The Value of Nightmares: A Jewish Approach to Bad Dreams

Humans have long pondered our need for sleep, and the physical and mental harm that sleep deprivation causes. However, ancient sages saw a spiritual reason for sleep. nightmare image

When the Holy One Blessed be He, created man, the ministering angels mistook Adam for a divine being and wished to exclaim “Holy” before him. What does this resemble? A king and governor were riding together in a chariot. The king’s subjects wished to greet their king with cries of “Sovereign,” but they did not know which one was the king. What, then, did the king do? He pushed the governor out of the chariot and thereby the subjects knew who the king was. Similarly said Rabbi Hoshya, when G-d created Adam the angels mistook him (for G-d). What, then, did the Holy One blessed be He do? He caused sleep to fall upon him, and thereby all knew he was a human being! (Bereshit Rabbah 8:10).

According to this Midrash, sleep was created to differentiate humans from G-d. It is a sign of our weakness. For hours of the day, every human gives up complete control of themselves. This is to inspire humility.

Sometimes, sleep is not so restful. We have all woken up trembling, sweating, and in fear of our lives without any hope of return to sleep. Ever wonder why this happens?

Scientists have put forward physical and psychological reasons for why we experience nightmares. Nightmares tend to occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep episodes. These REM episodes become more frequent as the night progresses, so nightmares often occur in the latter portions of our sleep, during the early morning for most people. Nightmares frequently concern being unable to escape danger, falling, or reliving a traumatic experience. Unlike night terrors, which occur soon after going to bed and are not experienced as dreams, we do remember our nightmares. Sometimes nightmares can have physical triggers, such as eating just before sleep, or taking drugs such as antidepressants or antihypertensives, or conversely, trying to stop drinking alcohol or sleeping pills. Paradoxically, sleep deprivation can also increase the likelihood of nightmares, as can sleep apnea (where breathing is impeded during sleep, causing episodes of waking while gasping for breath). Finally, nightmare disorder (often hereditary) can cause nightmares. Nightmares may have serious physical consequences, such as an increased risk for obesity and heart disease, while those suffering from depression are more likely to consider suicide.

Psychological explanations for nightmares have also been offered. About 100 years ago, Sigmund Freud taught that dreams were a way to access our subconscious, and interpreting these was a key element of psychoanalysis. Nightmares would reveal thoughts and desires that we were not aware of in our daily life, but which manifested in such things as a slip of the tongue (where we might says a word that seems totally out of place, which revealed what was secretly on our mind) or a persistent thought (which could be a song or poem that included a key word or concept). Today, many psychiatrists believe that dreams serve the purpose of allowing us to work out emotional or problem-solving issues. Nightmares may thus convey an ongoing, unresolved spiritual conflict.

I have argued previously that nightmares enable us to cultivate compassion for the other we do not understand.

For example, I believe that nightmares are gifts from God enabling us to access a painful situation without really having to experience the pain of the experience. This helps us to cultivate empathy if we choose to consider our self-improvement after our bad dreams. In fact, Rabbi Zeira taught, “if a man goes seven days without a dream, he is called evil,” and Rabbi Huna taught that “a good man is not shown a good dream, and a bad man is not shown a bad dream” (Berachot 55b). Perhaps this comes to teach us that, on some level, we need the human vulnerability of bad dreams to remain humble, sensitive, and empathetic. We must actively choose to use our dreams as a vehicle for deepening our spiritual and ethical sensitivities.

Abraham was the first to have a nightmare in the Torah. “And it happened, as the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Abraham; and behold—a dread! Great darkness fell upon him” (Genesis 15:12). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great 18th-century German scholar, interpreted Abraham’s experience in a unique way.

The answer had to experience figuratively the endless night and dread and the exulting awakening therefrom so that it could be grasped more surely and more deeply and be handed down with all the certainty of something that had already been lived through.

This opens up a new way to understand nightmares from a theological perspective. Perhaps G-d provides us with experiences outside of reality in order to prepare us to handle real situations within our reality. We are more prepared for a negative life experience in our lives since we have already “encountered” it. Further, we are better able to digest a painful situation because we explored it more deeply in the unconscious realm.

Sometimes, of course, nightmares can tragically terrorize someone and they may require prayer and therapy. But hopefully, we will all know as many positive things in our lives as possible, and our dreams and nightmares can be healing tools that prepare us to proceed along more difficult journeys.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of seventeen books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.
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