Hope you had a good week. I’ve spent a few days hearing about strange dreams. Not the kind that come from daydreams and zoning out but actual dreams. A young woman I know is expecting her first baby and is starting to have very strange dreams. They are shocking to her and a bit frightening and so I have been reassuring her that everything is fine and that pregnancy brings about strange dreams. This week’s parshah, Vayeshev, is filled with Joseph’s dreams and so my mind has been circling back and forth around dreams.
The Sages in the Talmud tell us that dreams are messages you send yourself. It is then important to try and read those messages (somewhere Freud is dancing a hora). The Sages then repeat in several different places that the power of the dream never lies within the dream itself, it lies within the interpretation of the dream. It is not the content of the message that will matter, it is how we hear it. Put another way, meaning does not rest within a book, it rests within the reader.
When I was teaching Tefillah in kindergarten, we were discussing the morning prayer of ‘Modeh Ani’. The first words uttered when opening our eyes in the morning is to thank God for returning my soul to me. Of course, the kids all ask where their souls went at night that now they’re back. The conversation pretty much centred around God showing our souls wonderful things when we sleep as a reward for the good things we do. One kid asked if nightmares are then a punishment for bad things we do. Everyone agreed that nightmares are punishment (ah, if the world could only stay as black and white as this). But one kid objected and said that dreams can’t be punishments. Nightmares are when God takes our souls and shows them the things that scare us the most so we can see them when we’re safe in our beds and together with God. That answer has stuck with me all these years. This is why the Sages tell us to learn Torah from children.
Interestingly, the Talmud also mentions that our souls journey at night and bring us dreams of things we have never seen or hear languages we have never learned. In the Talmud, we journey with angels.
I can’t help but think of Joseph and his two dreams. The Torah tells us that Joseph and his brothers don’t get along. It’s only made worse by the ‘special’ robe Jacob gives him. It’s not a multi-coloured robe, it’s striped. That actually makes all the difference. A richly coloured robe would designate royalty while a striped robe designates being the heir. Jacob has designated Joseph as his heir because he is first born of Rachel, the loved wife. Of course his brothers will hate him now – it is a terrible insult to them, but most importantly, to their mother, Leah, the first wife. Insulting someone personally is minuscule in comparison to insulting their mother. The Torah tells us they cannot ever speak a kind word to Joseph.
And so Joseph dreams his dreams. The first one has him working with his brothers in the fields as they bind sheaves. He says the brothers’ sheaves circled his and bow. The brothers are appalled and blame him for dreaming that they should serve him. Things get worse between them, which leads us to the crucial question: why would he then tell them of a second dream?
Joseph returns to his brothers and describes a second dream where the sun, the moon and stars are bowing to him. He also tells his father this dream. Everyone gets mad at him. How dare he think that the family would worship him? Jacob seems to understand that the sun and the moon represent himself and Rachel, except some commentaries point out that Rachel has already died so Jacob’s interpretation could not be true. In other words, maybe the problem isn’t the dream, it’s that it’s being wrongly interpreted.
What if Joseph isn’t dreaming a dream of worship but rather a dream of welcoming. In the ancient world people bow to each other to welcome each other more commonly than to worship. Joseph’s first dream has him working with his brothers, sharing a common activity in the field. Maybe their sheaves surrounded him in an image of inclusion and then bow with a gesture of welcome. Maybe the brothers have entirely missed what he was trying to tell them and so he tries telling them again with a second dream. He tries to tell his father how isolated he is feeling.
When everything backfires so badly, Joseph doesn’t stop dreaming, he just stops telling them about it. They never get past feeling insulted by the striped coat and so it is the insult that is dictating the interpretations. The dreams trigger Joseph being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Only when Joseph masters interpreting dreams will he rise to great power in Egypt.
The key is not in the dreams, it is in how we choose to hear them. We have two options: the first is to accept the brothers’ interpretations and conclude Joseph was self-centred, ego-driven and thoughtless. The second option is to question their interpretation and conclude the brothers could not put aside feeling insulted in order to hear a genuine appeal coming their way.
We learn nothing from the first option. The second option makes us question how often we allow a perceived insult to block us from hearing an authentic plea.
Dreams are messages we send ourselves, they are journeys of the soul. We must read them with care, and when we hear the dreams of others, we must always hear the person speaking the dream before we hear the dream.