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Joseph and the Four Cups of Wine

Guest Lecturers
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By Rabbi Howard Joseph


Why do we drink the four cups of wine at the Pesach Seder? The usual explanation focuses on the four expressions of redemption found in God's promise to Moses after the "cool" treatment he initially receives from both Pharaoh and the Israelites. In an attempt to reassure and encourage Moses, God says: 've-hotzeiti' - I will remove you from the burdens of Egypt; 've-hitzalti' - I will save you from their bondage; 've-ga'alti' - I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and great judgments; and 've-lakachti' - I will take you to be my people and I will be your God. Thus, the four cups represent these four redemptive, comforting expressions.

This interpretation is attributed in the Talmud to one of the early Rabbis. However, many other views and alternate explanations are included within this same Talmudic discussion, while others are mentioned in different Midrashim as well as various other Rabbinic texts. I would like to focus on one of the other interpretations cited.

According to R. Yehoshua ben Levi - in some texts it is R. Shemuel ben Nachman - the four cups of wine are related to the four times that the word 'cup' is mentioned by Pharaoh's jailed butler as he recounts his dream to Joseph in the common prison they share. Although it is interesting that the word appears four times, we certainly may wonder what this has to do with the Exodus from Egypt which we celebrate at the Seder?! What relevance do the troubles of Pharaoh's butler have for us, especially on our night of freedom?!

Of course, it is this dream that foreshadows the butler's release from prison and return to service as a trusted member of Pharaoh's court. Joseph's clarification of the dream also leads to his own release from prison: it is this same butler who recalls the unfortunate 'Hebrew lad' who helped him when later Pharaoh is plagued by his recurring dreams. Joseph is summoned from prison and soon emerges as second only to Pharaoh himself in the rulership of Egypt.

We have established that these four cups in the butler's dream are related to Joseph's rise to freedom and power. Still, what do they have to do with Pesach and the Exodus?

Our ancestors who lived through the period of slavery in Egypt were certainly aware of their predicament: they knew they were slaves as they suffered through the oppression. To them, Egypt was a house of bondage, and they left it with great relief.

However, we may wonder what Joseph's personal attitude was towards Egypt. Joseph lived in the pre-bondage period and rose to be second in command. He rescued the Egyptian economy during seven years of drought, enriched the Crown and fed the populace, winning honor and glory for himself. By all accounts, Joseph "made it" in Egypt. There was no place higher to go for him except the seat of Pharaoh himself, which was certainly beyond the reach of a foreign "Hebrew lad". How then did Joseph view Egypt, based on the position of power and leadership he had reached?

A survey of Joseph's career reveals an interesting trajectory. Initially, he seems totally absorbed in the realm of his responsibility and office. He names his first son Menashe, meaning, "God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home." Gone are the troubles of his youth, the fights with his brothers, the sibling rivalries caused by his dreams of glory. Gone, too, are the dreams of Abraham and the special covenant established by God with the family. Joseph is an Egyptian, with an Egyptian name, wife and family. He sits among the mighty in one of the mightiest nations of the ancient world.

However, the name he chooses for his second son is Ephraim, meaning, "God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction." Why is Egypt the land of his affliction? Does it refer to his earlier servitude and imprisonment, or has his view of Egypt begun to change? Is Joseph really a free man or is he beginning to feel some sense of bondage in this foreign land in which his star has risen?

Although there is some ambiguity here, the smoke begins to clear as his life-story develops. When his brothers arrive to purchase grain, intrigue sets in. Did he act harshly with them in order to remain beyond potential suspicion concerning his own Hebrew origins? Was he worried about accusations of disloyalty if he gave them special treatment? How did he regard Egyptian treatment of Hebrews, specifically the prohibition of Egyptians to eat with Hebrews?

When Jacob dies, Joseph accompanies the body back to Israel for burial. Pharaoh sends a detachment of royal guards with him. Why: to protect him? Or to ensure Joseph's return to Egypt?

And when Joseph is on his deathbed, he makes a shocking request of his brothers: when God brings you out of this land, you will carry my bones from here with you. This request was duly fulfilled by Moses himself as our ancestors departed. Why? What did Joseph know? All was peaceful and prosperous in Egypt for his family! What did he see differently from his royal perspective? Why would God have to take them out of Egypt, a land in which they were now living in comfort and security?

The answer is clear: Joseph realized that he too was a slave. Despite the trappings of wealth and power, ultimately this was not his land. The more he rose in prominence, the more pronounced his sense of alienation. The very prominence, position and power made him more of a slave: the "trappings" were actually a "trap."

While the rest of the family lived in security and tranquility, Joseph again had a vision of the future. The Bible does not record the brothers' reaction to his request for transfer of his remains to Israel. They had never really understood his demands and visions. Was this another crazy dream? "Why should we ever want to leave this land that has welcomed us and in which we are prospering?" Or, had they learned by now to respect Joseph's uncanny insight, causing them to wonder about their prospects for the future? A few sentences later the Bible begins the description of the bondage. Joseph knew something.

So what is the connection between Joseph's four cups and the four cups of the seder? R. Yehoshua ben Levi is reminding us that Pesach is not just for the poor and the oppressed; Pesach is for the Josephs of our people too. While appearances may seem benign, Jews must always be watchful. How well do we all know this? We have all come from lands in which our communities lived for centuries. While there were periodic disturbances in these lands, we thought of ourselves as relatively secure. We had friends and even compatriots in high places, close to the king or government officials. Yet, our position proved tenuous. Change came quickly. Our friends disappeared; our compatriots were dismissed. Who would have thought that communities that were thousands of years old would so quickly be dislodged and disappear? Today only a few Jews remain in the great Jewish communities that existed not so long ago.

Today we live in a different sort of land. In principle, we are not guests but citizens. This land belongs to us as much as to any others. However, there are always some persons who would like us to think of ourselves as guests - unwelcome guests at that. From time to time we hear from these people who poke their heads out of their holes long enough to remind us that we are not welcome.

I do not wish to suggest that Western countries are beginning to turn against us. But let us examine the question from another angle. How did Joseph feel about all of his accomplishments? He had reached the pinnacle of power and contributed mightily to the well-being of the country. Ultimately, however, whatever he produced was not really his; it was Egypt's might and glory that was expanded. Joseph secured temporary safety for his family and temporary fame for himself in Egypt. But soon after there 'arose a new king who not know Joseph.' Soon after that there was nothing for him nor his people. Egypt moved on to a new chapter of its own history. Joseph turned out to be a temporary side-show not even remembered in Egyptian records.

Even without the threat of physical violence, Jews must always ask about our real place in this world. A place not only where we can be secure but wherein our creative accomplishments can be our own and not stripped away from us so easily; wherein we are not guests but fully at home in a society for which we are responsible. Thank God, we today have a place such as this. The great gift of Providence to our generation is the State of Israel where millions of our people live today. True enough, they are periodically threatened by violence and hostility. But we constantly witness their tremendous courage and their intense devotion to the land. This attachment comes from a sense of being fully at home and standing firm to protect that home when it is under attack. People in exile are ready to move from one place to another, for one exile is as good as another; people at home stand up and defend their homes and do not readily let anyone push them out.

We are really living in miraculous times and most of those miracles point to Israel: the founding of the State, the ingathering of exiled communities that continues with great intensity, and survival despite numerous attempts to destroy the State. The question we must ask ourselves is whether these miracles point us towards Israel. Do we appreciate the gift we have received? Are we caring and supportive of its many needs, which sometimes seem overwhelming? Do we visit often enough to drink in the spirit of freedom and redemption that prevails there? Do we send our children to study and be inspired as they see the pages of our history come alive?

Where, indeed, is our place and the place for our children? Where can we really build a special Jewish life for ourselves, our children and our people? Where can we avoid the problem of assimilation which decimates our people even when we are free from physical attacks? We are building a good community here but we know the answer. R. Yehoshua ben Levi suggested it to us a long time ago.

When we drink the four cups of wine, we remember not only the slaves who were freed from their bondage and oppression, but also Joseph who, in his own way, was also a slave to Pharaoh in Egypt. He too was freed by Moses when his bones were taken out during the Exodus. He finally was placed to rest in the homeland he knew was the only homeland that the people of Israel ever had or ever will have. LE-SHANA HABA'A BI-YERUSHALAYIM.


[Rabbi Joseph is the former rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel (Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue) in Montreal. Two of his sons attended Yeshivat Har Etzion.]


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