By Hazzan Jacob Sandler
This week we read from parashat Vayeshev which begins and ends with dreams. A 17-year-old Joseph, donned in his signature technicolor coat, begins sharing his dreams with his resentful brothers. In his first dream all his brothers’ sheaves of wheat bow to Joseph’s sheaf. And in his second dream, he sees the famous 11 stars (referenced in the passover song, “Who Knows One?”) as well as the sun and moon bowing to his star. The brothers’ resentment grows into full hatred of Joseph, setting in motion a plot to get rid of him. In the end, Joseph ends up in a jail cell in Egypt, where he interprets with uncanny accuracy the dreams of a cupbearer and baker.
I’ve always been really fascinated with dreams. They seem to be one of life’s unsolvable mysteries. The Rabbis of the Talmud are also quite divided regarding the nature, significance and veracity of dreams.The Gemara relates: Shmuel, when he would see a bad dream, would say: “And the dreams speak falsely” (Zechariah 10:2). When he would see a good dream, he would say: And do dreams speak falsely? Isn’t it written: “I speak with him in a dream” (Numbers 12:6)? This apparent contradiction is resolved by Rava who states, there are different kinds of dreams.
It is said that dreams are one sixtieth (1/60) prophecy. It is written with regard to the verse: “The prophet that has a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that has My word, let him speak My word faithfully. What has the straw to do with the grain? says the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:28), the Gemara asks: What do straw and grain have to do with a dream? Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai: Just as it is impossible for the grain to grow without straw, so too it is impossible to dream without idle matters. In this approach we see that even a dream that will be fulfilled in the future contains some elements of nonsense. The Rabbis use Joseph’s dream of the 11 stars, sun and moon to illustrate this point. The moon represents Joseph’s mother, who had already passed away. The dream was fulfilled, but not in its entirety.
Elsewhere, Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani said that Rabbi Yonatan said: A person is shown in his dream only the thoughts of his heart, evidenced by what Daniel, the other great dream interpreter, said to Nebuchadnezzar, as it is stated: “As for you, O king, your thoughts came upon your bed…that you may know the thoughts of your heart” (Daniel 2:29-30). According to this interpretation, dreams are simply a revelation of one’s own subconscious thoughts and feelings. Much can be learned about oneself from dreams, but they don’t necessarily tell the future.
Who can tell the difference between a dream which is internally revealing and a dream which has a prophetic element? Daniel states “[God] gives wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to they who know understanding” (Daniel 2:21).
In my opinion, whether a dream holds some great word of God to be shared, or a potential clarity in the matters of one’s own heart, it is worthwhile to interpret dreams. As Rav Ḥisda said: “A dream not interpreted is like a letter not read.” However one should be cautious when having their dreams interpreted. The gemara relates a story: “There were twenty-four interpreters of dreams in Jerusalem. One time, I [Rabbi Bena’a] dreamed a dream and went to each of them to interpret it. What one interpreted for me the other did not interpret for me, and, nevertheless, all of the interpretations were realized in me, to fulfill that which is stated: All dreams follow the mouth of the interpreter.” I believe this has to do with the power of persuasion and confirmation bias. When an interpretation is given, the dreamer is more likely to notice elements of the interpretation being fulfilled because it has been brought to the forefront of their mind. The great commentator Ibn Ezra warns vehemently against this, claiming that all interpretation belongs to Hashem, because God can see the future and humans cannot.
So what do we do with our dreams? Do we allow them to fade into obscurity? Do we seek out interpretations like the baker and cupbearer? Do we separate the grain from the straw in order to learn some deep mystery about the world? Do we reflect on the context of our lives, and attempt to gain a clearer understanding of our own hearts? As you can see, two Jews means three opinions, and it’s ultimately up to each of us how we answer these questions. But if you’re a dreamer like me, and do not know what your dreams mean the sages offer this advice: “One who saw a dream and does not know what he saw should stand…during the Priestly Blessing and say the following (in Hebrew below):
‘Master of the Universe, I am Yours and my dreams are Yours,
I dreamed a dream and I do not know what it is.
Whether I have dreamed of myself, whether my friends have dreamed of me or whether I have dreamed of others,
if the dreams are good, strengthen them and reinforce them like the dreams of Joseph.
And if the dreams require healing,
heal them like the bitter waters of Mara by Moses our teacher, and like Miriam from her leprosy,
and like Hezekiah from his illness, and like the bitter waters of Jericho by Elisha.
And just as You transformed the curse of Balaam the wicked into a blessing,
so transform all of my dreams for me for the best.’
And he should complete his prayer together with the priests so the congregation responds amen both to the blessing of the priests and to his individual request. And if he is not able to recite this entire formula, he should say:
‘Majestic One on high, Who dwells in power,
You are peace and Your name is peace.
May it be Your will that You bestow upon us peace.’” (Brachot 55b)
“רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם, אֲנִי שֶׁלָּךְ וַחֲלוֹמוֹתַי שֶׁלָּךְ, חֲלוֹם חָלַמְתִּי וְאֵינִי יוֹדֵעַ מַה הוּא. בֵּין שֶׁחָלַמְתִּי אֲנִי לְעַצְמִי וּבֵין שֶׁחָלְמוּ לִי חֲבֵירַי וּבֵין שֶׁחָלַמְתִּי עַל אֲחֵרִים, אִם טוֹבִים הֵם — חַזְּקֵם וְאַמְּצֵם כַּחֲלוֹמוֹתָיו שֶׁל יוֹסֵף. וְאִם צְרִיכִים רְפוּאָה — רְפָאֵם כְּמֵי מָרָה עַל יְדֵי מֹשֶׁה רַבֵּינוּ, וּכְמִרְיָם מִצָּרַעְתָּהּ, וּכְחִזְקִיָּה מֵחׇלְיוֹ, וּכְמֵי יְרִיחוֹ עַל יְדֵי אֱלִישָׁע. וּכְשֵׁם שֶׁהָפַכְתָּ קִלְלַת בִּלְעָם הָרָשָׁע לִבְרָכָה, כֵּן הֲפוֹךְ כׇּל חֲלוֹמוֹתַי עָלַי לְטוֹבָה״
“אַדִּיר בַּמָּרוֹם, שׁוֹכֵן בִּגְבוּרָה, אַתָּה שָׁלוֹם וְשִׁמְךָ שָׁלוֹם. יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ שֶׁתָּשִׂים עָלֵינוּ שָׁלוֹם״