“Last night I had the strangest dream…”
Is there any more tedious start to a conversation? Dating websites rate it up there with “You look just like my Ex” for putting off potential partners.
No one cares what we dream. There may be odd exceptions; the dreams of people we know and love may tell us something about their hopes and fears. We can offer assurance and help them interpret their dreams in ways that quell whatever dread they may have inspired.
But most of the time, what goes on in our heads while we sleep is of no interest to anyone but ourselves; if we want someone to hear what we got up to in our somnambulance, we have to pay a professional to listen.
Yet, we choose to hear Jacob’s dream year after year, captivated by the image, mystified by its meaning. At the start of this week’s Parashah Jacob is making his way toward Haran to find a wife according to his father’s wishes. The sun is going down and he decides to make camp at “a certain place”. Having hoodwinked his father and swindled his brother, Jacob does not deserve the sleep of the just. In fact, he is, disturbed by a dream. Just after dozing off, he sees –variously translated–a stairway, a ladder, a ramp reaching from earth to heaven, messengers of God ascending and descending.
God himself appears with a promise for Jacob: He will fulfil His promise that Jacob’s offspring and descendants will inhabit the land God has promised to Abraham, tenderly assuring Jacob He will look after him throughout.
We reckon with this dream every year at this time, yet we remain unsure what to make of it. Is it fantasy? Is it prophecy? What’s with the messengers? Where are they going and why? What messages have they to convey? What does the dream portend, if anything, for Jacob? And what might it signal for us?
The Rabbis were obsessed with dreams and anticipated Freud by centuries in attributing great importance to the imagery that features in them, as well as in establishing a mercenary class–either soothsaying charlatans or more credentialed practitioners, who would hear dreams and divine their meaning for a fee. Many of the disputations in Berakhot, the first tractate in the Talmud are devoted to discerning the meaning of dreams, and debating whether dreams have meaning at all. Rabbis who believed in the prophetic power of dreams advised those haunted by nightmares to fast—even on Shabbat– to expiate the impact of a particularly bad one, while the rationalists, like Rav Chisda, insisted that dreams have no meaning until an interpreter gives it one: “A dream that is not interpreted is like a letter that is unread. The interpretation of a dream determines its meaning.” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot, 55a).
A dream, then means what we decide it means. It’s our call whether to be haunted by a bad dream, or to interpret it in some way that makes it all okay. Joseph Caro, who made it his business to have the last word on these things, concludes: “The dream follows its interpretation”
So what about Jacob’s dream? As far as we know, Jacob doesn’t speculate about the meaning of those messengers Yet, year after year, transfixed by the magnificence of the image, we puzzle over them and try to make something of the dream that the text does not.
Does it matter? It’s been analysed and reanalysed and we feel no better enlightened than if we’ve come across it for the first time. What if the dream is nearly entirely beside the point? What if the dream is a distraction and the point is Jacob’s reaction to it?
Translations differ: Jacob wakes from his dream either in awe or in fear. “God is in this place,” Jacob exclaims, “And I didn’t know it.”
Rashi’s all in with Team Fear, writing that Jacob wakes in dread and shame at having slept on holy ground.
But that can’t be. In the dream, God spoke tenderly to Jacob. God promised him protection, descendants and fertile land. When Jacob wakes, it is with awe that this God is here, with him, in this place. Jacob awakes with wonder, reverence and love. The context—the ministration of a loving God that precedes it—conveys this unequivocally. Further, the tropes used in the telling flow with singular sweetness and sublimity. How awesome, how wonderous is this place.
Our Parashah inspired the Rabbis of Rashi’s day, including Rashi himself, to begin to refer to God as Ha-Makom, “The place”. From Bereishit Rabbah 68: “ ‘And he came upon (vayifga’) the place (Genesis 28:11)’ – Rav Huna says, in the name of Rabbi Ami: why do we substitute the name of the Holy Blessed One and use Place? Because God is the Place of the world, and the world is not the place of God.
God is not just in this place, God is this place.
When Jacob cries, “God is in this place I did not know it; How awesome is this place” he speaks for us all in all places for all time.
Recently, he spoke distinctly for me.
I was waiting for a scan at a clinic in a central London hospital, one of the NHS facilities said to be “overwhelmed,” “heaving” “barely able to cope”. The lobby was dingy, with the acrid odour common to places that tend to the sick. The door to the imaging room opened, and I could see the previous patient being helped to his feet by the radiographer and his assistant. The patient was elderly and frail, wearing a hospital gown that revealed legs so spindly it’s a wonder they could support him. Something in his manner conveyed a dignity that I did not want to offend, so I looked away as the attendants brought him out to where his grandson was waiting with a wheelchair. They, too seemed to recognise his desire for dignity and spoke to him with respect, not that infantizing lilt you commonly hear in those circumstances.
Then it was my turn. I was conveyed into the scanner, a narrow tube that emits sounds you might associate with cars being crushed. Each time the noise subsided, the technician, a member of an NHS staff that is “overworked”, “unable to keep up” and “on the verge of exhaustion” spoke to me, his voice freshly assuring, as if I were his first and only patient of the day. He calmed me so after a very short while, I hardly heard the clangs, the bangs and the roars. Instead I heard, in tropes sweet and sublime, “How awesome, how wonderous is this place.”
Diana Shaw Clark LBC rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.