In this week’s Torah portion, Miketz, Pharaoh has a dream that disturbs him. He dreams of seven gaunt, ugly cows coming up behind seven handsome, sturdy cows and eating them. He wakes up. The next night, he has a variation on that dream. Seven thin, scorched ears of grain come up behind seven solid, healthy ears of grain and swallow them. Pharaoh is disturbed by these dreams and brings them to his magicians, but they cannot decipher their meaning.
Hearing of Joseph’s success in understanding dreams, Pharaoh calls for him. Joseph says, “Without me, God will bring an answer that will bring peace to Pharoah.” Pharaoh’s magicians thought they could interpret dreams, while Joseph knew he was just a vessel helping decipher a divine message. As we read in Numbers 12:6, God speaks to us in our dreams. Trying to hear the message is a spiritual practice.
In an earlier story in Genesis, Jacob dreams of angels ascending and descending a ladder from heaven to earth and declares: “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it…. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, a divine porthole.” His dream experience was an encounter with the divine.
This was not the approach to dreams I remember from my Orthodox Jewish childhood. Perhaps influenced by another strain in the Bible, in Deuteronomy 13, where people who claim to be hearing a divine message in their dreams are considered dangerous. Rationalist Jewish communities treat dream interpretation more like superstition.
The famous scene in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” is a good example of the attitude towards dreams I remember from my childhood. Tevye uses Golda’s belief in the power of dreams to convince her they have received a message from a dead relative, while we, the audience, laugh at her foolishness and gullibility. God may have spoken to our ancestors in their dreams, but we have lost that connection.
There is discussion of dream interpretation in the Talmud (see BT Brachot 55a-b, for example), just as there is discussion of astrology, but there are mixed feelings and attitudes towards both (ranging from considering them holy to profane). Neither dreams nor astrology are part of mainstream religious Jewish ritual or praxis today. I was certainly never encouraged to try to find meaning in my dreams, especially not as part of a religious framework.
Rabbi Hisda, however, states, “A dream unexamined is like a letter not read,” suggesting the letter is from God (BT Brachot 55b). While God may have spoken more clearly in biblical visions and dreams, today those messages are filtered through our subconscious; they are still there but require spiritual work. Rabbi Hisda’s view goes against the rabbinic grain, where dreams, especially “bad dreams,” are treated as something to let go of, not examine more carefully.
The rabbis in the Talmud offer a few options to help dreamers turn their bad dreams into good, although these do not include delving into the deeper meaning of the dream. In fact, the intention seems to be quite the opposite. One option is a prayer recited to this day in some synagogues in a hatavat chalomot, or dream amelioration, ceremony. Another is a less well-known ceremony practiced in Kabbalist circles called a ta’anit chalom, or a dream fast, to rid the one who is fasting of a disturbing dream.
There are Kabbalistic strains that did consider dreams worthy of serious attention. Some performed a she’elat chalom (literally dream request) ceremony to incubate helpful dreams. The mystic Rabbi Hayyim Vital is known to have kept a sefer chalomot, a dream journal of his own dreams and those of others, much like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
In my studies to become a spiritual companion, I was introduced to a therapeutic modality called dreamwork, that I use extensively with clients and which has become one of my own main spiritual practices. As I write about in my new memoir, “Dreaming Against the Current: A Rabbi’s Soul Journey,” dreamwork — an approach that not only places deep spiritual significance on our dreams, but encourages us to look deeply into even our unnerving dreams — has been a key tool in helping me listen to my own soul. The way to hear a dream’s message is not to make it go away, but rather to go back into it and listen to its many voices speaking to us through the dream images. For, as Pharaoh himself discovered, the dream will keep coming back in different variations until you let it have its say. The more vivid — even disturbing — the dream, the more urgent the message. The way to turn a “bad” dream into a “good” one is to let it do its healing work. That cannot happen if we ignore it.
In our dreams, feelings come to the surface that we might not allow in our waking lives — including anxieties and fears. These feelings deserve attention. But our dreams also contain other voices that carry the buried wisdom our ego suppresses. In dreamwork, we let all those voices speak, and through working the dream, we can reach the dream’s “message”— whether we see it as God’s message to the dreamer, or the dreamer’s message (buried in the subconscious) to themself.
The dreamworker does not interpret the dream, but rather interviews the dream elements, which are all pieces of the dreamer’s subconscious, so the dreamer can give them voice. The dreamworker is more like a midwife, helping the dreamer give birth to the dream’s message. But without the dreamer and God, the dreamworker would not be of help. Joseph, one of the most famous dreamers and dreamworkers of all time, knew this.
This week’s Torah portion invites us all to take a leap of faith into this ancient porthole to the divine.