Vayeshev 5769 - Dreams are Not to be Messed With

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, Dec. 19, 2008.]

Dreams are not to be messed with.

They are big – larger than life. Or smaller than life – sometimes a single moment in time magnified as through a microscope.

Dreams are like angels: fleeting, hard to pin down, demanding to be wrestled with. They fill us with emotion and purpose. They can impel us to act. We wake up and call a loved one to make sure they’re okay. Or we wake up and resolve to try something new or to shy away from something else.

We use the same word – dream, חלום – to mean both the imagery of our sleeptime and our most deeply held desires.

Of course, some dreams are exactly lifesized. For instance, Ari, our 7-year-old. On Tuesday he, along with our babysitter Amy, took out the compost. Then Tuesday night he had a dream. In his dream, he, along with our babysitter Amy, took out the compost.

Some dreams do not look like your life, but are instead a portrait of your emotional state. My own dreams are moody and full of emotional content, typically anxiety. If I had been Jacob in the Parashat Vayetzei, which we talked about two weeks ago, it would have gone like this:

And Irwin took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head, and lay down to sleep. And he dreamed and behold there was a ladder set up on the earth and the top of it reached to heaven; and the angels of God were going up and down upon it. And Irwin looked down and realized he was severely underdressed for the occasion. And behold, the Lord stood beside him and spoke to him, while Irwin furtively looked around trying to figure out where he'd put his nice clothes. This thought led Irwin to realize that he also had no idea where he had left the children. And Irwin chewed on this worry, and as he chewed he became aware that most of his teeth were loose.

That’s how it would have gone. Yes, it’s self-involved. But Joseph’s dreams were no less self-involved. Do you remember what his dreams were? He and his brothers collecting sheaves of wheat and the brothers’ sheaves bowing down to Joseph’s. Then a second dream: the sun, moon and eleven stars bowing before him. These dreams are so superficial, even his family understood them. His brothers already hated him, and now were thoroughly outraged. Even Jacob disapproved of Joseph revealing these self-serving fantasies.

Now: were these dreams prophecies?

Talmud says dreams are one sixtieth part prophecy. This sounds discouraging – don’t even bother listening to your dreams, Talmud seems to say. Perhaps this was an effort to prevent Jews from seeking out interpreters of dreams – say, astrologers and psychiatrists – instead of relying on God.

On the other hand, one sixtieth, though tiny, is not nothing. One sixtieth is a formulaic number in our tradition, sort of like 40 days and 40 nights. It suggests something which, although infinitesimal, is nonetheless meaningful. For instance, under Jewish law, if one sixtieth part of a dish is unkosher, the whole dish is rendered treyf. So one sixtieth means something. One sixtieth can affect things. One sixtieth of your dream is meaningful prophecy. But how do you know which is the right sixtieth?

Unlike the rest of us, the reliability of whose dreams is officially limited to one sixtieth, Joseph seems to get a perfect score. All his dreams came true. So did they come true because they were prophecies? Or were they desires that Joseph made come true?

That is how I like to think of Joseph. Torah presents him as the spoiled favorite. But on the credit side of the ledger is that he had ten older brothers who hated him so deeply they would actually plot to kill him, so one must cut him some slack. He was the clever kid, the talented one, the gifted child, in what Torah really does describe as a family of brutes. Yes, he was vain, but having that much self-esteem while living among those who hate you might be considered a kind of resistance, no?

Now the story of Joseph being sold into slavery is confounding. First the brothers want to kill him. Then instead they put him in a pit to sell him to the Ishmaelites. Then they take a lunch break. They come back and find Joseph gone. We know he was taken by Midianites to be sold into slavery in Egypt. Arguably the brothers don’t know this. They actually do think he’s dead at the hand of some beast. One of our sages points out that the traders would not have taken Joseph if he or anyone else had voiced opposition. If there were relatives who would come after him, the merchants couldn’t have counted on having free and clear title to their new property, and would not be able to resell him with a credible warranty. So why didn’t Joseph object? And of course, if he’d put up a loud fight when being nabbed by the Midianites, you’d expect his brothers to have heard it at their picnic. But no. So Joseph didn’t object and he didn’t scream.

I think Joseph had many more dreams than Torah tells us. Whether actual prophecy or pure desire, they were dreams that said get out. Get away. Get free. Did it ever occur to any of us that perhaps on some level Joseph staged his own abduction? When Jacob gave him the errand that took him to his brothers, he immediately said hineni – here I am – just like Abraham in the story of the Binding of Isaac. It is an expression of total willingness, almost eagerness, even though we know from Torah that nothing good seems to come from jumping up and saying hineni.

“Get free,” said Joseph’s dreams. Find an exit. Start over. New land. New language. New customs. Get out. And he did.

Did Joseph tell his brothers his dreams because he was clueless? Or did he realize that the very act of telling of those dreams would set their fulfillment in motion; it would trigger a chain of events resulting in his own exile and his own liberation?

Yes, this is a very romantic idea. The story is a fine one as written. But I’ve always felt bad about Joseph, and haven’t liked to hear him talked about as arrogant or to watch him suffer. So this year I’m telling myself the story this way. Joseph staged it. Joseph escaped. Joseph did have dreams, but he took action to make sure they came true.

Perhaps dreams are what you make of them. Perhaps that is the nature of prophecy. Prophecy is not the gift of seeing the future, but the ability to recognize possibility in the present. And then it is up to each of us to seize the day, seize the dream, and act. What are your dreams? Have you seized them? Have you acted on them? Is it really too late?

“What will become of his dreams now,” his brothers snicker. Little did they know that dreams are far more powerful than plots. Dreams are not to be messed with.

And so, knowing this, מה יהיו חלומותיך,what will become of your dreams?