The days are growing shorter, the nights are getting longer, and lately I’m finding myself ready to snuggle down in bed for the night by 5:00 PM. As we approach the darkest time of the year, the Torah seems to beckon us towards sleep through a string of stories portraying the magical power of dreams. The Torah portions we read this time of year tell us of the dreams of Jacob, Joseph and Pharaoh.
So often in our culture we dismiss dreams as frivolous or unimportant. They often contain strange images, hard-to-decipher messages, and at first glance may seem to have nothing at all to do with the reality of our lives. Shaped as we are by Western culture and its emphasis on linearity, rationality and all things tangible and quantifiable, we tend to resist the dreamworld’s vivid yet often confusing communications. And yet, there is a profound power in dreams. Within our dreams are clues that can help guide our future or heal our past, sparks of possibility with the potential to reshape our world.
Dreams are as complicated as they are instructive. In dreams we detach from our conscious waking life and enter the realm of the unconscious and the imagination. In a dream-state, a different kind of information becomes available to us as our bodies and brains rest and we are able to integrate what confronts us during our waking hours.
“What the brain is doing at all times is trying to construct a model of the world around us from the best input it has,” says Benjamin Baird, a researcher at the Center for Sleep and Consciousness at University of Wisconsin-Madison. “When we’re awake the input comes from our environment. But when we’re asleep … the input comes from within.”
Jewish tradition suggests that there is something even deeper at work in our dreams. The Talmud teaches that dreams are one-sixtieth of prophecy. Maimonides elaborates on this in his Guide for the Perplexed, writing that through dreams the imaginative faculty is awakened, without which prophecy is impossible. Dreams soften the barrier between us and God, allowing God to pour into us.
Take the dreamers of the Torah. We read of Jacob dreaming of angels flying up and down as God speaks to him of the blessed future to come for him and his family. Having fled for his life after stealing his brother’s blessing, perhaps this dream provided the message of support he needed to be able to carry on from this shameful point in his life and work towards healing with his brother. We read of Joseph’s dream, in which his brother’s sheaves of wheat bow down to his sheaf. Perhaps this dream, coming at a time when Joseph was scorned by his brothers, provided him reassurance that things would not always be this way. And we read of Pharaoh’s dream of seven healthy cows followed by seven gaunt cows standing on the banks of the Nile. Perhaps this dream was one in which Pharaoh began to see that no matter how much power and resources he hoarded, the future was out of his control.
In each case, the dreamer received a message from beyond their own conscious mind with vital clues about what was to come. Maybe dreams come to complete or balance the dominant narrative of our lives. Dreams contain the seeds of redemption, which only become available when we let down our guard.
Dreams may convey a palpable feeling, but their messages are not always as clear as those in the Torah. It takes time and a willingness to sit with a dream in order to receive its wisdom. The Talmud teaches that a dream uninterpreted is like a letter left unread. Our dreams are like letters sent to us in a foreign language that we must work to understand, learning the syntax of their symbols and developing an ear for their messages.
“Dreams are an essential human experience” writes Rabbi Michael Dolgin. “They tell us what we desire, what we lack, what we need, and what we should work toward.”
Just as Judaism provides us with a weekly rhythm of work and rest punctuated by Shabbat, time to sleep and to dream may be just as vital. Especially in these times, when our daily life is dominated by stories of peril and danger, we must cultivate the capacity to listen for the small signs that point us through the challenge. Sleep not only replenishes our energy to struggle another day, it allows us to dream and, in so doing, to receive hints of the future that is yet to be.
This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on Nov. 27, 2021. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.