I had a dream shortly after I arrived in Los Angeles in 1981 to study at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s (HUC-JIR) School of Jewish Communal Service.
I revisit that dream frequently, discovering new meanings as my self-awareness evolves. In the dream, I stood on the bimah in HUC-JIR’s Hilborn Synagogue and was bathed in a great light from above. That light’s meaning evolves as I do.
This week’s Torah portion begins at the end of Jacob’s journey, as he settles in the land of Canaan. We are soon introduced to Jacob’s son, Joseph, and to Joseph’s dreams. We remember that Jacob, too, was a dreamer.
In his book “The History of Last Night’s Dream,” Rodger Kamenetz distinguishes between the dreams of father and son. Jacob’s dream comes as he lies on the ground, a rock for a pillow. He dreams of angels going up and down a ladder. When he wakes, Jacob is overcome with awe. Jacob’s dream, according to Kamenetz, is a “Revelation Dream.”
Joseph’s dreams, in contrast, are “Interpreted Dreams,” Kamenetz writes. First sheaves of wheat and then the sun, moon and stars bow down to an upright Joseph. The biblical text views these dreams as indications that Joseph assumes his superiority to his brothers and parents. They are interpretations based on waking life and not thresholds to the Divine.
According to Kamenetz, “Jacob’s dream reveals the heavenly realm, while Joseph’s dreams appear as puzzles to be solved.”
In “The Five Books of Moses,” Robert Alter differentiates between the two kinds of dreams: “The dreams in the Joseph story reflect its more secular orientation. … They are not direct messages from God, [as] in the dream-visions … to Jacob. … [T]hey require human interpretation … and they may also express the hidden desires and self-perception of the dreamer.” Joseph’s understanding of his dreams appears ego-driven, while Jacob’s dreams direct him toward awe of God. This apprehension of God is what Rashi says, in a commentary on Ecclesiastes, is the purpose of a dream.
These dreams presage very different journeys. Jacob’s journey is one of ascent, until, in this week’s parasha, he comes to dwell (vayeshev) in Canaan. In the parasha that begins with Jacob’s dream, we read many repetitions of the word “ lift.” Jacob lifts his eyes a number of times. He lifts his voice after meeting his beloved, Rachel. When leaving Haran to return to Canaan, he lifts his wives and children onto camels. Finally, as he prepares to return to his father’s land, he lifts his eyes and sees his brother, Esau.
Joseph’s journey is altogether different. His dreams begin with him standing tall and others bowing down. Alter describes the young Joseph as self-absorbed and ego-driven. He needs to be taken down. And down he goes, journeying in the opposite direction of his father. Joseph goes down into the pit, down into Egypt, down into slavery and down into the prison where he remained for years until summoned to interpret Pharaoh’s dream. But even after Joseph’s rise to power in Pharaoh’s court there was a final descent. This brings him into a different relationship with his dreams and with his family’s destiny. Preparing to reveal himself to his brothers, Joseph secludes himself and begins to sob. His anguished cries are heard throughout Egypt. All the pretenses of his ego and his success are stripped away. With this final descent, Joseph is changed from the arrogant boy Alter describes, to a man of God. He reveals himself to his brother and recognizes the hand of God in the family story and the “extraordinary deliverance” that came about as a result of his descent into Egypt.
When I first had that dream in 1981, I interpreted it as a sign that I should have a bat mitzvah. So on my 33rd birthday, I stood on the bimah of my dream and haltingly chanted the story of crossing the Red Sea. Twenty years later, the light on the bimah led me to the rabbinate, one of the most meaningful and fulfilling journeys of my life. But now, having lived the dream for these many years, I see a further possibility. The light that shines on me in that dream is an invitation to dwell (vayeshev) on holy ground and seek the gate of heaven. It invites me to bask in the light of holiness as I settle into a relationship with the Divine.
May you all bask in the holy lights of Chanukah and find nourishment and blessing. May you dwell in the land of your dreams. And may they be a gate to heaven.
Rabbi Anne Brener, a psychotherapist and spiritual counselor, is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah” (Jewish Lights, 1993 & 2001). She is on the faculty of The Academy for Jewish Religion, California, and the advisory board of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Medicine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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