Parshat Vayeishev: The Dream of the Cupbearer

And they said to him, “We have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter for it.” Joseph said to them, “Don’t interpretations belong to God? Tell [them] to me now.” (Beresheit 40:8)

Our parasha describes the deterioration of the relationship between Yosef and his brothers. Eventually, the brothers conspire to sell Yosef into servitude. Yosef is sold to Potifar – one of Paroh’s ministers. In Egypt, Yosef experiences successes and disappointments. By the end of the parasha, Yosef has been imprisoned. But, even in prison, Yosef’s talents and virtues are recognized. The affairs of the prison and the care of the inmates are entrusted to him.

Among the prisoners are Paroh’s former Cupbearer – his Chief Butler – and his Chief Baker. Paroh has sentenced both to prison as punishment for their carelessness. One night, both have dreams. Each senses that his dream has some significance, but neither can understand the meaning of his dream. Both are seized with distress over the potential portents of their dreams. Yosef senses that his two celebrity prisoners are upset, and inquires as to the cause. They explain to him that they have each had a disturbing dream and that neither can unravel the meaning of his dream. Yosef suggests that they relate their dreams to him. He tells them that perhaps Hashem will reveal to them their meaning.

“In another three days, Paroh will number you [with the other officers], and he will restore you to your position, and you will place Pharaoh’s cup into his hand, according to [your] previous custom, when you were his cupbearer. But, remember me when things go well with you, and please do me a favor and mention me to Paroh, and you will get me out of this house.” (Beresheit 40:13-14)

The Cupbearer accepts Yosef’s offer and relates his dream to him. Yosef explains to him that his dream is a portent of redemption. He tells the Cupbearer that the dream indicates that in three days, he will be reappointed to his previous position. Yosef asks the Cupbearer to remember him and bring his case to Paroh’s attention. He hopes that Paroh will recognize that he has been unjustly imprisoned and restore him to freedom.

“But the Cupbearer did not remember Yosef, and he forgot him.” (Beresheit 40:23)

Yosef’s plan does not unfold exactly as he plans. The Cupbearer is released from prison and is restored to his position. He has ready and constant access to Paroh. But, he does not act on Yosef’s behalf. Instead, he completely forgets Yosef and his request for aid.

There is a significant dispute among the commentaries regarding this episode. Rashi comments that Yosef had acted improperly in asking the Cupbearer for his assistance. Yosef should not have relied on the assistance of the Cupbearer. Instead, he should have trusted in Hashem. As a consequence of this error, the Cupbearer forgot Yosef. Yosef spent an additional two years in prison.[1]

On the surface, Rashi’s comments are difficult to understand. Yosef was provided with an opportunity to save himself through the assistance of Paroh’s Cupbearer. Through providing the Cupbearer with a proper interpretation of his dream, Yosef hoped that he would win the friendship of Paroh’s servant, and he expected this grateful Cupbearer to plead his case before the king. This seems like a completely rational plan. Certainly, Hashem expects each of us to strive to achieve our own well-being. We are not permitted to simply rely upon G-d for miraculous salvation. Where was Yosef’s iniquity in attempting to help himself?

While we are required to do everything in our power to help ourselves, we must concurrently recognize that our efforts alone are not sufficient to secure happiness and success. Only if our actions are accompanied by the favor and grace of Hashem will we secure positive results. Yosef apparently believed that through his wisdom alone he would be redeemed. He felt he had devised a brilliant plan through which his individual efforts would secure his freedom. He envisioned the grateful Cupbearer returning to Paroh, pleading Yosef’s case before his master. Paroh would investigate the charges against Yosef and recognize his innocence. He would then intervene to correct the injustice that Yosef had experienced. The process would be gradual, but would inevitably culminate in Yosef’s freedom.

No individual controls his or her environment. We are affected by a multitude of factors, few of which are under our control. Yosef’s error was in failing to recognize that, despite the brilliance of his plan, success could not be achieved without the assistance and benevolence of Hashem.

Gershonides disagrees with Rashi’s position. He maintains that Yosef acted properly. He does not attribute to Yosef any lack of trust in Hashem. He explains that the Cupbearer’s failure to recall Yosef’s kindness was not a punishment. It was a reward! Yosef had hoped that the Cupbearer would immediately bring his case to Paroh. Had the Cupbearer acted as Yosef planned, he might very well have failed to secure Paroh’s sympathy. However, two years later, Paroh had his own disturbing dream. The Cupbearer suddenly recalled Yosef’s assistance in interpreting his dream. He related his experience with Yosef to Paroh. Paroh summoned Yosef at a moment in which he was desperately in need of the assistance that Yosef could provide. Yosef was able to provide Paroh with an interpretation of his dream. Paroh recognized Yosef’s wisdom and appointed him as his Prime Minister. This outcome would not have been achieved if the Cupbearer had appealed to Paroh on Yosef’s behalf at an earlier time.[2]

However, Yosef’s interaction with the Cupbearer presents an interesting problem. Yosef believed that the Cupbearer would be grateful for his help and would intercede with Paroh on his behalf. Yosef’s premise was that the Cupbearer would recognize that he had assisted him in some manner. What exactly was the assistance that Yosef provided to the Cupbearer? It is true that Yosef had provided a proper interpretation of the dream. But, the dream was only a revelation of the Cupbearer’s fate. Yosef’s interpretation did not influence this fate. He did alleviate the Cupbearer’s anxiety. But, it is unlikely that Yosef believed that because he had relieved his anxiety, the Cupbearer would feel remarkably indebted to him.

A comment of Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra may help resolve this issue. Before Yosef provided the Cupbearer with an interpretation of his dream, he explained that the interpretation he would provide would be from Hashem. What message was Yosef relating? Ibn Ezra explains that Yosef did not want the Cupbearer or the Chief Baker to believe that his interpretation would, in some way, influence their fates. He was telling them that their fates were already determined. Hashem was merely revealing their destinies.[3]

Apparently, Yosef was concerned with this issue. He feared that the Cupbearer and the Chief Baker believed that his interpretation would actually influence their destiny. A positive interpretation would secure a positive future, but a negative interpretation would bring about personal disaster. In other words, Yosef feared that they would not recognize that his role was that of a passive interpreter and that his interpretation would not actually influence their fates.

“Now the Chief Baker saw that he had interpreted well. So he said to Yosef, “Me too! In my dream, behold, there were three wicker baskets on my head.” (Beresheit 40:16)

Yosef interprets the dream of the Cupbearer. He tells him that his dream foretells his deliverance from prison and his restoration to his previous post. Upon hearing this interpretation, the Chief Baker asks Yosef to interpret his dream. However, the passage adds that the Chief Baker observed that Yosef had interpreted the Cupbearer’s dream well. Only then does he ask Yosef to interpret his dream. This translation is consistent with Unkelus’ interpretation of the passage. However, Rabbaynu Saadia disagrees with this interpretation of the passage. He suggests that the Chief Baker did not decide to share his dream with Yosef because he found his interpretation of the Cupbearer’s dream compelling. Instead, he revealed his dream to Yosef because he observed that Yosef had interpreted the Cupbearer’s dream as a positive portent.[4] This interpretation suggests that the Chief Baker believed that Yosef’s interpretation of the Cupbearer’s dream was not merely a revelation. He believed that Yosef’s interpretation would influence future events. Therefore, once he observed that Yosef had provided a positive interpretation for the dream of the Cupbearer, he was encouraged to reveal his own dream to Yosef.

This may explain Yosef’s plan. Yosef had told the Cupbearer and the Chief Baker that his interpretation would only reveal the future. It would not influence events. However, he also recognized from the behavior of the Chief Baker that they had not necessarily accepted his assertion. He concluded that the Cupbearer may have also believed that his interpretation actually played a role in securing his freedom and restoration. If this were the Cupbearer’s belief, then he would feel indebted to Yosef. Therefore, Yosef believed that he could ask the Cupbearer to respond to this perceived act of kindness and press his case with Paroh.

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[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 40:23.

[2] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 234.

[3] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 40:8.

[4] Rabbaynu Saadia Gaon, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 40:16.