Miketz: Conscience and Memory

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Miketz/ Shabbat Hanukkah

The chief cupbearer then spoke up and said to Pharaoh, “I must make mention today of my offenses. (Bereshit 41:9)

Good afternoon!

This week there are three special days happening simultaneously, concurrently, and at the same time! (Props to the late and very great Jethro Burns for that joke, usually used when playing a melody that had more than one name.) Coming up tomorrow we have the Shabbat of Torah portion Miketz, Rosh Chodesh, and the Shabbat of Hanukkah. While there have been many connections made between Miketz and Hanukkah, this week I want to focus on one small comment made by a bit player that nevertheless leads to an important moral reminder.

You may recall that in last week’s reading, our handsome hero, Yosef, is tossed into the dungeon after his master’s wife falsely accuses him of sexual assault. In prison, he meets Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer, whose dreams he correctly interprets. The baker meets a grisly end, but the cupbearer is released, only to forget Yosef’s request that he plead to Pharaoh on his behalf. In fact, the events of this portion are a full two years after the cupbearer’s encounter with Yosef in prison; he only remembers Yosef because Pharaoh is having troubling dreams that defy interpretation.

Because of Pharaoh’s dreams, the cupbearer wants to tell him about Yosef, but first he says, as above, “I must mention my offenses,” (literally, sins), before describing Yosef’s ability to correctly understand the symbolism of dreams. Yet it’s not clear what the cupbearer means here- what sins is he reluctantly mentioning? The commentators are divided: some say that the cupbearer is saying to Pharaoh, if I’m going to remind you that you threw me in prison, I’ll preface it by saying, it was indeed my sins that led to the punishment. This could be good manners- not implying that the king had made a mistake or was capricious- or good politics- who would dare criticize the man who can with a word imprison you or worse?

A softer reading along the same lines is that, just as we would not ordinarily mention another’s past sins after they have earned forgiveness, neither should we mention our own, but in this case, it was important and for Pharoah’s own good, since it would explain why he should listen to Yosef. A third reading is that that once the cupbearer is reminded of Yosef, he has a guilty conscience, since Yosef requested that he mention his plight to Pharaoh and the cupbearer didn’t do it. In this reading, the sin is forgetting Yosef, which he now implicitly confesses.

So what’s the lesson in all this? I think all three understandings of the cupbearer’s words have something to teach us about derech eretz, literally “the way of the earth” but meaning something like “the behavior to which that all thoughtful and decent people should aspire.” It’s not derech eretz to unnecessarily bring up mistakes that have been, or should be, forgiven. Don’t think of yourself or others as forever identified with a past misdeed; as Yosef himself shows, we all grow and mature over time.

On the other hand, if we understand the cupbearer’s sin as forgetting Yosef, I think we would agree that his conscience should bother him- as it should bother any one of us who have failed to extend proper gratitude to one who has shown us kindness, grace, insight, compassion, generosity, or forgiveness. Please note: nowhere does the Torah say that the cupbearer promised Yosef that he would plead his case. He did not break a promise, but simply failed to do the right thing when he had the chance. The cupbearers’ sin was not dishonesty, but ingratitude, which brings us back to derech eretz, or the lack thereof.

Perhaps the cupbearer is just a literary device to bring Yosef into Pharaoh’s court, but the few verses in which he appears show us a deeply human figure, one who, like all of us, forgets to do the right thing at the right time, forgets to help those who have helped him and doesn’t always know the right thing to say. Yet his conscience, his humanity, gets the better of him, and he remembers what he should never have forgotten. That challenges all of us to do the same.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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