Thursday, January 05, 2006

Miketz (Rambam)

On Prophecy and Dreams

The last five Torah portions have all begun with dreams or visions: from Rebekka’s vision, in which the struggle of the infants in her womb is seen as emblematic of future conflicts; to Jacob’s vision of the ladder and the angels; his encounter with “a man” (who is really a Divine emissary, or perhaps the heavenly embodiment of Esau) at the Yabbok crossing (explained by Rambam in Guide II.42 as occurring in a prophetic dream-like vision); through Joseph’s dream of the sheaves and stars, prophetic of his relation with his brothers; and Pharaoh’s dream, also prophetic of the future, whose interpretation elevated Joseph to greatness. In all these, the dream is seen as the vehicle used to convey a highly significant message.

Freud saw dreams as originating in the individual’s subconscious, often disclosing suppressed emotional conflicts which it so-to-speak “encoded” in obscure symbolic form; their decoding served as a major diagnostic tool. Jung saw them, in many cases, as universal archetypes. Today, some neurological scientists see dreams as so much chaotic stuff, static electricity from the brain that surfaces in the relaxed state of sleep in a jumbled, incoherent manner. But for Judaism, dreams have traditionally been seen as highly significant, and in some cases as a form of prophecy. Indeed, Hazal state that “a dream is a sixtieth part of prophecy.” Even the dreams of an ordinary person may be, so to speak, a vehicle used by the Almighty to transmit important life messages, using the unconscious state, when the active, purposive, this-worldly will relaxes its grip over the person and the soul may surface in a more pristine state, to convey these.

I had originally hoped to present a full exposition of Maimonides’ doctrine of prophecy during the course of these parshiyot. However, the combination of my son’s wedding, my long-gestating study of sexuality and the zeitgeist, and the feeling that I could not allow Hanukkah to pass without some relevant comment from the thought of “the Great Eagle,” threw my schedule off kilter. Hence, I will suffice with only a few lines on this subject, which I present here as material for reflection, and we shall return to the subject at greater length next week. I quote from Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah (“Fundaments of Torah”), Chapter 7:

2. The prophets are on various different levels. Just as in the area of wisdom, there us one who is wiser than his fellow, so in prophecy there is one prophet greater than his another. But all of them do not see their prophetic vision, save in a dream, in a night vision, or during the day when a deep sleep falls upon them. As is said ,”In a vision I shall make myself known to him, in a dream I shall speak with him” [Num 12:6]….

(to be continued)


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