Parshat Vayyeshev, Genesis 37:1-40:23
“You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one”
Embedded in John Lennon’s idealistic song is a little dig at dreamers: The line suggests that to call somebody a dreamer is a put-down. Those who pursue dreams, who chase after a seemingly impossible vision, are unrealistic. They are fools.
Bereshit (the Book of Genesis) features several dreams: A few are Jacob’s; a few more are courtesy of his son, Joseph; and still more belong to Joseph’s jailed companions. These dreams all move the narrative forward, and in the case of Joseph, his own dreams (and his boasting thereof) cause such aggravation that his brothers plot to kill him, resulting in a tale so sublime that it found its way to the Broadway stage.
As the brothers are conspiring against Joseph, they declare (Gen. 37:19), “Hinneh ba’al ha-halomot halazeh ba.” “Here comes that dreamer!” You can hear in the Hebrew how they are almost spitting these words out with rage. “Venihyeh ma yihyu halomotav!” “We’ll see what comes of his dreams.”
Rashi tells us that the latter statement is a challenge: We’ll see whose dreams come true, yours or ours! If they had succeeded in killing Joseph, of course, his dreams would not have come true. (Spoiler alert: The brothers’ attempts to foil Joseph fail; the latter’s dreams are eventually fulfilled.)
But in general, dreaming is not a zero-sum game. In an extended passage in Massekhet (Tractate) Berakhot (55a), the Talmud sees dreams as containing both some reality and some meaninglessness. “Neither a good dream nor a bad dream is wholly fulfilled,” says Rav Hisda. And so too for us today: We all dream, and we often look to our dreams for fulfillment.
Of course, there are dreams and there are “dreams.” We often speak in clichéd terms of “hopes and dreams,” although really those are only our conscious hopes. The “dreamer” put-down in Lennon’s “Imagine” refers to one whose hopes are unrealistic: those who picture an end to all war, a comprehensive solution to world hunger and poverty, universal access to clean water and decent education and so forth.
But I would posit that those are the people among us, the “dreamers,” who ultimately move us forward as a society. They are the optimists, and I count myself among them. When it comes to the future, I would rather not succumb to the fear and hopelessness in which many trade; I prefer to keep dreaming.
I prefer to dream that tomorrow will be better than today; that terrorists will lay down their knives and suicide vests; that we learn to manage our natural resources so that we preserve God’s Creation; that racism and anti-Semitism and hatred of all kinds will disappear from our world; that no child will go to bed hungry; that no family will need to seek refuge from warring factions in Syria. And so forth.
There are no easy solutions to these problems. But if we cease to dream, if we manage only the symptoms and not the causes, if we are so distracted by cat videos and media circuses that we fail to confront the most pressing challenges of our time, then I am certain that nothing will change for the better.
And those of us who look toward the better world of the future will lead us there. Speedily, in our day. Even as Rav Hisda’s tempered words of caution continue to resonate, we cannot give up those dreams. Joseph’s dreams came true; let us hope that ours will too.
Rabbi Seth Adelson is the spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Shalom. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.