BY RABBI SHAWN ZELL
It has been long-established, that the four cups of wine correspond to four promises G-d gave to Moses at the Burning Bush. Because of this, they are referred to as the Four Cups of Redemption.
As meaningful and poignant as this is, one must admit that nowhere is there any mention of cups. Rather, the four cups are based on the following four terms: remove, rescue, redeem, and reserve. Earlier on in the Torah however, cups are mentioned four times in close proximity. It serves as a seminal event for our ancestors coming down to Egypt.
Joseph, a young Hebrew found himself in an Egyptian prison on trumped-up charges. Joseph’s cellmates were none other than the Pharaoh’s baker and Pharaoh’s butler. It was Pharaoh’s butler who told Joseph about dreaming that he was standing in the royal palace with Pharaoh’s cup in his hand. While Joseph processed such information in much greater perspective, I cannot help but feel that the butler’s dream has any number of times turned into our nightmare as a people. More than once, have we been deluded by a false sense of security, living in a foreign country. In the dream, the butler had Pharaoh’s cup in his hand. Just as the butler thought he was secure in his position, so too did we as Jews think that we were secure in our position. We let Jewish leaders of the community convince us that we had the leader of the country or the local governor eating out of our hands. What we failed to learn time and time again, was that as Jews, we dare not equate royalty with loyalty.
Pharoah’s cup is mentioned again in the same verse, a mere six words later. Only this time, the cup is not described as being in the hand of the butler. This time, the cup is described as being in the hand of Pharaoh. If history has taught us anything, we must be aware that it doesn’t take long for the political or even sociological climate to change against Jews, as the comfortable zone we thought were in as a people, slips from our hands. Before we realize it, the proverbial cup of wine we were holding is transformed into a cup of poison (Isaiah 51:22). Timewise, the distance between assurance and apprehension is often little more than a blink of the eye. Not long after Joseph was in control over Egypt, things got out of control for his descendants. No different than the dream of the butler, our history is one where the cup of wine, we were so certain was safe in our hand, suddenly finds itself in the hand of our foe, by sleight of hand.
Although we are Pesach mode, permit me to borrow a term that finds its origins in Yom Kippur. The Yiddish term “kapporeh hindle” (chicken that is used for the kapporeh ritual prior to Yom Kippur, where the fowl takes the hit instead of us) can best be translated as “whipping boy”. Throughout history, all economic woes and social ills have been palmed off on the Jews. When recounting the Ten Plagues, there ought to be little doubt, that regardless of the plague – lice, boils, darkness, etc. – Pharoah, in speaking with his people saw to it that blame was placed squarely on the Israelites. The third mention of the word cup in the butler’s dream, found in the very same verse as the other two, describes the cup as being in Pharaoh’s palm, rather than in Pharaoh’s hand. Among the reasons, that as a people, we ought never to let ourselves feel too comfortable, is that we have always been selected as the “kapporeh hindle” where we receive the proverbial “patch in ponim” (slap in the face) where countries’ leaders palm off crises after crises, on Jews.
Possessive pronouns can prove to be problematic. Possessive pronouns are fertile soil for discussion and even argument. In the fourth and final mention of cup in the dream episode, it is Joseph and not the butler who makes use of the word. “You will soon place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand.” (Genesis 40:13). True, most if not all, understand “his hand” to refer to Pharaoh’s hand. The “rabbi” in me craves to interpret “his hand” as placing Pharaoh’s cup in the hand of the Divine. Ultimately, our people’s exodus would be G-d’s call, not Pharaoh’s.
Come the Pesach seder, let us, by all means, bear in mind the four terms of redemption found in Exodus 6:6 ff. Let us also reflect on the four cups pertaining to the dream of the butler of a previous Pharaoh. Let us never equate royalty with loyalty, let us never forget that we are an eternal people, subject to temporal havens, let us commit the Yiddish term “kapporeh hindle” to our collective memory, and let us await the day, when the Holy One, holds cup in His heavenly hand as He expresses gratitude for His people, liberated in body as well as in spirit.