Joseph and the Four Cups

The true meaning of the tradition of drinking four cups of wine at the Seder is reflected in the development of Joseph himself.

By
April 13, 2009 15:07
Joseph and the Four Cups

pessah wine matza 88. (photo credit: )

Why do we drink four cups of wine at the Seder? The concept is quite strange; after all, on every other Jewish holiday we recite the Kiddush on only one cup, and that suffices for the entire meal! Yet on Seder night, we make four independent toasts, at different junctions in the Haggada, reciting a separate Hagafen blessing on each one. Is there a reason for this unusual custom, or is it simply connected to the prevalence of "fours" at the Seder: Four sons, four questions, four cups? The Talmud delves into this issue, and cites the popular opinion given by Rav Huna. He says that the Four Cups relate to the four expressions of redemption which God expresses to Moses in Exodus 6:6-7: "I shall remove you [from Egypt]; I shall save you; I shall redeem you; I shall take you out." These statements actually represent four distinct stages of liberation: The end of slavery, the Exodus itself, the Splitting of the Sea - which eliminated the physical threat against Israel - and the Revelation at Mount Sinai, which forged an eternal covenant between God and the Jewish nation. Thus drinking four times makes good sense, because each toast is a stage in and of itself which deserves its own blessing. But Rav Huna's thesis is not the only opinion on the subject. A more mystical approach comes from Rav Yehoshua ben Levi, a great sage who is often portrayed as a confidant of Elijah the Prophet. Rav Yehoshua ben Levi suggests that the Four Cups are connected to the four times the word kos or cup, is used by Pharaoh's wine steward when he relates his dream to Joseph (Genesis 40:11-13). This is puzzling, indeed! What does the incident with the wine steward and Joseph have to do with the Exodus from Egypt? What was Rav Yehoshua ben Levi thinking? I suggest that the sage is hinting to us that if we want to understand the story of the Exodus more fully - if we want to unlock the secret of the Redemption - we have to think about Joseph, for he holds the key. THE FIRST THING that occurs to us is the intricate connection between the two primary personalities of Egypt - Joseph and Moses. They are the "bookends" of the Exodus; Joseph at its inception, Moses at its denouement. Both have royal bearing, and both inhabit Pharaoh's palace for a number of years (perhaps Moses even slept in the same bed Joseph used!). Both Joseph and Moshe change dramatically during their Egyptian experience. Moses leaves the sanctum of the palace in order to join his brothers in their struggle for freedom, and Joseph is transformed from an impulsive, somewhat arrogant lad into Yosef Hatzadik - Joseph the Righteous. Let us take a closer look at Joseph's metamorphosis. Joseph, of course, comes down to Egypt very much against his will. He is thrown into the pit by his brothers, and then into the dungeon in Egypt. But though he is enslaved, he maintains his humanity. He takes the time to ask the baker and wine steward what is troubling them. That moment of compassion begins a sequence of events that will see Joseph set free from prison, brought before Pharaoh to interpret his dreams, and set upon the throne of Egypt as Viceroy. But this is really only the beginning of Joseph's odyssey. When Joseph first rises to power, he seems totally enamored with Egyptian society. He is given a wife by Pharaoh and a new - Egyptian - name, Tzafnat Paneach, which means literally, "the hidden face." He wears a kind of Egyptian mask, which perhaps explains why his brothers are unable to recognize him. He names his first child Manasseh, which means, "God has made me forget my hardship and my father's house." Gone are the troubles of his youth, the sibling rivalry, the petty jealousy. Gone, too, are the dreams of becoming heir to the Patriarchs. Joseph is now an Egyptian VIP with an Egyptian name, wife and family. Perhaps this is why Joseph never contacts his father for more than two decades, even when he presumably had the wherewithal to do so. Perhaps Joseph did not want any association with that previous, bitter life; he would rather just completely erase that chapter of his history. BUT THEN Joseph's second son is born. The name he chooses is Ephraim, which means, "God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction." Joseph now has a less-complimentary outlook on Egypt; is he beginning to sense that, despite his high position in society, perhaps he is not the privileged character that he thought he was? Has he been truly liberated, or is he still a slave, in the very real meaning of the word? When Joseph's brothers come down to Egypt, he notes how the Egyptians refuse to break bread with the hated Israelites. And when he requests permission from Pharaoh to escort his father's body back to Israel for burial, Pharaoh consents, but pointedly sends a detachment of royal guards along, to insure that Joseph, the financial whiz kid of Egypt, will return and keep the money rolling in. On his deathbed, Joseph makes a startling request of his brothers: "Swear to me that when God delivers you from this land that you will carry my bones to Israel." Despite the cushy life the Hebrews enjoyed in Goshen, Joseph is aware that Egypt is not - and cannot be - the permanent home of the Jewish nation. Joseph is gaining a new awareness; the dreamer is becoming a realist. He understands that wealth and even prominence in the palace do not guarantee lasting security or freedom in the Diaspora. Despite the trappings of power, this is not his land. He has become an icon, a national hero, but he is not free to do as he wishes; the trappings have become, in effect, a trap. Joseph senses that Egypt can turn at any moment; he presages the ascension of a new king "that did not know Joseph." Egypt would later excise Joseph's accomplishments from their record books, since no non-Egyptian can be more than a footnote to their history. The Jews are not citizens - they are guests. Sometimes honored, sometimes tolerated, and sometimes persecuted and maligned as interlopers and parasites. And so the story of Joseph, we now see, has crucial lessons for Redemption, the central motif of the Haggada and Seder night. Joseph's saga teaches us that Jews are never eternally secure in the Exile, be it in Goshen or Golders Green, Seville or Scarsdale, Krakow or Cape Town. In so many places where Jewish life once flourished, vibrant communities more than a thousand years old were dismantled and demolished almost overnight; the historical records expunged and the "guests" forced to flee with no more than the clothes on their backs. Joseph's last act before he dies imparts to all who will listen the truth that our natural habitat is Israel; only there will we play out our true destiny. Joseph came to realize, too, that when all is said and done we must cast our fate with family and not with strangers. Despite the differences between us, and the legitimate grievances we may have with one another, at the end of the day we must unite with our brothers. Joseph's story begins with the dysfunctional fragmenting of a family, but it ends with the tribes reunited physically and spiritually, enduring tribulation and triumph as one cohesive unit. As we drink the Four Cups, we should reflect not only on the downtrodden slaves who were freed from bondage, but also upon Joseph and all the Josephs of history. They had to learn that looks are deceiving. That sometimes the very worst exiles are the richest and most comfortable exiles, and that, when all is said and done, we need to come back to our family: the wise and even the wicked, those related to us, and all the guests and neighbors who share our Pessah table. Let us toast Moses and Joseph and heed their teaching. Let us digest - along with the matza, maror and karpas - the message we learn from them. Only then will we enjoy the Seder's sweet dessert: L'Shana Haba'a B'Yerushalayim - Next Year in Jerusalem! The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra'anana; mailto:[email protected]


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