Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Miketz - Zot Hanukkah (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at January and December 2006, December 2007, and January 2009.

“To Sleep, Perchance to Dream”

The latter half of Bereshit, the Book of Genesis, is filled with portentous dreams and visions—beginning with the oracle to Rivkah explaining the struggling of the infants in her womb; through Yaakov’s dream-vision at Beth-el of the angels ascending and descending and his dream-like encounter with the mysterious figure at the crossing of the stream Yabok; through Joseph’s own dreams, of the sheaves and the stars, portending future greatness; the dreams of the baker and the cup-bearer which earned him a reputation as a dream interpreter that ultimately brought him to the second most powerful position in the entire kingdom; and concluding with Pharaoh’s fateful dreams about the future famine. How are we to understand the significance of dreams? Do dreams have an innate, objective meaning? Do they reflect an immutable Divine decree? Do they predict the future, or contain other important messages, albeit imbedded in obscure, puzzling language and visual symbols? Or, as some neuro-scientists suggest today, are they no more than so much static noise produced by random brain waves while we sleep? The Talmud devotes several thick pages (at b. Berakhot 55a-57b) to various aspects of dreams, including a key to deciphering many specific dream symbols. One answer to these questions is provided by the following brief saying at b. Berakhot 55b:

Rabbi Eleazar said: From whence do we know that all dreams go after the mouth? As is said, ”And it came to pass, as he solved for us, so it was” (Gen 41:13). Ravva said: And this, provided that he interprets in accordance with the nature of the dream, as said “each one he resolved according to his dream” (ibid.,v. 12).

The basic idea implicit here is that the “meaning” of a dream is not based upon an external, objective code with only one fixed meaning. Rather, its meaning is somehow determined through the very process of attempting to interpret it, be that process undertaken by the dreamer himself or by some outside expert—whether he is, as in the ancient world, a professional dream-interpreter such as Joseph (whose “Egyptian” name in Gen 41:45, which is really Aramaic, tzofnat pane’ah, means “he who deciphers hidden things”), or, as in sophisticated modern urban culture, a psychiatrist. Hence, the dream is not some awful oracle, predicting what will happen in the future no matter what—as in the dream of Oedipus’ parents, that the newborn infant would grow up to slay his father and sleep with his mother—but a pointer, a window to the world of the unknown, vague and nebulous and malleable, much like the dream itself.

Hence, there are a number of suggestions in the Talmudic dream tradition as to how one can affect the interpretation and consequences of the dream. One idea is that the first idea that comes into one’s head upon awakening—specifically, the first biblical verse that comes to mind in connection with the symbols seen in the dream—affects its meaning: if a positive verse, then the dream will be played out for good; if evil, then for evil. We shall quote one of numerous examples, this one related to the opening section of this week’s parashah, also brought in the “dream sugya,” at Berakhot 56b:

Our Rabbis taught: One who sees a haircut in his dream should rise and say, “And he cut his hair and changed his raiment” [Gen 41:14—referring to Joseph’s preparation for appearing before Pharaoh], before there comes to him another verse, “Should my hair be cut then my strength would depart me” [Judges 16:17; Samson (foolishly!) revealing the true source of his strength to Delilah].

Elsewhere in the sugya we are told a rather amusing story, in which Abbaye and Rabba have a series of identical dreams, and each goes to the same dream interpreter to “decode” it: the one pays him generously, and the other does not pay him at all. The one who paid the soothsayer was given positive, upbeat interpretations; the one who did not was delivered dire predictions of disaster. The story, besides saying something about human greed, reflects the belief that the meaning of a dream is nevertheless affected by the interpretation given.

Two more means of changing the consequences of a dream, to assure that it will omen good rather than ill, are mentioned in the Talmud. One is the practice institution of Hatavat Halom (ibid., 55b): if one is deeply disturbed by a dream, he is to gather three people, making a kind of miniature court or Bet Din, and together with them recites a series of verses having the key words: הפך (“turn about”), פדה (“redeem”) and שלום (“peace”). A second method of countering the negative “fall-out” from a frightening dream is to pray that the dream be for good and not evil when the priests bless the people; such a prayer, complete with suitable biblical verses, appears in many traditional prayer-books and High Holiday Mahzorim.

The point of all this, is that there is somehow a back-and-forth interaction between the dreamer and his dream. The Talmud seems to reject a rigidly deterministic view, in which the dream is seen as an unalterable oracle or prophecy from God, in which one is shown one’s fate in symbolic language. Is part of this, inter alia, a rejection of the determinism, at times fatalism, of the cultures among whom Israel lived (the classic example being the Greco-Roman culture, with its concepts of unalterable fate or destiny, moira, exemplified in the example of Oedipus mentioned earlier). Judaism, by contrast, celebrates human freedom and choice, behirah hofshit.

One more thought. Are dreams a simple message from God, or is one often shown therein “the thoughts of one’s heart”? Are dreams a way of prodding a person to recognize hitherto repressed truths about himself and his own desires and fantasies—things which have perhaps been suppressed because they are too dangerous to confront openly, and thus are encoded in dream language? Are they a “window to the unconscious”? While the latter idea is a central theme of Freudian dream analysis, it was already expressed by the Talmud 1500 years earlier:

Rabbi Yonatan said: A man is shown naught but the thoughts of his own heart, as is said, “You, O King [Nebuchadnezzar], on your bed thoughts came to you…” [Daniel 2:29].

Indeed, perhaps this idea is far older. Already in the story of Joseph’s dreams we have his father’s rebuke: “Will we come, I and your mother and your brothers, to bow down before you!!?” (Gen 37:10)—as if to say, “Is that what you wish in your secret heart?!” And, if this dream reflected his own true wishes, and not merely some external oracle over which he had no control, his brothers’ hatred “for his dreams and for his words” (ibid., v. 8) also make even more sense.

Nevertheless, we must not overlook the other aspect of dreams: the objective lexicon of dream symbols that occupies much of our sugya, as well as the prophetic aspect, of dreams being what Hazal, again in this sugya, call “sixtieth part of prophecy.” One need look no further than this week’s parashah, in which Pharaoh’s dreams predict the coming famine, and act as a warning and catalyst for his taking the necessary steps, with Joseph’s sage counsel, to enable his country to survive this natural cataclysm.

(NOTE: For an excellent, highly insightful study of the Talmudic dream sugya, see Philip S. Alexander, “Bavli Berakhot 55a-57b: The Talmudic Dreambook in Context,” Journal of Jewish Studies 46 (1995), 230-248)

POSTSCRIPT: Hanukkah and Psalms

Psalm 30 is recited on Hanukkah because of its title or heading: מזמור שיר חנוכת הבית לדוד, “A Psalm, a song, for the dedication of the House, of David.” But what, if any, is the relation of its contents to the meaning and contents of Hanukkah? We must bear in mind what I said in my recent piece on Hanukah: that Hanukkah, both in its historical contents and in its symbolic meaning as a mid-winter festival, focuses on the emergence from darkness to light, from somnolence and near-death to life and vitality, from oppression to freedom—and thus, from lamenting to dancing, from sack-cloth to girding [garments of] joy. While there are many psalms that depict the author-petitioner in dire straits, praying to God and being redeemed, that process is particularly dramatic in this psalm; and, what for me is the most interesting aspect, it portrays a person who, before all this happens, is immersed in complacency and self-satisfaction:—“I said in my tranquility, I will never be moved” (v. 7)—and, through the process of facing troubles and even the prospect of his own death (“God, you hid Your face… What profit is there in my blood, in my descending to the pit? Can dust thank you, talk of Your truth?”–8-10) and the feeling God’s redeeming hand, he arrives at a new, more mature sort of faith.

This is also the reason for the other, somewhat puzzling, liturgical use of this psalm: as the introduction to the Morning Service, even before Pesukei de-Zimra. This unique mode—gratitude to God, not out of comfort and middle-class security, but awareness of one’s dependence on God and the insecurity and unpredictability of life—is the proper attitude with which to stand in prayer before God.


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