Two Chief Cupbearers
And the sar hamashkim (the chief cupbearer) did not remember Joseph and forgot him (Genesis 40:23).
And the sar hamashkim spoke up and said to Pharaoh, I am now reminded of my sin (the promise to call Pharaoh’s attention to Joseph’s unjust imprisonment) (ibid 41:10).
Two years had to pass before the sar hamashkim (SHM) recalled and remembered his promise to Joseph. He, however, is not the only SHM recorded in the Bible. Millennium after Joseph, there was Nehemiah, the SHM to the Persian emperor Artachshasta (Artaxerxes).
Historically, the SHM was not an ordinary servant. As noted in the Book of Esther, kings and emperors constantly indulged in wine, the beverage of choice. Kings, constantly concerned that they might be assassinated by poisoned wine, relied on a trusted SHM to assure their safety. Being constantly at the king’s side, the chief cupbearer was thus present as Pharaoh was frustrated by the failure of his wise men and wizards to explain his famous dreams.
The SHM felt comfortable to openly confess his sin and report Joseph’s capacity to interpret dreams. Pharaoh’s immediate response was to have Joseph brought before him, hoping he might interpret the dream. Joseph was successful and was immediately appointed as Pharaoh’s chief advisor and Egypt’s Viceroy. The SHM’s confession ultimately led to Joseph’s rise to greatness and prosperity in Egypt.
Fast-forward several millennia to the royal Persian court in Shushan where Nehemiah served as the Emperor’s SHM. It was a pleasant life until he learned that the small Jewish population in Jerusalem was in “great affliction and reproach, and the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down.” (Nehemiah 1:3) This led him to come to terms with the fact that, in his comfortable and prestigious position in Persia, he had forgotten about his fellow coreligionists in Jerusalem.
A visibly depressed Nehemiah confessed to the Emperor regarding his inattentiveness to the welfare of Jerusalem’s struggling Jews and the unacceptable state of the city and its walls. He then petitioned the monarch to permit him to travel to Jerusalem with authority to be its governor. For the next 12 years, Nehemiah built the walls of the city, expanded its population, and significantly reinvigorated a newly thriving Jewish community in the holy city.
Had the two cup bearers been asked to recount their most significant impact on history, the answer of the first may well have been bringing to Pharaoh’s attention the Jewish lad who provided the leadership that enabled Egypt to survive and to prosper during the great famine. Joseph never forgot his ancestry, yet he never left Egypt. As per his dying request, only his bones would be taken to the Promised Land for burial in its soil.
Nehemiah’s confession leads him to forego his comfortable and respected position in the Diaspora to travel to Jerusalem to rebuild its walls and strengthen its Jewish population.
Joseph and Nehemiah have their counterparts in contemporary Jewish life. The Joseph model enjoys prosperity and finds fulfillment in the American Diaspora. The Nehemiah model is deeply committed to Jerusalem. Contemporary Jewish history is an ongoing saga of the relationship between the two great Jewish communities of our day. American Jewry, to a significant extent, reflects Joseph’s decision to build lives of significant fulfillment in North America. Those for whom Nehemiah is a model, find fulfillment in strengthening Israel and sharing in the shaping and revitalizing Jewish life in the Jewish state.
As a people, we are best served by embracing and celebrating both the Josephs and Nehemiahs in our day.
From the holy city of Jerusalem my best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach, a Shabbat of peace and blessing.
Rabbi Arnold M Goodman
Senior Rabbinic Scholar