An Unrecognized Hero – Mikketz 5780

D'var Torah | Genesis

When the cupbearer sees that Pharaoh’s dreams could not be successfully interpreted by any of the courtiers, he suddenly recalls Joseph and his own neglect of the promise he made to bring up the unjust imprisonment of Joseph following his release. The Hebrew text, however, refers to more than one error, stating: “My sins I recall today” (Genesis 41:9). From the context it is clear that the cupbearer failed to keep his word to Joseph as a reward for successfully interpreting his dream, foretelling his redemption from prison and resumption of his duties. This sin of omission is significant, but singular. The Torah, however, has the cupbearer confess to “sins.”


One treasury of rabbinic commentary (Genesis Rabbah 89:7) explains that there was indeed another sin. This midrash imagines the cupbearer telling Pharaoh that “I saw you grieving over the dreams you had and did not reveal to you that I knew of a skilled interpreter.” Hence, the cupbearer actually committed two sins. The first sin was not bringing Joseph’s injustice to Pharaoh. And the second sin was not being sensitive enough to Pharaoh’s predicament. While the cupbearer certainly sinned against Joseph in not keep his word, from the perspective of the midrash, the cupbearer also sinned by remaining silent to the anguish of Pharaoh even though he possessed information that could have relieved it. Hence, the text is correct in identifying the cupbearer’s sins – in the plural.


To the perceptive reader, the midrash is not merely addressing a textual problem. The midrash is addressing a behavioral problem. Too many people – like the cupbearer – have information or skills or resources that can help others but fail to use them. The withholding of such things is not just selfish but sinful. To his credit, the cupbearer realized his error and acted to correct it. The first step towards his rehabilitation was to admit his mistake. The next step was to do something about it.


The Torah has ample room for many heroes. Joseph is tacitly praised for his perseverance under trying circumstances and lionized for his unimpeachable character and profound faith. But the cupbearer is no less a hero for owning up to his failings and ultimately correcting them. He is an example for all people to follow.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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