Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Meaning of Dreams

Gen. 40:5-8
5. And both of them dreamed a dream, each his own dream in one night, each according to the interpretation of his dream, the butler and the baker to the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison house.
6. And Joseph came to them in the morning and saw them, and, behold, they were dejected.
7. So he asked Pharaoh’s officers who were with him in the custody of his lord’s house, saying, Why do you look so sad today?
8. And they said to him, We dreamed a dream, but there is no interpreter of it. And Joseph said to them, Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell it to me, please.

As the story continues we discover that Joseph holds a particular view of dreams: each dream has one interpretation known only to God and, perhaps, his wise diviners, and bad dreams portend bad outcomes in real life. I call this the fatalistic view of dreams. The fate of the dreamer is determined by his dream.

On the whole, the sages of the Talmud hold a more opportunistic view of dreams. If a person is troubled by a bad dream or even a dream of uncertain meaning, he should turn his dream into something positive. The first step is to pray, as in these words:

Berakhot 55b (adapted from the Soncino edition)
Sovereign of the Universe, I am yours and my dreams are yours. I have dreamed a dream and I do not know what it is. Whether I have dreamed about myself… or I have dreamed about others, if they are good dreams, confirm them and reinforce them like the dreams of Joseph, and if they need a healing, heal them, as the waters of Marah [were healed] by the hand of Moses…. As you turned the curse of the wicked Balaam into a blessing, so turn all my dreams into what is good for me.

Actually the Talmud offers a variety of opinions about the nature and importance of dreams. For example, in one lengthy passage a host of dreams are listed by their subject matter and interpretations (usually positive) are offered for them (Berakhot 56b-57b). On the other hand, R. Meir is quoted to say that dreams are of no consequence, neither raising nor lowering one’s state in life (Horayot 13b; cf. Gittin 52a). Likewise, a bad dream does not mean that the person who dreams it is bad; in fact, according to R. Huna just the opposite is true (Berakhot 55b). Dreams are never completely fulfilled, and all dreams are partly nonsense (Berakhot 55a). A welcome touch of realism.

Rather than seek an interpretation as such for every dream, a person should look for a beneficial response to his dream. Often Scripture verses are suggested to this end, as demonstrated by another passage:

Berakhot 56b (adapted from the Soncino edition)
R. Joshua b. Levi said: If one sees a river in his dreams, he should rise early and say: Behold I will extend peace to her like a river (Isa. 66:12), before another verse occurs to him, For he will come in like a narrow river (Isa. 59:19). If one dreams of a bird he should rise early and say: As hovering birds, so the Lord of Hosts will shield (Isa. 31:5), before another verse occurs to him, As a bird that wanders from her nest, so is a man that wanders from his place (Prov. 27:8)…. If one sees grapes in his dream, he should rise early and say: I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness (Hos. 9:10), before another verse occurs to him, Their grapes are grapes of poison (Deut. 32:32). If one dreams of a mountain, he should rise early and say: How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger of good news (Isa. 52:7), before another verse occurs to him, For the mountains I will lift up weeping and wailing (Jer. 9:9 MT). If one dreams of a horn he should rise early and say: And it shall come about in that day that a great horn shall be blown (Isa. 27:13, heralding return from exile), before another verse occurs to him, Blow the horn in Gibeah (Hos. 5:8, warning of destruction). If one sees a dog in his dream, he should rise early and say: But against any of the people of Israel a dog shall not sharpen its tongue (Exod. 11:7), before another verse occurs to him, And the dogs are greedy (Isa. 56:11)…. If one dreams of shaving, he should rise early and say: And Joseph shaved himself and changed his garment (Gen. 41:14), before another verse occurs to him, If I am shaved, then my strength will leave me (Judg. 16:17). If one sees a well in his dream, he should rise early and say: A well of living waters (Song of Songs 4:15), before another verse occurs to him, As a well keeps fresh its waters, so she keeps fresh her wickedness (Jer. 6:7). If one sees a reed, he should rise early and say, A bruised reed he will not break (Isa. 42:3), before another verse occurs to him, Behold, you rely on the staff of this bruised reed (Isa.36:6).

In other words, every dream has more than one interpretation, so we are free to choose the most positive. Dreams do not portend our fates; they merely disturb the restfulness of our nights without obvious cause or purpose, human or divine. The best we can do is respond to them in a way that will offset the frustration or fear or guilt they often bring us.

Above all, it is important to know and accept that we are not responsible for the content of our dreams. Even dreams that pretend to relate to something in our life, whether family or work or travel, rarely portray accurate situations. Dreams are largely divorced from reality, and that is where they should stay.

Neither are we able to control in advance the content of our dreams. We may wish for sweet dreams, but some of us would prefer to have no dreams at all. Dream on.


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