"I was not looking for my dreams to interpret my life, but for my life to interpret my dreams." - Susan Sontag
During this time of the year all over the upper Northern Hemisphere, everything is hidden. A shell of white encases much of this part of the world, forcing it to rest and wait, until days of verdant spring force the snows to disappear and reveal the earth's potential. In this week's parasha, the snows of Yosef's life are starting to melt away and reveal his future. It is in guiding Mitzrayim through its national crisis that he begins to see the true meaning in the dreams of his youth. The events unfolding around him begin to actively interpret his dreams as his brothers arrive in Mitzrayim and stand before him in search of relief from famine. It is by interpretation through living, and not the reverse, that dreams show their true purpose: they are hidden keys in our lives that lie dormant, beckoning gently for us to walk forward, revealing our destinies at the proper time.
To Dream or Not to Dream
In Judaism, there are varying opinions as to the nature of dreams and their prophetic quality. At times, all of us know that dreams are merely the swing-sets of our minds: they are a means for our minds to relax and wander. Dreaming not only provides a creative outlet for stress, ideas, and emotions, but also a forum for our minds to openly explore the essence of our being. Without this restorative exercise, many of us would have difficulty in the areas of learning, wholeness and rejuvenating sleep.
But where do we draw the line with our dreams? How do we know what is prophetic or just fantastic? Within our tradition, the Sages debated this very subject in length in of the Talmud:
From this discussion, we can see that while there seems to be a general acceptance that dreams can take on a prophetic role, at the same time they are laden with nonsense as well. So what is the litmus test for a dream? The Sages cite the verse 23:28 from Jeremiah as such a time when a dream has importance and validity - when it validates and supports the word of Hashem. Let us consider the dream which Yosef dreamed as a youth. Did it not contain an element of "nonsense" as R. Berekiah alludes to - the very fact that the sun and the moon symbolize Yaacov and Rachel, and yet when Yosef has this dream Rachel was not living? This dream, though prophetic in nature, has elements within it that do not make sense and have no hope of being fulfilled. This begs the question for any dream - who can know what is prophetic in nature, what parts are valid, and what dreams are just a mind-exercise?
As we can see from this week's parasha, the dreams of Yosef's youth were indeed prophetic and are coming to pass. Despite the dream's prophetic nature, however, his telling of his dreams to his family had no immediate benefit. The dreams were not for his family, but for him and him alone. In addition, they would not play themselves out until much later in Yosef's life. Yosef's recounting of his dreams did nothing more than incite jealousy - for his dreams put him in a place superior not only to his brothers but also his parents as well. Which one of us wouldn't react in the same fashion if someone related a dream that placed that person over others? Without any tangible evidence, this type of behavior seems nothing more than a simple display of immaturity and haughtiness. We see that this is true by the very Torah verse itself: '...and they hated him even more - because of his dreams and because of his talk." His very ‘talk' provoked them to hatred because it diminished their worth and also dishonored their father.
For Yosef, the revelation of the dream which he had many years earlier comes when he sees his ten brothers bowing before him. Did revealing the dreams years earlier help him to bring about this moment in time? Arguably no - this moment in time when his brothers would come to Mitzrayim was destined to come. The dream was merely a guide for Yosef's actions to help bring his whole family eventually into Mitzrayim. The dreams were given so he would better understand Hashem's timing in the events of his life and act with wisdom.
Amelioration of a Dream
So if dreams have the possibility to be prophetic at times, and simply informative and recreational at others, how do we know when are dealing with something meaningful? Our conscious minds many times shield soul-connections through hubris, distractions, and desires, just as snow covers the earth and hides what is beneath. Sometimes, dreams are the only way in which Hashem can connect to us when "we", or our minds, are out of the way. Other times, dreams are our subconscious desires trying to fool us into changing our daily behavior to accommodate our selfish visions. How can we know for certain when Hashem is informing us and giving us guidance for the future?
Divine dreams are the world underneath the snowy consciousness of our lives, a hidden key which is revealed at the right season. Other dreams, however, tap into the core of who we really are and the part that isn't restrained by our very sly and controlled consciousness. Fantastic visions might ensue from such dreams, but their bearing on our reality is merely our mind toying with ideas. But who can discern which dreams are which? As Yeremiahu intimates:
Because of this mind-soul connection, interpreting a dream can be dangerous business. Much rides on interpreting a dream; only Hashem can reveal the meaning of dreams because of the depth of intimate knowledge that is required. For an outsider to interpret a dream would take not only understanding the heart of another person at a very profound level, but all the hopes, fears, experiences, and the core of that person's very being. In the same vein, can the dreamer objectively relate a dream, without leaving out even the slightest detail? How can we know what any dream means, if we are laced with self-interests and deceit? For this reason, the Sages developed a much more rational process to handle dreams and the dreamer.
While one may never know a dream's true intent, a ritual called "Amelioration of a Dream" was developed by our Sages in response to the complexity of dreams and their meanings. The very term "amelioration" means to make better or to improve. Therefore, this ritual takes an experience which could be discomforting or unsettling and transforms it into something which can be positive and enlightening. However, one important note about this ritual is this: it is not to transmit the intent, meaning, or interpretation of the dream. It is an opportunity to bond together with several people, recite various comforting verses from the Tanakh, and pray that the outcome or the meaning of the dream is positive. The three people are in no manner exposed to the dream; they are merely there to support the dreamer through positive interaction and prayer. By praying for a good outcome of the dream versus a full divulging of the dream, seeds are not sown that can influence the future outcome of any matter or the destiny of any person in any way. Within this formula, there is true wisdom: all parties are neutral, and the destiny of the dreamer is left to play out naturally. Why such a process? It is because of what Yeremiyahu declares further on:
For many of the prophets, they received their prophecy in what would be considered a dream-like state. The Torah commands that those who prophesy falsely are to be put to death. If such a stringent process did not exist to strain out supposed prophecies and dreams that were inconsequential, the people would be bogged down with falsehoods and those jockeying for power. As it is, those who claim prophetic words or dreams possess a certain type of power over others. Supposed meanings and portents can hold communities captive, without any real verifiable way to counter it. Because of this danger, a heavenly ordained process was crucial to weed out the false prophets and those not acting for the sake of Heaven.
Because we have lost the gift of prophecy that was so prevalent long ago, the Sages proscribed the ritual of three people coming together with the dreamer as a more benign way to handle dreams. Not only does it prevent the dreamer from publicly proclaiming the dream as truth, it also protects the community from self-proclaimed prophets. Does this discount our dreams as having any divine input? Does this negate the existence of prophets? Absolutely not. But what this simple process does is check our motives at the door and keep us from thinking that we are wholly wise as to the meaning, symbolism and truth in our dreams. It also keeps us from saturating the community with chaff, which the Sages say is in all of our dreams. And if there is a little chaff in each dream, how are we truly to know what the wheat is? And how do we know when the dream will play itself out in our lives, if at all?
So given all this, it begs the question: what do we do with our dreams except pray for a favorable outcome? Melech David gives good wisdom regarding their purpose:
Curiously, the last word in the Hebrew of this verse is actually kilotai, or "my kidneys." This is a Hebraic way of expressing the seat of our personality, our inner core. Our night sessions or dreams are not only for mind stimulation and a way to process emotions and events, but they can also be a time when our spirit - our very center of being - is connecting with the Divine. This counsel that can occur is subtle, but transformative. Our nights are when we recline on our couches and let the Counselor of counselors help us work through matters. If this is the case, then shouldn't we guard what we are working through in the night more carefully? It is for this reason that the Sages were not jumping at the chance for us to interpret each other's dreams so readily and why the Torah gives us admonition through Yosef's story. In Yosef's later life, he did not reveal his dreams to those around him in his court; he weighed the matters at hand with wisdom and proceeded with caution in his undertakings with his brothers. He had learned his lesson about his dreams and their purpose, and he used the experiences before him to respond maturely and cautiously.
So as you are counting your blessings and sheep before you drift off to sleep, remember the dreams you dream have a special place in the fabric of your being. They can inform you and shape you, nurture you, give clarity in the future, and be your window to the Divine. But most of all, remember that a dream remains a dream until it becomes a reality. Let all the days of your life interpret your dreams and guide you toward your destiny.
Chanukah Sameach and Shabbat Shalom...