How To Discover a Secret Message in the Torah
While attending the University of Texas in Austin in 1974, I met Rabbi Sholom Ber Alperowitz, who spoke with wisdom and kindness and changed my life.
The first Torah insight I heard from Rabbi Alperowitz was on this week’s Torah portion Miketz (Genesis 41:1–44:17). The lesson opened my eyes to the importance of studying the Torah carefully rather than reading it superficially. Torah study that examines the context and the subtle nuances of the Hebrew languages often reveals hidden insights lost in translations.
Growing up, I knew the story of Pharaoh’s dreams concerning seven fat cows swallowed by seven lean cows and seven healthy ears of grain swallowed by seven parched ears. When Pharaoh’s wisest advisers failed to interpret his dreams, Joseph was removed from prison and brought to Pharaoh.
Joseph interpreted the dreams and said they mean that seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine. Joseph advises Pharaoh to store grain during the plentiful years and appoint an understanding wise man over Egypt to supervise the storage in preparation for the impending famine. It took seven years until anyone would know if Joseph’s prediction would come true, as it says, “The seven years of abundance that came to pass in the land Egypt ended” (Genesis 41:53).
Rabbi Alperowitz explained that it is surprising that despite having to wait seven years to see if Joseph’s interpretation would come true, Pharaoh immediately proclaimed, "Will we find anyone like this, a man in whom there is the spirit of God?" (Genesis 41:38) and placed Joseph in charge of supervising the grain storage.
What motivated Pharaoh to accept an unsubstantiated interpretation of his dreams and appoint Joseph, a lowly Hebrew slave, to the second-highest position in Egypt?
Rabbi Alperowitz explained that Pharaoh intentionally changed a small detail of his first dream to test Joseph. In Pharaoh's dream, he witnessed the cows while he stood in or on (על-al) the river. When he shared his dream with Joseph, he changed the wording to say he was “standing on the edge of the river” (Genesis 41:17). Pharaoh secretly inserted the word (שפת-sefas) which literally means “lips or language,” but in this context means the edge of the shoreline.
Upon hearing Pharaoh’s extra word, Joseph pointed out that the word ‘sefas’ was not part of Pharaoh’s dream. When Pharaoh heard this, he recognized that Joseph received Divine inspiration, making him worthy of trust and leadership as it says, “God has informed you (Joseph) of all this” (Genesis 41:39).
Our sages teach that King David alluded to Joseph’s revealing the secret message in Pharaoh’s discrepancy when he said, “a testimony of Joseph when he went forth from the land of Egypt; I heard a language (sefas) that I do not know” (Psalm 81:5-6). The double meaning of the word ‘sefas’ means that when Joseph heard the word ‘sefas- shoreline’ it was a ‘sefas-language’ of the dream he was unfamiliar with.
This insight taught me important lessons for understanding the Torah. We must read biblical passages carefully and in context, examine the original Hebrew for nuances that are lost in translation, and appreciate that the oral tradition has a valid and invaluable place in comprehending the Torah messages.
When confronted by individuals and missionaries who selectively quote bible verses as “proof-texts,” we must apply these lessons before jumping to a conclusion. As King Solomon said, “the first to bring an argument sounds right until someone challenges him” (Proverbs 18:17).
May this Shabbos bring opportunities to learn our holy Torah and discover new and inspiring insights.
Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz
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