‘The Goblet of Fire’ Parashat Mikketz 5781

A worldwide famine rages on and Jacob sends all of his sons but Benjamin, his youngest, to Egypt to purchase grain. There they encounter their brother, Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery twenty two years earlier. Joseph, currently second only to the Pharaoh, recognizes his brothers but he will not reveal his true identity until he is certain that they have mended their ways[1]. He needs them to bring his brother, Benjamin, down to Egypt. His plan is to force them into a situation in which they must sacrifice their own freedom for Benjamin’s. And so he accuses them of espionage and incarcerates their second brother, Shimon, telling them that if they ever want to see him alive again, they will return to Egypt with Benjamin.

The brothers return to the Land of Canaan and explain to their father what happened in Egypt. Eventually, against his better judgement, Jacob sends Benjamin down to Egypt in the care of his older brothers. Joseph sees Benjamin and,  overwhelmed with emotion, he invites his brothers to his palace for a state dinner. The next morning, Joseph’s brothers set out to return home. As far as they are concerned, the saga is over. Little do they know that Joseph has other plans. He commands his chief concierge [Bereishit 44:1-2] “Fill the men’s bags with food, as much as they can carry, and put each one’s money in the mouth of his bag. Put my silver goblet in the mouth of the bag of the youngest one, together with his money for the rations.” Joseph’s brothers set out and Joseph’s men chase after them. Joseph’s men stop his brothers and accuse them of theft. When Joseph’s goblet is found in Benjamin’s rucksack, the leader of the posse demands that Benjamin return with him to Egypt, where he will forever remain a servant to Joseph. Joseph’s brothers return together with Benjamin and Judah stands before Joseph to plea his case. In a feat of oratorical skill, Judah not only defends Benjamin, but he offers himself as a slave in Benjamin’s stead. By doing so, he has proven to Joseph that the family politics have changed for the better and Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers.

While it is clear as to why Joseph set up Benjamin, it is not clear why he planted specifically his silver goblet in Benjamin’s rucksack and not some other object. Truth be told, probably the last thing in the world that a thief would steal would be the Grand Vizier’s goblet. For one thing, the Grand Vizier would know it was missing immediately after it was stolen. Further, it would be impossible to unload the goblet at a local pawnshop as it would be clear that it belonged to royalty[2]. Only a fool would have stolen Joseph’s goblet.

I suggest that Joseph planted his goblet in order to transmit a subliminal message to his brothers. Let me explain. When Joseph’s men apprehend his brothers, the leader of the posse tells them [Bereishit 44:5] “This is the very [goblet] from which my master drinks and which he uses for divination. It was a wicked thing for you to do!” A few verses later, when the brothers stand before Joseph, he says something similar [Bereishit 44:15]: “What is this deed that you have done? Do you not know that a man like me practices divination?” What is the reason for the sudden interest in divination? Rabbi Moshe ben Meir, grandson of the famous Rashi, who lived in France in the twelfth century, suggests that Joseph was boasting that he was an accomplished diviner. He was a professional wizard and he performed his wizardry through his goblet. His powers of witchcraft were so prodigious that he didn’t even need to physically hold his goblet in order to harness his powers. Indeed, that is how he knew who stole the goblet. Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen, who lived in Dvinsk, Latvia, at the turn of the twentieth century, takes a different approach. Writing in “Meshech Chochma”, he asserts that Joseph was playing head games with his brothers. Joseph was alluding to a similar case of theft that he and his brothers had witnessed years earlier. After working for his father-in-law Lavan for twenty years, Jacob decides to flee and to return to his homeland. On the way out the door, his wife, Rachel, commits grand larceny [Bereishit 31:19]: “Rachel stole her father’s household idols”. Why would Rachel do such a thing? Rashi suggests that Rachel did this to prevent her father from sinning. One of the Seven Commandments that the children of Noach must keep is the prohibition of idolatry. By stealing her father’s idols, Rachel was stopping Lavan from committing a capital crime[3]. According to Rabbi Meir Simcha, Joseph was warning his brothers not to think that stealing his silver goblet would save his soul by preventing him from engaging in witchcraft. If his goblet were stolen, then he would continue to divine through some other object.

My wife, Dr. Tova Sacher, showed me another Rabbinic school of thought that sees Rachel’s theft of her father’s idols through a much more insidious lens. Our Sages in the Midrash [Aggadat Bereishit 75:3] make the following comment: “When Joseph’s goblet was found in Benjamin’s rucksack, Benjamin’s brothers said ‘Look who stole the goblet? Like mother, like son. Both of them thieves.’” One does not make such a damning statement about a person who stole her father’s idols to prevent him from sinning. For this reason, my wife suggested that Rachel stole Lavan’s idols because she wanted them for herself. There is a certain amount of evidence, albeit circumstantial, that reinforces this thesis: The biggest question that Rachel has to answer is why did she not throw away the idols as soon as she left Lavan’s house? When Lavan catches up with Jacob, the first thing he does is to look for his idols in the tents of his daughters [Bereishit 31:34]: “Rachel, meanwhile, had taken the idols and placed them in the camel cushion and sat on them”. If Rachel’s sole purpose for stealing the idols was to distance her father from sin, why did she keep them[4]? There is another reason to suspect that Rachel kept her father’s idols because she, herself, wanted them. We are all products of our nurture as well as our nature and Rachel had grown up in a household in which idol worship and pagan divination were a way of life. Lavan freely admitted that he was a diviner. When Jacob first tells Lavan that he would like to return home and that he deserves payment for the years he spent tending Lavan’s flocks, Lavan answers [Bereishit 30:27] “I have learned by divination that G-d has blessed me on your account.” Rachel was the daughter of a diviner, she was the granddaughter of a diviner and she lived her entire life in the house of diviners. She had divination in her DNA. Of course she wanted to keep her father’s idols. So when Joseph tells his brothers that he uses his goblet for divination, he is not only chastising them, he is messing with their heads. He is asking them: Is Benjamin really worth fighting for? Isn’t he just like his mother, a closet pagan maintaining the façade of a righteous Jew? Go home and leave him in Egypt, where he belongs.

Judah answers Joseph loud and clear. When he offers to become Joseph’s slave in Benjamin’s place, he clears not only Benjamin’s name, but Rachel’s, as well. Judah tells Joseph [Bereishit 45:34] “For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!” Benjamin’s place is with his father, Jacob, because the two share a secret. Jacob is the archetype of truth. The prophet Micah [7:20] writes “Give truth to Jacob”. This is kind of a strange way of describing a person who stole his brother’s birthright, his brother’s blessing, and his father-in-law’s entire fortune. Rabbi Zamir Cohen, a contemporary Israeli rabbi, teaches that there are two aspects of a person’s self-perfection: One is to excel in those traits for which he has a natural affinity; the other is to succeed in those areas that do not come naturally to him. Doing so demonstrates that one’s deeds emanate not from natural tendencies or habit but from a pure desire to perform G-d’s will, even when it contradicts his nature. This was Jacob’s greatness, this was Benjamin’ greatness, and this was Rachel’s greatness. We are who we are, but there is no limit to what we can become. You don’t need a goblet and you don’t need an idol. All you need is will.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, David ben Chaya, and Iris bat Chana.

[1] This hypothesis is proposed by Rabbi Menachem Leibtag.

[2] Goblets found in the tombs of ancient Egyptian rulers have markings or hieroglyphics on them, see for example https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/543948.

[3] All of the commandments of the Children of Noach are punishable by death

[4] This question is asked by Rabbi Abraham ben Ezra, who lived in Spain in the eleventh century. He suggests that Rachel kept the idols because if her father were to find them, he would use them to locate Jacob.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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