - when he withstood the advances of Mrs. Potifar:

Now that I am here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands. There is no one in this house who holds more authority than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?" (Bereishit 39:8-9)

Yosef's description of his own position of authority and the trust his master has placed in him differs subtly from the "narrator's" description, several verses earlier, of the relationship between Potifar and Yosef:

And from the time that [Potifar] put Yosef in charge of his household and of all that he owned, God blessed the Egyptian's house for Yosef's sake, so that the blessing of God was upon everything that he owned, in the house and outside. [Potifar] left all that he had in Yosef's hands and he did not withhold anything save the bread that he ate. And Yosef was good looking and handsome. (Bereishit 39:5-6)

The text tells us that only one aspect of Potifar's household was beyond Yosef's authority: the "bread." When Yosef describes the limits of his own authority, he replaces this expression with a reference to his master's wife. The switch is deliberate, and is one more indication of Yosef's talent at utilizing and understanding symbolism. The symbol of bread is what lands Yosef in prison, and it continues to be an ominous symbol in the dream of the king's baker; to Yosef, the recurring symbol is as clear as day.

On the other hand, the sommelier's dream contained no such ominous symbols; he would live, and would be returned to his former position. He would once again bear the king's chalice, and through him Yosef's abilities would be made known. Apparently, the sommelier, like Potifar, both revered and feared Yosef's powers. He seems to have been unsure whether Yosef only read the future, or if he was responsible for creating it.[3] Either way, the sommelier does his best to steer clear of Yosef. He tries to forget the entire incident, and to put a safe distance between himself and the man with the frightening abilities.

When Pharaoh is tormented by his own dreams, the sommelier steps forward, racked with guilt;[4] he knows that Yosef had predicted his personal future, and is convinced that Yosef can see the future of Pharaoh and all of Egypt.

Pharaoh's dreams had particular significance for Yosef, not only because of their importance for the Egyptian economy, or even because they catapulted him from prison to prestige. Pharaoh's dreams held the key to the fulfillment of Yosef's dreams: When he heard Pharaoh recount his recurring visions, Yosef was able to see, for the first time, how and under what circumstances he would be reunited with his brothers. He knew, without a doubt, that his brothers would soon be on their way to Egypt, seeking food. The dreams he had seen as a young man would be fulfilled:

Once Yosef had a dream which he told to his brothers; and they hated him even more. He said to them, "Hear this dream which I have dreamed: We were binding sheaves in the field, when suddenly my sheaf stood up and remained upright; your sheaves gathered around and bowed low to my sheaf." His brothers answered, "Do you mean to reign over us? Do you mean to rule over us?" (Bereishit 37:5-8)

As the story unfolds, Yosef's dreams come true; his brothers bow low, humbling themselves before the man who holds their fate and the fate of their hungry children in his hands. But Yosef's "victory" is hollow; the fulfillment of his dreams is marred by the brothers' lack of recognition.

Now Yosef was the vizier of the land; it was he who dispensed rations to all the people of the land. And Yosef's brothers came and bowed low to him, with their faces to the ground. When Yosef saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them. He asked them, "Where do you come from?" And they said, "From the land of Canaan, to procure food." For though Yosef recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. (Bereishit 42:6-8)

While Potifar, the prison warden, the sommelier, and Pharaoh were all aware of Yosef's greatness and powers, those who were closest to him could not see past their own hatred and jealousy. They could not imagine that their tormentor, the viceroy of the world's greatest superpower, was in fact an old adversary, the brother whom they had mocked for his "delusions of grandeur."

Yosef has a plan; he is determined to open their eyes as the first step toward healing the rift. And so, Yosef - the dreamer and interpreter of dreams - speaks to them in symbols. They are sent on their way back to their father's house in Canaan with food in their bags and an incarcerated brother (Shimon) left behind. Yosef alone sees the symbolism of their situation, the inner meaning: When Yosef languished in the pit, screaming for mercy, these same brothers sat and broke bread, filling their bellies at their brother's expense. When they sold Yosef, they chose money over their brother - and so, in an act of symbolism colored with poetic justice, Yosef sees to it that they leave for home not only with food in their bags, but with their money as well. After all, don't these people prefer food and money to a brother?

Throughout the ordeal, the brothers do not begin to guess the true identity of the man who has latched on to them; in fact, they don't ever seem to entertain the obvious questions: Who is he? What does he want from us? What have we ever done to him to deserve such treatment? Their manner and demeanor is of innocent victims, yet they are far from innocent, and it is their erstwhile victim who is now in control.

The brothers return to Egypt, this time with their youngest brother, Binyamin. Yosef greets them; all the talk of the "mistake" through which the money ended up in their bags is excused. Yosef (via his emissary) explains that it his understanding that God has been looking out for them. (Bereishit 43:23)

Once again, Yosef orchestrates a scene that is ripe with symbolic meaning - but only he understands it. He gathers all of his brothers, and they sit down to a meal together. Once again, the brothers fail to recognize the significance of the moment; they do not recognize Yosef, and therefore they do not know that they are whole.

The brothers seem relived; Yosef's hospitality indicates that they will not be charged with theft or espionage. They let their guard down, and they raise their glasses and drink with their host, who has now taken on the role of sommelier. Yosef alone understands the symbolism of wine in the story of his life; the brothers are unaware of the circumstances of Yosef's ascension to power. They have avoided asking about their inquisitor's identity or history.

Once again, Yosef sends them away; once again, their money is returned - but this time, another item is added to their bags: Yosef's chalice.

When they are tracked down and detained, they are accused of repaying Yosef's benevolence with malevolence, of stealing the magical chalice he uses for divination. Why did Yosef choose this, of all things, to ensnare them?

The brothers are completely at a loss. They are no longer able to act, to speak in their own defense. They become deflated, and believe that their predicament is God's way of punishing them for a crime committed long ago. They analyze the strange accusation with which they have been charged. Grasping at straws, they posit that the inscrutable man who has been tormenting them is immersed in the occult, which is the source of his uncanny knowledge about them and their family. For the bothers to accept this explanation, they must embrace a world of black magic and supernatural powers.

The true explanation, a far less far-fetched explanation, eluded them: Yosef, the interpreter of dreams, was communicating through the use of symbols. He hoped to speak to his brothers on a much deeper level than the superficiality of words, to make them face their past - and the symbol of the chalice was part and parcel of Yosef's message.

Yosef's rise to power was made possible by his interpretation of the sommelier's dream. By placing the cup back in the hand of the sommelier, Yosef would one day leave his prison. The chalice, Yosef understood, was a symbol for his own life. The chalice told Yosef's future, just as Yosef told the future through the chalice.

The brothers were not guilty of stealing the chalice - but they were guilty of "stealing" Yosef, the person whom the chalice represented.

Yosef understood the symbolic representation of the future in each of the dreams he interpreted. Yosef was a vessel for communicating the future, and the magical chalice, a vessel of divination, was a symbolic representation of Yosef's unique vision. In his confrontation with his brothers, Yosef used the symbol of his own dreams to awaken his brothers to the sins of their past. As the visions of his youth came to fruition, Yosef hoped he could heal his family by helping his brothers see, through the use of symbols, what they had so steadfastly avoided seeing for so many years.

© Rabbi Ari Kahn 2017
For more Essays and Lectures on Miketz: http://arikahn.blogspot.co.il/2017/12/audio-and-essays-parashat-vayeshev.html


1. Alshech, Bereshit 39:20.
2. R' S.R. Hirsch and Malbim, 39:20.
3. See Malbim and Ha'amek Davar Bereishit 41:13.
4. When he speaks to Pharaoh, the sommelier speaks of his sins in the plural, how he had sinned against Pharaoh and Yosef. See Bereishit 41:9, and comments of Hizkuni.


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