The Secret Code Hidden in The Fine Print

Years ago, while attending the University of Texas, I met a Rabbi who changed my life. Rabbi Sholom Ber Alperowitz shared a Torah insight based on this week’s Torah portion Miketz (Genesis 41:1–44:17).

Joseph’s imprisonment ends when he successful interprets Pharaoh’s dreams of seven fat cows that are swallowed up by seven lean cows, and of seven fat ears of grain swallowed by seven lean ears. Joseph interprets the dreams to mean that seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of hunger and advises Pharaoh to store grain during the plentiful years. Joseph also recommends to Pharaoh to appoint an understanding wise man over the land of Egypt to supervise the storage of food in preparation for the impending famine.

It is shocking that despite having to wait seven years to see if Joseph’s interpretation would come true Pharaoh said to his servants, "Will we find anyone like this, a man in whom there is the spirit of God?" (Genesis 41:38). He then raises Joseph the slave to the second-highest position in Egypt.

There has to be more to this story.

Rabbi Alperowitz pointed out that Pharaoh intentionally changing a small detail of his first dream to test Joseph. In Pharaoh 's dream, he witnessed the cows while he was standing in the midst of the river. The Hebrew word (על-al) literally means “on.” When he shares his dream with Joseph, he changed the wording to say he was “standing on the shoreline 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 shoreline.

Our sages explain that King David alluded to Joseph’s response upon hearing Pharaoh’s altered description of his dream, when he said, “a decree upon Joseph when he went forth from the land of Egypt; I heard a language (sefas) that I knew not.” (Psalm 87:7).

Upon hearing Pharaoh’s extra word Joseph pointed out that the word “sefas” was not part of Pharaoh’s dream. His incredible ability to know the correct details of the dream prompted Pharaoh to recognize that Joseph received divine inspiration making him worthy of leadership.

This insight taught me three important lessons to understanding the Torah. These lessons are, 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 who selectively quote bible verses as “proof-texts” one 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 you opportunities to learn our holy Torah and discover new inspiring insights.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah,

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz