Joseph and the Cupbearer: Memory and Hope (More Midrash Ep. 9)

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The Torah: Vayeishev

Genesis 40:20-23

On the third day – his birthday – Pharaoh made a banquet for all his officials, and he singled out his chief cupbearer and his chief baker from among his officials. He restored the chief cupbearer to his cupbearing, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand; but the chief baker he impaled – just as Joseph had interpreted to them. Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.

The Midrash

Bereishit Rabbah 88:7

“Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember” (Genesis 40:23). All day long he would set conditions, but an angel would come and reverse them; and he would tie knots, but an angel would come and untie them. The Holy One said to him: You have forgotten him, but I have not forgotten him! Thus it is written, “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.”

Davar Acher: [God addressed Joseph, not the cupbearer, saying:] The chief cupbearer has forgotten you, but I will not forget you.

Who would have expected that the elderly Abraham and Sarah would bear a child? Who would have expected that Jacob, who crossed the Jordan with his staff, would burst forth and become wealthy? Who would have expected that Joseph, who underwent all those tragedies, would become a ruler in Egypt? Who would have expected that Moses, after being tossed into the river, would come to be what he actually became? Who would have expected that Ruth, who converted, would go on to [become the ancestress] of the monarchy in Israel? Who would have expected that David would reign as king until the end of all generations? Who would have expected that Jehaoiachin would be released from prison? Who would have expected that Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah would emerge from the fire? Who would have expected that the Holy One would rescue Israel during the days of Haman? Who would have expected those in exile to achieve fame and acclaim? Who would have expected that the fallen booth of David would be raised up once again, as it is said, “On that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David” (Amos 9:11)? Who would have expected that the entire world would band together as one, as it is said, “For then I will change the nations [to speak] a pure language, so that they all will proclaim the name of Adonai, to worship God with a united resolve” (Zephaniah 3:9).

Understanding the Midrash

This two-part midrash revolves around the central question of why the biblical text states first that the chief cupbearer didn’t remember Joseph, then that he forgot Joseph. What does this redundancy teach us? The first answer from the midrash is that although the cupbearer keeps trying to remember to tell Pharaoh about this remarkable dream-interpreter, going so far as to set conditions that might trigger his memory, an angel keeps getting in the way, making him forget every day for two years. That’s why the text says he didn’t remember, and that he kept forgetting. He was trying to remember, but an angel foiled his attempts. This seems to be part of God’s plan, waiting until Joseph has learned to trust in God and not in humans, and until Pharaoh has his dreams of feasting and famine. God says, humans may forget, but I do not. This first teaching emphasizes God’s extraordinary attentiveness, even while all evidence points to abandonment.

The second part of the midrash similarly understands the doubled forgetfulness of the cupbearer as indicating that human memory is faulty but divine memory is enduring. But then it launches into a lengthy list of unlikely episodes in Jewish history, each one as astonishing as Joseph’s rise from prison to prime minister. The point of this teaching seems to be that because God does not forget, there is always hope for the unlikely to happen, the small but significant connection to be made that saves everything in the end. And perhaps the midrash serves as a more enduring reminder than individual human memory of God’s presence in history.

The chain of surpassed expectations (somewhat reminiscent of the Passover song Dayeinu) contains a powerful ideological claim. The opening lines all point to biblical episodes, already canonized as sacred story. But then we get this line: Who would have expected those in exile to achieve fame and acclaim? This refers to the midrashic authors’ own time (and perhaps to ours as well)! In the midst of darkness, Jews still survive and many even thrive. The rest of the midrash continues to use the language describing past successes but refers to unrealized expectations of the messianic era, when all humanity will become one. In this way, the midrash unfolds as a bold manifesto of memory and hope, a strong assertion that no matter what the world looks like right now, we are on the path to justice, peace, and harmony.

This can be a hard teaching to grapple with if you aren’t inclined to believe that God is paying attention and ready to help at the right moment. From a different perspective then, this midrash offers us a reminder that we never know what will make all the difference sometime in the future. Whether it’s God, whether it’s chance, or whether it’s hard work, who we are and what we do, the relationships we build and the words we speak, just may surpass our expectations and turn into dreams come true. You never know what will be – so keep on doing your best, following your passion, and bringing kindness into every interaction. Above all, never give up, because that would be forgetting the awesome potential within.

For a modern poetic take on this theme of surpassing expectation, here is Tony Hoagland’s poem “Better than Expected”.

Things were not as bad as I had thought.
The scrape in the fender of the rented car
could be hidden with a little white paint
before I returned it to the agency.

This CD of New Age music, which I disliked at first,
with its synthetic wind of pulsing jellyfish,
does a remarkable job of slowing down my heart.

Merely to have survived to this point
is already the most unlikely triumph;
to still be breathing and trying to improve.

Things are definitely better than expected.
I’m not on trial for anything.
I have given up on the idea of great success.
The oncologist says the X-ray shows no “abnormalities.”

We are always trying to come to a decision,
always in a place where we are making up our minds
whether the soup is good, the flowers pretty,
whether we are fortunate, or poor.

All my life I have been

loved by women,

held up by water,

ignored by war.

I have outlasted the voluntary numbness
I required to remain alive.

Why shouldn’t I be able,
why shouldn’t I be able now
to walk down the street,

under the overhanging trees,
and raise my arms and say
that the rain shaking down from the leaves

is not an inconvenience but a joy?