The Power of Dreams

Vayeshev By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Dec 12, 1998 / 5759 | Torah Commentary

For the ancients, dreams often conveyed a divine communication about the future. For us moderns, raised in the shadow of Freud, dreams are an expression of our unconscious desires made manifest through dissimilation. Freud took as the motto for his pathbreaking Interpretation of Dreams, published at the end of 1899, a line from Virgil’s Aeneid: “If I cannot bend the higher powers, I will move the infernal regions,” which summarized his thesis. Desires censored by the defenses of our “higher mental authorities” would resort to the realm of our “mental underworld (the unconscious)” to achieve their ends (Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for our Time, p. 105). Nowhere does the secularization of the modern mind find more striking articulation than in the view that dreams are no longer regarded as an emanation from above but rather as an eruption from below.

Though God’s presence recedes in the Joseph narrative, dreams play a prominent role in anticipating things to come, provided they are properly understood. Some are instantly self-evident; others are maddeningly elusive. Joseph displays a talent undetected in his immediate ancestors. Not only is he, like them, a recipient of dreams with divine content, but he is uniquely able to intuit the meaning of others’ dreams. His own dreams quickly lead to his downfall at home; his ability to interpret dreams leads to his eventual triumph in Egypt.

Not until near the end of the Hebrew Bible in the figure of Daniel do we come across another man endowed with that same special capacity. And again it is the key to Daniel’s swift ascent from captivity to the royal court. A victim of the Babylonian exile, Daniel is perceived to be not only learned and wise, but also “understanding of visions and dreams of all kinds (Daniel 1:17).” Thus when King Nebuchadnezzar has, like Pharaoh before him, a deeply disturbing dream which he can’t recall, it is Daniel who, to the astonishment of all the king’s sages, not only recovers it but then explains it (chapter 2).

The Rabbis, who transformed the religion of ancient Israel into Judaism, retain a modicum of belief that dreams or any state of unfocused consciousness may serve as a mediator of the divine will. For example, if you rise early and a specific verse of the Torah comes to mind, there is a touch of prophecy at work here (B.T. Berakhot 57b). The content of the verse carries some kind of divine message. Similarly, if at a critical juncture, you turn to a youngster studying Scripture and ask her what specific verse she is reading at the moment, that verse bears some relationship to your life (B.T. Hagiga 15a). In my own experience, while davening, I am often struck by an unexpected insight that I treasure as a form of divine responsiveness to my drawing near to God.

We humans populate the world with symbols. The Rabbis assert that five everyday phenomena embody a tiny fraction of a greater whole. Thus fire constitutes one-sixtieth of purgatory; honey, one-sixtieth of manna; Shabbat, one-sixtieth of the world-to-come; sleep, one-sixtieth of death and a dream but one-sixtieth of prophecy (B.T. Berakhot 57b). Put more abstractly, existence transcends what we are capable of experiencing. Our senses are not only our windows to the world; they are also our constraints. The recurring experience of dreaming, sleeping and celebrating Shabbat is a foretaste of realms beyond our ken, though not our imagination.

In truth, it is the imagination that the Rabbis seek to rein in. The equation employed is far less than one to one. The fraction of one-sixtieth is in halakhic terms negligible, too small to make a difference. If you inadvertently spill a drop of milk into a pot of chicken soup, if the ratio between the two is one-sixtieth or less then the soup is unaffected and edible. Hence while the Rabbis affirm that dreaming may still be a form of divine communication, it is actually a crude and unreliable instrument. The fraction of one-sixtieth suggests a good deal of skepticism, lots of room for error.

Indeed, in the post Bar-Kochba era in the latter half of the second century, the Rabbis curbed prophecy itself. The era of prophetic communication was over, having ended some 700 years before with the last of the minor prophets – Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. In their own period, the Rabbis dared to avow that “the sage was to be preferred to the prophet,” by which they meant to vindicate their own leadership (B.T. Bava Batra 12a). God’s voice was no longer accessible directly, but only indirectly. The interpretation of Scripture through painstaking study became the only valid manner of detecting God’s will. In third-century Palestine, Rabbi Yochanan went so far as to declaim that since the destruction of the Temple (i.e. the Second), prophecy was to be found only among fools and children (B.T. Bava Batra 12b).

Behind this mounting aversion to prophecy was the unmitigated disaster of three failed Jewish rebellions against the Roman Empire between 66-134 fueled by messianic fervor that had thrown caution to the wind. According to Josephus, who chronicled the first uprising which led to the destruction of the Second Temple, prior to the year 66 C.E. Palestine was overrun by messianic pretenders who incited Jews weary of Roman misrule. “Deceivers and impostors, under the pretense of divine inspiration fostering revolutionary changes, they persuaded the multitude to act like madmen, and led them out into the desert under the belief that God would there give them tokens of deliverance (The Jewish War, book II, line 259).”

It is no accident, therefore, that Rabbi Judah the Prince’s Mishna, which appears around the year 200, is a thoroughly prosaic legal compendium, without an iota of apocalyptic tension. The job description of his students, who were rapidly assuming the religious leadership of the nation, is not to keep the embers of messianism burning, but rather to administer the courts, instruct advanced students of Torah and keep the canon pliable through exegesis (Pirkei Avot 1:1). And the Mishna closes poignantly extolling the blessing of peace. There is no final plea for national redemption. Concomitantly, dreams, like prophecy, have been confined to the dustbin of history in an effort to keep religious enthusiasm in check.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-yeishev are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.