Parshat Miketz, meaning “at the end of” is a somewhat abrupt parasha that we always read during Chanukah. The names of the Torah portions at the end of Sefer B’reshit are all verbs: Vayetze – “and he went out”, Vayishlach – “and he sent out”, Vayeshev – “and he dwelled”, Vayigash – “and he approached”, and finally Vayechi – “and he lived”. In the middle of this verb list is Miketz. Joseph has been forgotten in jail for two years and is suddenly remembered when Pharaoh needs a dream interpreter. His interpretation lands him the job of savior and Vice Pharoah of Egypt. He acquires a new name, a wife, and encounters his brother who don’t recognize him when they come in search of food to survive the famine. The portion ends with the drama of Benjamin about to be enslaved for possession of a stolen cup that Joseph had planted on him.
This portion that begins with Pharoah’s premonition dreams is well placed for Shabbat Chanukah. This holiday with a mitzvah specific to lighting candles during the darkest nights of the year, is when we read the Torah’s stories of night time dreams. When there are two Shabbats that fall during the eight days of Chanukah, the first one is always Vayeshev which begins with Joseph’s dreams of wheat bundles and stars that bow down to him. When we read that story it’s easy to question the wisdom of Joseph sharing this dream with his brothers but we often overlook that these dreams come true. His brothers do bow down before him when they come to him in search of food as we read this week.
How many of you slept last night? (How many of you are sleeping right now?) How many of you dreamt last night? How many of you remember your dream from last night? How many of you believe your dream last night to be significant and meaningful?
While scientists tell us that we always experience some form of dream state as we are leaving our deep sleep state, we all have had the experience of waking up from a particularly powerful dream and knowing that it’s purposeful, or at least deeply disturbing.
In this week’s Torah reading, Pharoah wakes up from his dreams and is “Vatipa’em Rucho” - agitated. Onkelos translates this phrase as “his spirit was beaten”. A similar phrase is used in the book of Daniel to describe Nevuchadnezzar’s dream – “Vatitpa’em Rucho”. Rashi explains the extra Taf letter as meaning Nevuchadnezzar was doubly agitated by forgetting his dream and also not knowing what it meant.
What is the nature of a dream? Is its just random nonsense that our brain thinks of when we are asleep, is it our unconscious sorting through the events of our lives, or preparing for possible future interactions? And why do some dreams stand out and demand an interpretation and others slip away instantly as we are waking up? Why are some dreams just dreams and others are DREAMS, profound, potentially mind altering, or even life changing experiences?
In our weekly adult ed Talmud class, (which, by the way, meets in the library on Thursday at 5:45 – 6:45), we have recently read in Masechet Berachot that a person who goes seven days without dreaming is to be called wicked. Clearly Judaism does not dismiss dreams as irrelevant.
Later in the Tractate of Blessings, on page 57b, we find the following within many pages of fascinating dream interpretation instructions: “Five things are a sixtieth part of something else: namely, fire, honey, Sabbath, sleep and a dream. Fire is one-sixtieth part of Gehinnom. Honey is one-sixtieth part of manna. Sabbath is one-sixtieth part of the world to come. Sleep is one-sixtieth part of death. A dream is one-sixtieth part of prophecy.”
What does this mean? Are we to understand from this that one dream out of 60 is prophetic and the other 59 are just total pointless gibberish? Or is 1/60 of each dream a prophecy? How are we to know the difference between the 59 parts that can be safely ignored and the 60th part that is a message straight from G-d?
The fraction 1/60 is significant in halachah. If a piece of meat accidently drops into a pot of milk and the volume of the meat is less than 1/60 of the pot, the meat becomes, “bitul” it is nullified, it’s as if it doesn’t exist. More than 1/60 it counts, it matters, it’s real and has to be dealt with. The rabbis are seemingly telling us the same thing about a dream. It’s 1/60 of prophecy. It counts. We need to pay attention to it.
The first mention of a dream in the Torah is in Parshat VaYerah where Avimelech learns from God within a dream that the woman he has taken is already married to Abraham. The text implies that this is a normal way for prophecy to occur and it’s clear from Avimelech’s response that he regards this message as real and important.
The next instance of a dream is 8 chapters later when Jacob is fleeing his enraged brother and has a dream of a ladder that reaches towards heaven with angels going up and down. God speaks to Jacob, pledges to protect him and return him to his homeland. When Jacob wakes up he declares that “G-d is in this place and I didn’t know it. Mah Norah HaMakom HaZeh – how awesome is this place; it is the house of G-d and the gateway to heaven”. This passage is the first time that Jacob has heard from G-d and Jacob does not regard it as any less real or divine because it came in the form of a dream.
In the later rabbinic writings we see the continued importance of dreams in the Jewish tradition. In congregations where the Cohanim bless the people with the ancient words of Aaron the first priest, the custom is for the kahal to recite a prayer during the blessing of the Cohanim that asks for strength and healing for dreams. The text of this prayer come almost directly from the Talmud, Tractate Berachot on page 55b:
Amemar, Mar Zutra and Rabbi Ashi were once sitting together. They said: Let each of us say something which the others have not heard. One of them began: If one has seen a dream and does not remember what he saw, [meaning if it was a good dream or a bad dream], let him stand before the priests at the time when they spread out their hands, and say as follows: 'Sovereign of the Universe, I am Yours and my dreams are Yours. I have dreamt a dream and I do not know what it is. Whether I have dreamt about myself or my companions have dreamt about me, or I have dreamt about others, if they are good dreams, confirm them and reinforce them like the dreams of Joseph, and if they require a remedy, heal them, as the waters of Marah were healed by Moses, our teacher, and as Miriam was healed of her leprosy and Hezekiah of his sickness, and the waters of Jericho by Elisha. As You turned the curse of the wicked Balaam into a blessing, so turn all my dreams into something good for me'. He should conclude his prayer along with the priests, so that the congregation may answer, Amen
One of the only change from the Talmudic version to the one in the siddur is to change “I don’t know what it is” to “I don’t know what it meant.”
We all dream, each night; and we all have dreams, goals, ideas, visions, possibilities. Theodore Herzl had a dream, Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, the people working on solving global warming, hunger, war all have dreams.
Our challenge is to figure out what dreams are meant to become not dreams, what dreams must happen, which dreams are destined to become a reality, what dreams need to come true. To know when we are just day dreaming and to know when we have been shown a way forward that we must follow is one of our primary task when we are awake.
We all have dreams, but some of them are just “pipe dreams”. According to answers.com, the origins of the idiom “pipe dream” meaning an unrealistic hope or fantasy, is an allusion is to the dreams experienced by smokers of opium pipes.
The early references to the phrase all originate from in or around Chicago. The earliest found is from The Chicago Daily Tribune, December 1890:
"It [aerial navigation] has been regarded as a pipe-dream for a good many years."
The Wright Brothers were probably not smoking opium or a crack pipe when they designed and flew the first aircraft.
Some dreams are meant to happen and perhaps will happen anyway without any increased effort on our part.
In this week’s portion, Joseph explains Pharaoh’s two dreams. The first one was of 7 fat cows that were eaten by seven sickly cows that did not become any fatter. Pharaoh then woke up and when he fell back asleep had a second dream about seven thick ears of grain that were consumed by seven thin, shriveled ones.
Joseph explains that G-d is warning Pharaoh that there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of devastating famine. He then says: “As for the dream being repeated twice to Pharaoh, it is because the matter stands ready before G-d and G-d is hurrying to do it.”
It is inevitable. It is not just a dream. It is a reality on its way.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Hisda taught: a dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read.
It is a wasted opportunity, a warning not heeded, an inspiration ignored. Are our wakeful dreams any different?
Of course it is clear from the story of Pharaoh that for a dream to be useful it needs to be remembered and it may need to be interpreted. There are many different resources available including the Babylonian Talmud about how we can interpret dreams. It may be useful to speak to a friend or a relative about a dream, to write them down, to try to remember them when we first wake up.
The surrealistic painter Salvador Dali, who did not use drugs and only drank alcohol in moderation, found an interesting way to access his dreams. Like Freud, he considered dreams and imagination as central rather than marginal to human thought. Dali would place a metal mixing bowl in his lap and hold a large spoon loosely in his hands which he folded over his chest. As he fell asleep and relaxed, the spoon would fall from his grasp into the bowl and wake him up. He would then use the images that had been in his dream thoughts to inspire his art.
Paul McCartney once woke up one night with a song in his head. He called it “Scrambled Eggs” but later changed the title to “Yesterday” – one of the most famous songs in the world.
Robert Lewis Stevenson, Sting, Beethoven, Thomas Edison, Mozart, and Billy Joel are other examples of people who credited their dreams for helping their creative endeavors.
The Artscroll Siddur, in its commentary to the blessing of the Cohanim, quotes the Maggid Meisharim. “During sleep the soul divests itself of the corporeal garb which inhibits it’s free movement during the day. In dreams, one is able to soar above their body and attain the higher levels of eternal life.”
I believe that all of this is true of our personal dreams that we have when we are awake as well. We have to remember our goals, and think about them when we are not just in the moment of formulating them, get the wise council of others, and know when we are to make them happen. We all can dream big and do big, save a family, a country or a region of the world from famine and destruction as Joseph and Pharaoh did in this week's parashah. If you really want it, it does not need to remain a legend, an aggaddah, a pipe dream.
I bless us all that we can learn from the messages of Chanukah: that light is more powerful then darkness; and hope is more potent than despair. One small flame can light up an entire dark room. That when we give of our own light to another, our own light does not diminish at all. And that we each contain a spark of divine goodness.
And I bless us that we learn from the messages of story of Pharaoh’s dream and heed our dreams and value our dreams, and pursue our dreams, both asleep and awake.
May we all truly have a light-filled, delightful, enlightening Chanukah and pleasant dreams.