Friday, December 7, 2012

I Dreamed a Dream

24 Kislev 5773 / Dec. 7-8, 2012

In this week’s portion, we get to know Jacob’s sons.  Jacob, like his father before him, played favorites, designating Joseph as his favorite son (due to being the first son born to Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel).  As one might expect, Joseph’s brothers were quite resentful of this favoritism, and such resentment only grew when Jacob gave Joseph an ornamented tunic (“coat of many colors”).

Joseph played into this favoritism in many ways, and frankly couldn’t figure out that sometimes, not everything needs to be shared with others.

Prime example: Joseph had two dreams; one which symbolized his brothers bowing to him, and the second symbolizing not only his brothers bowing to him, but his mother and father bowing to him as well.  Joseph decided he would share these dreams with his brothers, who hated him even more for suggesting they would one day bow to him, and with his father, who was quite troubled by his son’s dreams as well.

One day, Jacob sent Joseph to check in on his brothers, who were shepherding.  His brothers saw him coming and conspired to kill him, saying, “Here comes that dreamer…” If not for Reuben, who intervened, Joseph’s brothers likely would have killed him on the spot.  Instead, Joseph had his tunic ripped from his shoulders and was sold into slavery, eventually ending up in the house of a prominent Egyptian named Potiphar (who had a very demanding spouse…).  After refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife, and after her accompanying tale suggesting that he had tried to force himself upon her, Joseph ends up in jail, where he has the opportunity to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh’s Cupbearer and Baker respectively.  Joseph’s dream predictions turn out to be true, with the Baker being hanged, and the Cupbearer being restored to his position (and forgetting his promise to Joseph to let Pharaoh know that Joseph was awesome and should be let out of jail).

One of the constant themes throughout the Joseph saga is the power and purpose of dreams.  Joseph has dreams of his own that we know later on turned out to be (mostly) true.  His fratricidal brothers refer him to as “the dreamer.”  He later comes to correctly interpret the dreams of Pharaoh’s Cupbearer and Pharaoh’s Baker. 

What does Judaism have to say about dreams? 

Are dreams a reflection of our desires? 
Are they simply reminders of what we were thinking about right before we went to sleep?
Do they foretell our future?

The ancient rabbis had much to say about dreaming, often using the Joseph story as their basis.

For example, we learn in the Talmud that all dreams follow their interpretation (interpreting dreams was a big deal in those days, as we also learn that “a dream that is not interpreted is like a letter that is not read”); that it might be better to have a negative dream than a positive one, as the negative dream will hopefully cause the dreamer to repent for his sins; that even those dreams that seem to tell the future are not completely realized, which we learn from the fact that Joseph dreamed his mother would bow to him as well as his father and brothers, but that didn’t happen because she died before having the chance to do so; and that it may take a long time for a dream’s prediction to come to pass, as evidenced by Joseph having to wait 22 years between his dreams of his siblings bowing to him and their appearance before him in Pharaoh’s court.
[Bab. Talmud, Berachot 55]

We are also taught that one should fast after having a bad dream (fasting is not just for Yom Kippur in the Jewish tradition!).
[Bab. Talmud, Shabbat 11]

What are we to make of these teachings about dreams?  (there are many more as well!)

The ancient rabbis believed that by putting dreams into words (having them interpreted), one essentially opened the door for said dreams to actually come to fruition.  In essence, putting into words what your subconscious had seen was viewed as a mechanism for realization.  What a powerful concept! 

In contemporary spoken English, we often use the word “dream” when what we really mean is “aspiration that is just out of reach.”  For example, “I dream of being an NBA basketball player,” or “I dream that one day my children will not be judged by the color of their skin, but rather by the content of their character.” 

What I would argue is the essential takeaway point Joseph’s dream saga and the accompanying wisdom of the ancient rabbis is that the first step towards achieving one’s aspirations is putting one’s dreams into words – in effect, putting the vision out into the world. 

To sum up, in rhyme:

Whether or not dreams come true, is entirely up to you.

Only by actively articulating what we hope to see, can we focus on taking the steps necessary to making our dreams reality.

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