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This winter vacation, I slept more than I had in recent memory. Heading to Upstate New York with my wife and in-laws, I excelled at doing nothing. Long evenings of sleep, repeated naps during the day, and lots of time curled up and reading by the fire. But if asked what I dreamt about, I couldn’t tell you. I slept so soundly that I could hardly remember a single dream.
Personally rejuvenating (and, frankly, wonderful) though this time of slumber was, our tradition suggests that it also contained unfulfilled potential. Millennia before Freudian dream analysis, the Book of Genesis shows us the possibility that comes from remembering and reflecting upon our dreams – fittingly in the last Torah portion that we read this past secular year (Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1 – 44:17).
Pharaoh’s iconic dream of seven abundant and seven lean cows, seven ample and seven withered stalks of grain, stands in our tradition as a reminder of what dreams can come to signify, if only we are attuned to them – and take time to discern their meaning. The Torah notes vatipaem rucho, Pharaoh’s spirit was broken (Radak) or beaten down (Rashi) – or simply altogether shaken by what he dreamt.
In his dreams, the Pharaoh saw something disturbing – but did not know what it meant. In humility, he called upon magicians to help him make sense of it, ultimately calling upon a person who was known for his powerful dreams and, at that time, similarly downtrodden in spirit: Joseph.
Miraculously (or ingeniously), Joseph is able to parse the meaning of Pharaoh’s dream, suggesting that seven years of abundance will be followed by seven years of famine in Egypt. Yet in contrast to other contemporary reflections on this passage, I find Pharaoh, not Joseph, to be the most impressive figure in the story.
Unlike the Pharaoh depicted in the Book of Exodus, this earlier leader is remarkable in his awareness of dreams and awareness of self. He lives with humility and a willingness to seek the guidance of others – and a readiness to implement new plans of action based on the information and guidance he receives. He is surprisingly sensitive and responsive, not only during his waking hours, but even in repose.
What a model for us, especially as we return to work, school, and everyday life from the time of détente this winter. Many of us caught up on sleep. Some of us remember a dream or two (or more – or not). Yet it is the art of reflection that our tradition extols. We are shown what can happen when we sleep to dream, dream to reflect, reflect to plan, and plan to act – and then follow through. We are called to take seriously the stirrings of our spirits. Even if our eyes are closed, our minds and hearts are still at work.
Now better rested, I hope to remember more dreams – and heed those that carry within them the valence to upset, stir, or inspire the spirit. Rest is not an end in itself, but a means to more discerning actions in our waking hours.
The photo, “Purple dream” is by Wajahat Mahmood and is used here in accordance with its Creative Commons license. This article was adapted from a D’var Torah.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.