Jacob had nothing but a rock to lay his head upon, yet he dreamed of God speaking words of comfort and inspiration to him. Pharaoh had the finest of Egypt’s finery to rest his head upon, yet he dreamed not one but two dreams that troubled his soul. What can we learn from these famous dreamers in Torah? What did they share in common?
To begin, both men were dreaming of the future.
Today, thanks to Sigmund Freud, we tend to think that dreams are about the past. Freud believed that dreams help us to relive and relieve our past problems. Over the last century, Freudian psychotherapy has proven effective for many people, and Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams” has been a pillar of his psychotherapy.
But the dreams of both Jacob and Pharaoh should broaden our perspective on dreams. Their dreams helped them to relieve problems they would confront in the future. Unlike anything else we experience in life, dreams are an arena for contending with life’s problems and resolving them — problems not only from the past, but remarkably problems also from the future.
Like Pharaoh in our Torah portion Miketz, we may be unable to understand them. Indeed dreams may be exceedingly difficult to understand when they trouble our soul as they troubled Pharaoh’s soul. In all circumstances, we should seek to interpret our dreams through the dream interpreter par excellence as cited in Miketz: not Joseph, but God.
When asked to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph responds, “God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace.”
Our dreams can answer many questions. What is the “answer of peace” that God is conveying to me? What mitzvot can I perform that will relieve the anxiety of some dreams? What mitzvot can I perform that will fulfill the beauty and promise of other dreams? What wrongs have I done in the past, like Jacob, that God will now guide me to a better, more spiritual path in the future, so that I can be transformed into Israel who accepts life’s struggles and sanctifies them?
“Uncertainty is inevitable, worry is optional.” I recently learned this wonderful aphorism. No moment worries the soul more than when we lay our head upon the pillow with our thoughts dark as night and our hearts heavy as the stone beneath Jacob’s head. Hamlet sought refuge from the worrisome reverie raging in his head with a prayer, “To sleep, perchance to dream.” He poeticized a great teaching of Torah. Whether they are worries from the past or worries about the future, the Torah makes worry minimal thanks to dreams and the guidance they offer from God.
Judaism respects the past, but Judaism reveres the future. Only in the future can hope be born, possibilities realized and dreams come true. Imagine Judah Maccabee and his followers reading this Torah portion Miketz almost 2,200 years ago when they struggled against foreign domination and religious oppression. Their enemy was a mighty empire. Their own numbers were few. Both the past and the present would have told Judah and his followers to surrender. But the future beckoned them to fight and prevail. Only in the future could they envision victory, take back the Temple and rededicate it to God.
A better life always awaits when Torah guides us and teaches us that dreams are a gateway to God.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)