A couple of years ago, while training to become a certified spiritual counselor, I discovered Dream Work, and – as a lover of symbolism, narrative and deep inner work – I was immediately hooked. I was never someone who wrote down her dreams, or even thought much about them, until I was exposed to this type of work. My teacher, Judith Schafman, combines various approaches to working with dreams, including Gestalt and Jung, but the main thrust of her method is to understand the dream as a window to the soul.
The idea is that each element of the dream is a piece of the dreamer, a part of his or her unconscious, although archetypal images may also appear in significant ways, and sometimes a dream can even be a prophetic or visitation dream. In other cases, the general feeling of the dream may be the biggest message of all for the dreamer. Yet, in all cases, it is the dreamer who is calling up these images, voices and feelings. The dream belongs to the dreamer; it comes from a deep place. The images are of the dreamer’s creation, and it is really only the dreamer who can “interpret” the dream, albeit with the help of someone trained to help the dreamer re-enter the dream and reveal its layers of meaning.
For example, the first dream I recorded and then worked with Judith, realizing it was a significant one worth deciphering, was as follows:
I am the officiating rabbi at a ceremony at the mikveh where I work at Kibbutz Hannaton. It is the conversion of a baby, long awaited. Her two fathers are escorting her, behind me, to the mikveh with a large group of beaming, excited family and friends. The grandmothers are carrying the baby like a precious family heirloom. This is a grandchild they thought they would never have. I sense their mix of fear and pride. We approach the immersion pool, me ahead of the pack. “Is there really water in there?” one grandfather asks. “Of course, there is,” I say. And then I look inside the mikveh pool. I blink my eyes and look again. This man is correct. There is no water in the mikveh! I convince the family to go get something to eat and come back later, after I refill the mikveh. But when we come back to the mikveh building, water is pouring out of the windows, the door. It’s flowing down the path, overflowing into the whole kibbutz. It’s flooding the place. People are being lifted and carried away.
On first read, this dream could be understood as a simple anxiety dream, about my fears of what could go wrong when I officiate at a conversion immersion ceremony. After all, I actually had arrived at the mikveh once for a conversion ceremony, only to find the immersion pool empty. But when I worked the dream with Jude, she had me speak from the voice of the water. She asked me where I went, why I came back, and why I was now overflowing the mikveh walls. This dream, on a deeper level, was really about my own feelings of spiritual confinement and my desire to expand my spiritual life and service.
This is but one example of scores of profound dreams I have worked and helped others work over these past few years. It turns out this dream also was a prophetic one, as a few months later, I arrived at the mikveh with a group, only to find it had overflowed, and the water was seeping out from under the door and flowing down the path leading up to the building. As you can see, the dreamscape is a complex and powerful one, that can tell us so much about what is going on beneath the surface of our psyche and beyond the bounds of the linear, rational world in which we live our daily lives.
It is with this new outlook that I am reading the Genesis dream stories this year. In Numbers 12:6, God tells us: “I, Adonai, reveal myself to them in visions, I speak to them in dreams.” Already in Genesis 20:3-7, we have God appearing to Avimelech in his dreams, telling him not to “touch” (sexually, of course) Sarah, despite the fact that Abraham handed her over to him, saying she was only his sister. If we understand Avimelech’s dream to be his unconscious, an inner voice, even his own Divine spark, or his Higher Self, speaking to him in his dream state, when his ego is less potent and these other voices are trying to make themselves heard, then God is indeed speaking to Avimelech; but God is doing so through Avimelech’s own inner wisdom.
Let’s look at the famous dream scene in In Genesis 28:12-17. Jacob – fleeing home to save his life after tricking Esau his brother and stealing his first-born blessing – lays down to sleep. He dreams of angels climbing up and down a ladder that spans earth to sky. God, who is also an element in this dream, promises to be with Jacob and his descendants. When Jacob awakes, he is in awe of his dream experience. He feels God’s unconditional presence. “This place is a Divine portal!” he declares. The dreamscape is a Divine portal, a gateway to the soul.
And, indeed, Jacob hears this inner Divine voice twice more in his dreams. First, telling him to take the flock that are rightfully his and leave Laban’s house (Genesis 31:10-13), and last, in Genesis 46:2-4, telling him to go to Egypt, to Joseph, to see his son and spend his final days there. Jacob passes on his appreciation of dreams to his son, Joseph, who not only takes his own dreams seriously, but also helps others understand the messages of their dreams.
God’s direct voice is not heard in Joseph’s dreams or the dreams he interprets. At least not as God. Joseph’s first dream is of his brother’ sheaves of wheat bowing to his sheave. And then another dream of the sun, moon and eleven stars bowing down to him. Joseph does not share his interpretation of these dreams with his family, as far as we know; he simply reports them. But his brothers and father interpret them to either be prophetic dreams, in which he is predicting a day when his brothers, and even his father and mother, will bow down to him, or to be a reflection of Joseph’s inner feelings of superiority over his family. Perhaps this is what leads to their downfall, as no one can interpret someone else’s dream. The dream belongs to the dreamer alone.
It seems from verse 41:16 that Joseph understood this. He says to Pharaoh, “Not I, but God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” The way I read this verse, Joseph is saying that only God – i.e. the dreamer’s inner wisdom – can truly hear the dream’s message. It is likely, therefore, that Joseph did not interpret the dreams of Pharaoh, the cupbearer, and the baker, but rather worked the dreams with them to uncover their deeper meaning.
It is possible, of course, to read the text to be implying that Joseph interpreted his dreams to be prophetic. I, however, prefer to understand his dreams also as a reflection of his deepest longings and aspiration in life, his soul’s desires. However, they are also a reflection of his own fears and insecurities, as he is not only the one to whom others are bowing, but he is also the ones who are bowing. Like us all, he has multiple facets to his psyche. He is both empowered and surrendering, majestic and humble. It is when he learns to balance these forces within himself that he is able to step into his leadership role in the most effective and admirable way.
What is the place of dreams in our spiritual lives today? Unfortunately, most people do as I did, and do not make much of their dreams, do not invest time or effort into trying to decipher for themselves what their soul, or their Higher Self, is telling them when their waking defenses and coping mechanisms are at rest. This is a shame, as dreams are a universal and timeless spiritual tool that even back in the times of our ancestors, was vested with sanctity and treated with reverence and awe.
As a rabbi and spiritual counselor, I have found that some of my most holy work has been helping others understand the messages of their own dreams. As John Standford says, “Dreams are God’s forgotten language.” Whether our dreams are our Higher Self steering us in a better life direction (like those of Avimelech); or whether they are our inner Divine voice reminding us of God’s presence even in the most challenging of times (like those of Jacob); or whether they are more like Joseph’s dreams reflecting our desires and aspirations that we can bring to manifest with the right karma and use of our talents – dreams are an awesome gift to us humans that is best to mine rather than ignore.
And Rabbi Hisda tells us in BT Brachot 55a: “A dream not interpreted is like a letter not read.” So next time God sends you a letter in the form of a dream, especially one that feels particularly significant and powerful, will you open the envelope and read the letter? Or will you leave it sealed shut with the message your soul is sending you abandoned inside?
If you are interested in opening the envelope, the best way to start is by keeping a dream journal next to your bed and recording your dreams, or even just fragments from your dreams, as soon as you wake up, before you even get out of bed. The next step would be to find someone experienced in Dream Work, like Judith or myself, and start to work your dreams face to face, over video call or telephone, or in person. But even taking the time to recall your dreams, perhaps even tell them to someone close to you, is a way of honoring these Divine messages from your soul.