Tuesday, 05 Dec 2023

Written by Matt Turchin

Of Dreams and Dreamers

An acquaintance tells you that he dreamt about you last night.
Are you curious? Do you want to know? Do you even ask?
What is your gut reaction?

Is a dream ever just a dream, or is there something more to it? In some ways, dreams say more than we can ever articulate. Our minds have a way of conjuring images and scenarios, playing out some uncontrollable narrative while we lay helpless, at our most vulnerable, subject to elements of our brain which are beyond our understanding.

Some of us lie awake, fearing the night for the torment and uncertainty our dreams bring us – the unwanted thoughts and unsettling images that play out in the darkest recesses of our unconscious minds. Others seek that escape like a sweet elixir, a welcome nightly holiday from the sometimes all-too-harsh and unforgiving reality of the day-to-day.

But it’s not quite like flicking on the television, is it? Most often, what plays out in our sleeping minds is well beyond our control. There is no clicker, no extensive guide of programmes, just the spin of a wheel and the slide into a sanctioned sort of madness, the world through the looking glass expressed via the flickering revelations of our unconscious minds.

Are they harmless, these dreams? One should certainly hope so when woken with a start, heart beating rapidly as the bits and pieces fade away in the cold splash of reality, the pinchable substance of the tangible world. One might say that our entire lives are framed by dreams. Most of our days begin and end in an unconscious state in which we are subject to the whims and wills of a mind we cannot always control.

Our parashah, too, is framed by dreams, first experienced by Joseph in his invincible youth, and then later, after a time of abandonment, slavery, seduction and imprisonment. The events of those intervening years in Vayeshev have a profound effect on the content and character of Joseph’s dreams, but at the root of this story lies an essential question: what is the power of a dream?

In a lengthy segment on the interpretation of dreams in Talmud Berakhot (57b), the assertion is made that a dream is 1/60th of prophecy.  One-sixtieth does not seem like a lot – for instance, if one were making a meat stew and spilt in some milk by accident, as long as the amount spilt did not exceed 1/60th of the total, the dish is still considered kosher and not a violation of the prohibition against mixing meat and dairy. However, the mediaeval philosopher and commentator, Moses Maimonides, did not discount the power of a dream, connecting this assertion in the Talmud with a midrash which states that a dream is the unripened fruit of prophecy, fallen before it has had the chance to fully develop to maturity (Guide for the Perplexed 2:36).

So, given that we spend so much of our time unconscious, are all dreamers unripened prophets? Are you one good night’s sleep away from taking up the divine megaphone as the mouthpiece for God? If we look at some biblical examples, the prospect seems quite daunting. Jacob is a dreamer, experiencing God in a nocturnal vision in which he receives the divine promise of possession of the land upon which he has rested his head, the immortality of countless progeny and the security of knowing that the Eternal One will be his protector and guardian throughout his life.  Despite having taken flight before the wrath of his brother Esau after stealing his elder twin’s firstborn blessing, Jacob’s dream reveals that he will not be abandoned by God. It is a revelation, an affirmation that all of the promises made to his father and grandfather will be fulfilled through him, through his future children.

So when his favourite son, Joseph, is referred to as a ‘dreamer’, we imagine some of that same prophetic fruit ripening within him, a spark of the divine. However, his first-mentioned dreams are the very things which alienate his brothers and cause them to plot against him. In retelling these nocturnal visions, Joseph demonstrates that he sees himself as the centre of the family, with all of his brothers and even his father bowing down to him – by all means, a truly self-centred fantasy. His brothers are not amused, initially filled with murderous intent before settling on merely sending him off as a slave, where he ends up being sold to the household of Potiphar, a member of the royal court of Pharaoh in Egypt. Joseph serves his master well until he rejects the secret advances of Mrs. Potiphar, she cries foul play, and our dreamer is tossed in prison. Dreams will be his redemption when he interprets the fates of the imprisoned royal cupbearer and baker, and a few years later, when the redeemed cupbearer finally remembers Joseph, it is Pharaoh’s dreams which need deciphering, revealing that a famine will descend and devastate the region. In this moment, it is Joseph’s gift which ensures that Egypt will not suffer as terrible a fate as its neighbours. His reward is to be elevated to the highest civilian position in the land.

So, why did Joseph’s earlier dreams lead him to such a terrible position while his later dreams served to free him? What shifted for this 1/60th of a prophet?

Earlier in his life, Joseph fell into the trap of relating and interpreting only his own dreams. He was internally focused and narcissistic, misusing those dreams to exert power over his family rather than to guide him. Later, Joseph uses his incredible power not to share what he has seen, but rather to decipher the dreams of others, to reveal the bud of prophecy within their tormented nighttime visions. His boasting had brought him low, however, it is when Joseph acts for the sake of others that he is rewarded and elevated. Only by reaching such a position is he then able to see his own dream come true, to be the redeemer of his entire family.

It comes down to that key moment when Pharaoh, tormented by his dreams, asks Joseph for an interpretation, to which he replies with the wisdom of experience: “bil’adai, E-lohim ya’aneh et sh’lom Par’oh” – ‘it is not in me, God will see to Pharaoh’s wellbeing.’ Humility and maturity have enabled Joseph to free himself from the need to be the centre of everything, to acknowledge that nothing of what he has imagined would be possible without a greater source of strength.

This year we read this powerful portion on the second day of Chanukkah, when we gather joyously to commemorate the defeat of the Syrian Greeks by the Maccabees, enabling the rededication of the desecrated Temple. Yet rather than putting ourselves at the centre of the story – giving honour only to those who fought – we might shift our focus onto something greater than ourselves. The Haftarah for Shabbat Chanukkah teaches that the work ahead of us is great and daunting, and success will come to our hand ‘not by might, not by power, but by My spirit, says the Eternal One of Hosts’ (Zechariah 4:6), a power which may enable individuals to do wondrous things, but which serves the collective over the singular.

So, dreamers, we have before us the task of reevaluating how we see ourselves and our role in this world. Will we put ourselves at the centre of the story, or will our vision of the future entail a better reality for those around us and also those whom we may never meet? Let it not be just a dream, rather let each increasing flame grow to illuminate the deepest coldest reaches of this winter with our combined light. Perhaps the coming spring will reveal to us the bounty of flowers and buds which our dreams have brought to fruition.

And let it be for us a true chag urim sameach – a joyful Festival of Lights.


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.