Monday, December 25, 2006

Miketz (Rashi)

For more teachings on this portion, see the Archives for January 2006.

Dreams and Their Solution

As the Shabbat of this parsha has already passed, I will suffice with a few comments on one Rashi passage from this portion:

Gen 41:8: “And Pharaoh told them his dream, and there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh.” Rashi: “And there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh.” That their voice did not enter into his ears, and he did not have any satisfaction from their interpretation. For they said to him: you shall procreate seven daughters, and you shall bury seven daughters.

On the level of the text, Rashi’s point of departure is the seemingly extraneous word “to Pharaoh”; the same meaning could have been conveyed by saying “none could interpret them” (Incidentally, there is an unexplained discrepancy here between the singular form of חלומו, “his dream,” and the plural form of the pronoun used to refer to it, אותם, “them,” as if in anticipation of what Joseph notes in his interpretation, namely, that the two dreams are really one (41:32): different symbols are used to reinforce what is structurally the same dream. Ibn Ezra, the grammarian among the classical commentators, does not address this issue; Hizkuni, and especially Sforno, see this as a hint that the magicians saw the dreams as being entirely separate, and this was what misled them—but this theory fails to account for the word “to Pharaoh”).

Rashi observes that, while the court magicians came up with a plausible “decoding” of the dream as such, it was not appropriate for him, and did not satisfy him. By this remark, he may suggest a kind of interaction or symbiosis between the dreamer and the interpreter. While the dreamer may not understand the dream on his own, he intuitively knows whether a given interpretation fits or not. This, as opposed to that view, current both in ancient cultures and in certain schools and circles to this day, according to which dream interpretation is an objective, universal skill, dreams being a kind of universal language in which there is a direct, one-to-one correspondence between each symbol in the dream and its meaning. This is the approach taken by the classical Talmudic sugya on dreams, in Berakhot 55a-57b. Rashi (here following the midrash at Gen. Rab. 89.6) rejects this view, and suggests that the dream has a unique meaning based on the personal, inner world of the dreamer.

It is interesting to compare this to the modern psychoanalytic approach to dreams, according to which dreams come from the individual’s unconscious world and function as a kind of message or discourse the person holds with his unconscious while sleeping. The contents of dreams reflect emotions, impulses and wishes hidden deep within the person, that are perhaps too dangerous for the person to acknowledge or even consciously know of, even within himself—but properly understood they may help a person to gain knowledge of himself, and of things that have been deeply troubling him of which he was not even aware. Or, as the Talmud says at the start of the above-mentioned sugya, an uninterpreted dream is like an unread letter. Because dreams originate in the person’s own psyche, he will intuitively recognize whether a given interpretation is correct not.

Thus, Sigmund Freud, in his classical Interpretation of Dreams (written exactly one hundred years ago), states that the first and foremost thing in dream-work—which, again, is based upon interaction and dialogue between the patent and the analyst, perhaps like the ancient dreamer and the dream interpreter?—is that the dreamer articulate his associations with the particular things seen in the dream, the feeling state evoked, etc., in order to decipher davka its personal, private meaning. Indeed, this is a basic principle of the therapeutic process generally: that the patient must come to his own realization and understanding and insight regarding his life. If these are spoon-fed to him by the therapist, when he is not yet prepared to accept them, they will simply not be internalized by him and hence not be effective.

At first glance, this approach seems to sharply differ from the traditional religious view, stated explicitly in various places in the Bible, that dreams come from God, as a kind of personal prophetic message. “Dream is a sixtieth part of prophecy.” (Indeed, Rambam sees dreams and prophecy as closely related, stating that, with the single exception of Moses, all the prophets received their prophecies in the dream state). Certainly, all those dreams described at any length in the Bible—Jacob’s vision of the ladder, Joseph’s dreams, those of Pharaoh’s cup-bearer and baker as well as of Pharaoh himself, the dream of the Midianite overheard by Gideon (Judges 7:13-15), and those of Nebuchadnezzar interpreted by Daniel—are seen as prophetic on either the personal or national level. In each case, it is clearly stated that it comes from God: when Joseph is seen as having special talent to do so, he demurs that “do not dream-solutions belong to God” (Gen 40:8); or “Not from me! God will answer to Pharaoh’s welfare” (Gen 41:16); or Daniel declares that “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and has made known to the king what will be at the end of days. This is your dream…” (Daniel 2:28).

But if we say that God is not only transcendent, “in heaven,” but also resides deep within man’s soul, his nefesh elohit, perhaps the two approaches are not so different after all: dreams originate in a hidden, spiritual place within man, couched in a concealed, subtle, arcane idiom.

It is also interesting that Yaakov, Yosef and their families knew what the dreams meant instantly, without outside intervention. It is only the non-Jewish characters in the Bible—the baker, the cup-bearer, Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar—who seem to require external help to interpret their dreams. And indeed, one is tempted to add, the master dream-interpreter from Vienna was also Jewish (even if highly assimilated, and even tyrannically anti-religious within his own home; the much-vaunted tolerance of liberal rationalists of his ilk seems to be limited to those who think like themselves).


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