By Rabbi Daniel Utley
Last week just after we gathered with family and friends for Thanksgiving, I began to rummage through some of my grandmother’s old belongings at our family’s home. I came across the Tanakh (Bible) she received on the occasion of her confirmation at The Temple in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1941. With its worn leather and yellowed pages, it felt like an artifact of a different era, a symbol of her values and a record of our family’s generations.
Awash in curiosity, I thumbed through the pages that she first held at the age of 14. True to her dutiful nature, Grandma Betty recorded all the births, marriages and deaths in the family during her lifetime in her pristine handwriting — and she had saved clippings of every obituary of our relatives too! So began the conversation with my mom that evening: “Tell me more, who were Ella, Esther, Leo and Bert?” “Wow, it looks like her grandmother survived the war and died here in the U.S. — I had always thought she was killed in the Shoah….” The important objects left behind by our loved ones have a special way of reuniting us with them and our own story through the language of memory.
Parashat Mikeitz features a similar reunion revolving around another heirloom object, Joseph’s silver goblet. A large section of this Shabbat’s reading describes how Joseph’s brothers find him in Egypt. They arrive, seeking assistance from Joseph, who serves as Pharaoh’s vizier, not recognizing him as the brother they’d cast out in their youth. Joseph recognizes them and ensures that they return to him by placing money in their bags. His brothers return and they all share in an awkward, festive meal, while seated in separate spaces — Joseph at one table, his brothers at another. As we read, “Portions were served [to] them from his table…and [then] they drank their fill with him.” (Genesis 43:34)
The great commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105), known as Rashi, offers a Midrashic explanation of the significance of this unusual occasion for Joseph and his brothers. Rashi says that “from the day they sold [Joseph] they had not drunk wine nor had he drunk wine.” In other words, neither Joseph nor his brothers had engaged in any real celebration since the day they had cast him out. By the Jewish practices we keep today, it was as if both sides of the family had avoided Shabbat Kiddush for decades, as if existing in a state of perpetual mourning.
It’s ironic that in the very next verse, Joseph arranges for his brothers to return a third time, now by hiding his special silver goblet (think Kiddush cup!) in Benjamin’s sack. The powerful symbol of their first shared moment together in years, “drinking their fill with him,” becomes the agent of their complete reunion. The palace guards stop them on the road, find the hidden goblet and return the brothers to Joseph. Finally he reveals his identity to them.
We could imagine a scene years later: Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menashe (who are also introduced in this week’s parashah) sorting through their late father’s belongings with their grown children nearby. They stumble on an elegant silver cup engraved with Joseph’s name in Late Egyptian script. “What was that story about father and Benjamin?” one of them asks. Perhaps that cup sits on their table anew, once again filled with wine to bring out the sweet and bitter lessons of their family’s past sagas.
Sometimes the simplest of objects — a Bible, a Kiddush cup, a special tablecloth or napkin ring — has immense power to connect us across the generations of our families and across the generations of the Jewish people. They hold memory, meaning and learning about who we are. Each Shabbat as we bless our children in the name of Ephraim and Menashe and of Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah we link ourselves to the greater Jewish family — each week a reunion as we drink from the Kiddush cup, a reconnection to our past, our values, our people and our God.
Rabbi Daniel Utley is an associate rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, where he oversees Jewish engagement for teens, young professionals and outreach communities. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.