Parshat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “And Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup and I placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.” (Gen. 40:11)
The Bible believes in the significance of dreams; so did the Sages of the Talmud (B.T. Berakhot, chapter 9), so did William Shakespeare and so did Sigmund Freud. Shakespeare declared that “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” (The Tempest 4:1) – that the thoughts and emotions of the human being provide the raw material for the dreams he experiences in his sleep at night. Conversely, Freud taught that the best code to unlocking the mystery of an individual’s personality is by studying the symbolism of his dreams.
Hence when Joseph heard that the imprisoned cup-bearer is dreaming of serving wine to Pharaoh once again, he understood that this man did not have a guilty conscience and in all likelihood, Pharaoh’s investigation would find him innocent; the cup-bearer would be freed and re-instated. The baker, on the other hand, dreamt that birds were eating Pharaoh’s baked goods from a basket he was carrying on his head. One who paranoically believes that others are robbing him of the food he has prepared for Pharaoh obviously feels that he was derelict in his duties and worthy of being punished. Joseph knew that the baker would be found guilty…
Interestingly, the Sages of the Talmud utilize this dream of the cup-bearer as the source for one of the primary activities of our Passover Seder, and, in so doing, reveal a great truth about the personality of Joseph as well as about the political significance of our exodus from Egypt. In chapter ten of tractate Pesachim in the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Yohanan suggests that the four cups of wine which punctuate the Seder and enhance our Festival of Freedom hark back to the four references to “cups” of wine in the cup-bearer’s dream – rather than to the four expressions of redemption in Exodus (6:6-8) as brought down in the version of that same tractate in the Babylonian Talmud . (Those who are familiar with my Commentary on the Haggadah will note that there is a fifth time when “cup” is mentioned in Genesis paralleling the fifth expression of redemption in Exodus.).
What would cause the Jerusalem Talmud to prefer a source from the period of Joseph over a seminal Divine prophecy which foretold the exodus?!
Firstly, the cup-bearer’s dream relates specifically to goblets of wine, the precise objects with which we are dealing in the Seder. Halakhically speaking, Rav Haim Brisker maintains that the cup, or goblet, is very significant; one must not only drink the majority of a revi’it of wine (3.3.ozs) with each blessing over the wine, but one must drink a majority of the cup from which one is drinking, no matter how large it is. Remember that wine not only helps one feel joyous, but it also makes one feel free.
Moreover, the cup-bearer had been wrongfully imprisoned (enslaved) by Pharaoh, and was then exonerated and freed, perfectly paralleling the situation of the Hebrews at the time of the exodus. Herein lies a great lesson, which might have been overlooked had we only had the source from Exodus.
The four expressions of redemption apply specifically to the Israelites – which might have led us to believe that the significance of the exodus related only to God’s special love for Israel. Linking the four cups of freedom to the Egyptian cup-bearer reminds us that God wants every human being to be free – because every human being is created in the image of the Divine, is equal to every other human being, and no human dare enslave his brother. Joseph is the true universalist among the tribes. He initially dreams of sheaves of grain, Egyptian agriculture, and he wishes to influence the entire cosmos, the sun, the moon and the stars.
This fundamental principle of a free humanity is a meta-halakha which must govern human affairs. At the Song of the Reed Sea, all the nations – Edom, Moab, Canaan – are pictured as submitting to the power of the one God of the Universe, who alone must rule the world (Ex. 15:14-18). The American Revolutionaries got it right: “Rebellion against tyranny is obedience to God.” Would that the President of the United States today would lead the United Nations in that direction vis a vis Syria and Iran!
For Maimonides, this principle must be the basis of our Oral Law as we interpret the Torah for each generation. Yes, says the Ramban, the law in the past did allow us to treat the Gentile slave with “rigor,” but this must not be the attitude of any Jew now. He cites the Book of Job, wherein God says to the Master who is inconsiderate to his slave, “was it not the one God who formed both Master and Slave in His womb?” (31:13-15). Maimonides in effect abolishes slavery (see the last law in his Laws of Slaves).
And this fundamental human right to be free causes Maimonides to re-interpret the simple meaning of the Bible to enable the woman imprisoned in an insufferable marriage to be freed. “Our wives are not to be treated as captives under the control of their husbands,” he declares! (Laws of Matrimony 14:8). If only today’s legal decisors would take Maimonides’ words to heart and mind.