Thursday, November 25, 2010



Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi




And he dreamed again another dream (Gen. 37:90).

The part of the book of Genesis that we have been studying during the past several weeks focuses heavily on dreams.  Jacob begins his odyssey with the magnificent dream of a ladder joining heaven and earth, with angels ascending and descending, and with the Divine Presence at its head.  This dream is Jacob’s first encounter with God.  Significantly, Jacob himself recognizes the dream as an unconscious experience.  Upon awakening he is disappointed that he had not been conscious of his encounter with God.
According to Maimonides and several other commentators, Jacob’s encounter with the mysterious “man” during the dark night of his soul was also a dream experience. In his unconscious state, he played out his struggle with his twin brother Esau, who was, in fact, his alter ego, the disowned part of his personality. It was with this unacceptable aspect of himself with which he wrestled, and whose unconscious influence upon him had tormented him until the resolution of his inner conflict on that fateful night.

This week’s Torah reading again focuses on dreams.  It opens with Joseph’s vision of his brothers gathering sheaves, and of those sheaves bowing down before his own.  In his second dream the sun and the moon and the twelve stars are pictured as acknowledging him.  These dreams are prophetic. The first is his unconscious intimation of himself as provider, his family recognizing their dependence upon him for their physical survival.  The second is his intimation of the transcendent force that moved him to initiate the preordained exile of his family, and, ultimately, of his people, their descendents.
 Joseph’s are not the only dreams of pivotal importance in the unfolding of his destined path.  The baker and the butler, too have disquieting nightmares. Joseph’s accurate interpretation of these dreams catapults him onto the central stage of history, since Pharaoh, too, has two disquieting dream experiences. Joseph, alone, succeeds both in analyzing the symbology of the dreams, and also in strategizing the national response to what those dreams portend.
Both Joseph and Pharaoh have two dreams. But there is a striking difference between Joseph’s dreams and Pharaoh’s dreams.  In the case of Joseph’s dreams, our text states:  And he dreamed again another dream [acher].  In Pharaoh’s case, the Torah declares:  And he slept and dreamed a second time. Joseph, interpreting Pharaohs dream, notes that:  Pharaoh’s dream is one [echad].  The Hebrew words acher and echad are similar in that they share two of the three root letters-- and yet they are significantly different.  The similarity invites comparison.  The difference demands comment.
Both dreamers have two dreams.  Both are symbolic representations of reality.   But whereas the symbols of each of Pharaoh’s dreams are different, the meaning is identical.  Two sets of symbols are really the same dream message conveyed slightly differently.  Both use farming images.  Both focus on physical reality.  Pharaoh’s two dreams are one in that they are earth- bound and focused upon the land as a source of sustenance.

 Joseph’s dreams, on the other hand, are about the earth and its sustenance, but also about the heavens.  Joseph’s ability to encompass both heaven and earth in his vision make him a different kind of dreamer from Pharaoh, the baker and the butler.  This is why our text describes his second dream as different [acher] from his first.

 Pharaoh’s dreams reflect his understandable concern for the physical welfare and survival of his subjects and the prosperity of his realm.  His unconscious dream process reveals his single-minded focus.  Joseph, on the other hand synthesizes the material and the spiritual, recognizing the transcendent forces that govern our physical reality and personal histories.  It is precisely in this synthesizing vision that his uniqueness is expressed.

Dreaming is a universal human experience.  Everybody dreams.  Our dreams, for the most part, reveal our unconscious struggles and anxieties.  They tell us, usually in symbolic form, what it is that bothers us. At the end of tractate Berakhot, the Talmud, focuses on dreams and their interpretation, predating Sigmund Freud by many centuries. 

Rabbi Yisra’el Salanter, like Sigmund Freud after him, recognized the importance of our subconscious processes.  For Freud, the unconscious is determinative.  Unconscious forces, over which we have no control, drive us and determine many of our behavioral patterns.  Salanter, on the contrary, believed that we can control the content of our unconscious minds, so that we no longer need to be influenced by dark forces that are not under our control.

Because we can actually train our unconscious minds and transform their content, the dreams we dream are in our hands.  We can choose about what we wish to dream.  For Freud, our dreams necessarily reflect who we are; for Salanter, they reflect who we wish to be.

 Pharaoh’s dreams reflected the role that destiny had determined for him.  Joseph’s dreams were intimations of what he could become on his own initiative.  Scripture does not call him a cholem chalomot [a dreamer of dreams], but a ba’al chalomot [a master of dreams].  Not only did he dare to dream the impossible synthesizing dream of heaven and earth, of the physical and the spiritual, but also he knew that the fulfillment of those dreams was in his hands.  The Hebrew word ba’al means “owner”.  Joseph owned his dreams and translated them into reality.

Joseph is our role model. He dared to dream a different dream.  What dreams shall we dream?   

Note: Rabbi Abner Weiss’s weekly Torah teaching can be accessed at


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