Parshat Mikeitz: Joseph’s Cup

Having been popularised by a certain Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, the narrative of this week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz, is well-known.

Joseph – after being sold into captivity by his brothers – is Viceroy of Egypt, and a very powerful man. So much so that when his family back home are experiencing famine, Joseph’s father Jacob sends his sons to buy grain in Egypt, which had a plentiful supply. And thus the scene is set for a dramatic familial reunion, with Joseph meeting his brothers for the first time after 22 years.

A common question that biblical commentators have wrestled with is how to understand the fact that Joseph’s brothers did not recognise him? Even after so many years apart, you would have thought that at least one of the brothers would have had recognised him.

Various answers are provided – Joseph went unrecognised because he spoke in an uncharacteristically harsh tone or via interpreters; that by being so acculturated into the Egyptian society he became essentially a different person; or a more psychological explanation offered suggests that the brother are meeting the Viceroy of Egypt, in full regalia and with political advisors, and in such a context they would never consider that this person to be their brother, even if there were physical similarities.

Whatever the case may be, and despite a few hints being thrown their way (Genesis 43:33 notes their astonishment at being placed in age order during a meal), it is clear Joseph’s brothers have no idea of his true identity.

The turning point in the story comes when Joseph instructs his house steward to plant his silver cup in Benjamin’s sack, framing the brothers for stealing from the royal household. Shocked at this turn of events, they are forced to turn back to Egypt for a confrontation with Joseph. After some discussion and dispute about whether to punish Benjamin or the other brothers, Joseph’s true identity is revealed in next week’s Torah portion, Vayigash.

Therefore the silver cup itself seems to carry huge symbolic significance. The object (a treasure hidden away in Benjamin’s sack) is the key to unlocking Joseph’s real identity. Joseph could have just told them immediately, but by using an artefact as a symbol for identity, not only does the narrative become more powerful, there is also a sense that identity is carried more so in artefacts than it is in words alone.

Parshat Mikeitz, and the story of Joseph, always falls around the time of Chanukah. The same idea about the connection between artefacts and identity that is present at the end of Mikeitz can also be considered true of Chanukah. From the menorah on the Arch of Titus in Rome, to the iconic photo of Rabbi Dr Akiva and Rachel Posner’s menorah in Kiel in 1932, to the emblem of modern Israel, the menorah is a ubiquitous expression of Jewish identity. Our story as a people is embodied in artefacts and objects – which is what Hidden Treasures is all about.

Joseph’s identity itself hints at this idea. Both Egyptian and a Hebrew, he is steeped in a foreign place and language, whilst remaining true to his familial culture. Perhaps in hiding his treasured silver cup in Benjamin’s sack he knew the power of artefacts, and how they allow us to express our complex identities, all along.

Claes Moeyaert (1627), “Joseph find the silver in Benjamin’s sacks”

Jake Berger is the Board of Deputies’ Education Policy and Youth Engagement Officer. He was born on Chanukah, and Mikeitz was his Bar Mitzvah portion.


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