In last week’s Torah portion, Pharaoh called Joseph the "code breaker." This was because Joseph demonstrated his capability to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, while all Pharaoh’s other advisors and seers failed. Only Joseph was able to break the code that contained the meaning of the dreams. That was why he was known by the Egyptians in those days—as "The Code Breaker."
Decoding has played a vital part in this country’s history. During WWII the American Navy ‘broke’ the encryption code of the Japanese navy. Because of this, they were able to pinpoint the position of the Japanese fleet in the Pacific. As a result, the American’s were able to fend off the powerful Japanese navy and surprise them, which helped propel the Americans to victory.
Today, decoding is a very important issue—involving the public and private sectors. Traditionally, encryption was a matter between two parties and no third party had the decoder or a key to decode the message. Intelligence and covert communication has been going on for centuries. More recently, in the last century, since computers and the communication revolution, our world is vastly different. I assume that everyone knows that when you send an e-mail, any hacker can read your e-mail. This is because your message travels on the Internet from computer to computer. It may pass through many computers and at any one of them your message can be intercepted. This has forced our government institutions and military to create powerful encryptions to protect the privacy of such sensitive materials.
The problem with computer technology as it is today is that it often has the power to break some encryption algorithms. This means it can decode the encryption in many messages. So far the best encryption seems to be better than the best decoding. Currently, there is a debate on whether the government should control this system and be allowed to invade individual privacy for the common good and for national security. Some are rightly concerned and fear that giving the government access to such information and private communications is tearing away at our civil liberties. The other side of the issue looks at the value of such information, that criminal activity and even terrorism could be detected and prevented.
Should we allow this invasion? This is a difficult issue. Only the computers that humans create can break the code—if we allow this, we may prevent an evil, but we may force a financial or private institution to report activities that were considered private and confidential.
As we examine the Torah, it is written in this week’s portion that Joseph, revealed himself to his brothers and he showed them that he indeed was Hebrew and their brother. He wanted to reconcile with them and to bring his father, whom he loved, to Egypt to live with the entire family. But Joseph had a problem. As the story goes, many years before, Joseph’s brothers had told their father that Joseph was killed by a wild animal while they were hunting. To prove it, they had taken a bloodstained coat to their father to prove their brother’s death. In reality they had sold him into slavery to get rid of the "favored son." Joseph’s brothers didn’t know how they could go back and admit their acts to their father.
How was he going to believe them after all that had transpired? Joseph had a solution. He told his brothers the details of a secret discussion that he had with his father. The subject of the conversations was the sacrificial heifer which is a very complicated subject in the Torah. Before he was taken away from his father, many years ago, he studied this subject with his father and Joseph had such a very special unique interpretation of this subject that his father was very happy with his studies and his knowledge. This special understanding of the tradition served Joseph as an ‘encryption key’. He gave it to his brothers and told them to use that to prove that he was still alive.
In our Torah portion for this week, the sages write that Joseph’s father didn’t believe at first, that Joseph was alive. But when the brothers revealed the code Joseph gave them Jacob believed everything. Even though this account occurred so many years ago, we see the strong relationship between those days and our days. Joseph was the earliest case of a human being who could write a special code that only he and the intended recipient could understand. To a third party it would have no significance. This again shows us the connection between our Torah portion and the modern world.