Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Genesis 41:1 - 44:17
December 30, 2000 4 Tevet 5761
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
The Rabbis tend to curb the revelatory role of dreams. As a vehicle of extrasensory perception, they would contend, dreams tell us more about what's on our mind than on God's. In the early third century, R. Yonatan, a first generation Palestinian Amora, delivered an opinion worthy of Freud: "Dreams convey to us only that which we are already thinking about during the day." He based himself on a careful reading of the experience of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian conqueror of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. According to the book of Daniel, the king, like most of us, had forgotten his dream by the time he awoke. But greatly agitated by its effect, he demanded of the sages of his realm to recover the dream and then interpret it, a task which threw them into consternation. The exiled Jewish courtier, Daniel, however, with God's help, met the challenge.
Nebuchadnezzar had dreamt of a menacing statue composed of various materials, a head of gold, a chest and arms of silver, a midsection and thighs of bronze, legs of iron and feet of iron and clay (the source of our idiom, "feet of clay"). In Daniel's spin the vision foreshadowed a sequence of four ephemeral kingdoms, each inferior to the last, which would culminate in the appearance of an everlasting realm of divine patrimony. Twice in the course of his reconstruction, Daniel loosely referred to the king's dreams as consisting of matters which weighed on his mind, "That you may know the thoughts of your mind (Daniel 2:30)." And it is this scriptural basis which R. Yonatan seized to anchor his rational view that our dreams are little more than an extension our inner lives.
A hundred years later he gained the support of the founder of the Babylonian academy in Mehoza, Rava, who restated the view more piquantly without benefit of another prooftext: "We are never shown a palm tree made of gold or an elephant going through the eye of a needle." In other words, our experience determines the contents of our dreams (B.T. Berakhot 55b). As presented though, R. Yonatan's position runs aground on the dream of Nebuchadnezzar, which abounds with strangeness. The awesome statue that invades his sleep is not an everyday sight, and the prediction that comes with it goes far beyond his ken. It is only ignoring the narrative context of the two verses that R. Yonatan musters that he can construe them so narrowly as to back his view. In fact, Daniel concludes his remarkable performance by declaiming: "The great God has made known to the king what will happen in the future. The dream is sure and its interpretation reliable (Daniel 2:45)."
To redeem R. Yonatan, we must reformulate his view. A second look suggests that what concerns him is not what informs a dream but what triggers it. Its point of departure is that which worries us during the day. Our dreams do not come out of left field, but express, albeit in coded language, what preoccupies us when we are awake. And the examples of Nebuchadnezzar and Pharaoh in this week's parasha indeed confirm that insight. For both potentates, a wary eye on the future deprived them of fully enjoying the perks of absolute power. In his dream, Pharaoh finds himself standing along the banks of the Nile. The annual rise of its water level, over which he bore no control and which was the source of his empire's power and prosperity, must never have been far from his mind. Egypt was the grain basket of the Mediterranean world solely by virtue of the regularity of its river's beneficence. Thus, the warring images that crowded Pharaoh's dream were unlike anything he had ever seen, though not the underlying anxiety that brought them to the surface.
Moreover, understood in this vein, R. Yonatan's opinion allows a modicum of wisdom to originate beyond ourselves. The worry may be ours, but the illumination is a gift. In both instances, it was a dream that aided Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar to appreciate what lay in store for them. A third century Palestinian Amora, R. Hanina bar Yitzhak, posited that three common experiences are merely the unripened fruit (novelet) of phenomena unknown to us: sleep, foreshadowed death; dreaming, prophecy; and Shabbat, the world-to-come (B'reishit Rabba, 17:5). Hence to dream is but a faint reflection of the intensity of a direct communication from God. The Talmud speaks of the ratio of these relationships as being one-sixtieth (B.T. Berakhot 57b). Together, these views of R. Yonatan, Rava, Hanina and the Talmud add up to a consistent effort to limit the potency of dreams as recorded throughout the Tanakh, without fully denying the possibility of fleeting contact with the divine.
The shift away from revelatory dreams mirrors what the Rabbis had done with prophecy itself. They declared it to have ended with the destruction of the Second Temple, to be found henceforth only among "fools and children." In a culture reconstituted around the centrality of a sacred book rather than a sacred space, the scholar outranked the prophet (B.T. Bava Batra 12a-b). Exegesis replaced prophecy as the key to determining God's will.
But neither the rupture nor disparagement were total. How could they be? The reality of God's presence permeated every aspect of the Rabbis' discourse, piety and daily lives. In their religious quest, they crafted a Judaism that enabled one to live in two worlds, the material and spiritual, the transitory and eternal, the here-and-now and the hereafter, simultaneously and harmoniously. That is ultimately the meaning and mystery of the fraction of one-sixtieth. It points to the realm beyond the quotidian to which we are bound in soul and consciousness, wherefore each morning as our senses reconnect us to existence in all its manifold twofoldness, we thank God for restoring our soul to the inert body which is its temporary home.