Dreams, Symbols, Hints of God

It’s Shabbat Chanukah. The parasha is Miketz, in which we learn more about Yosef’s skill in dream interpretation. The haftorah is from the prophet Zechariah, who receives God’s message in night visions. What’s the connection?

A few weeks ago, I had an amazing dream.

In this dream…

Charles and I are in a New York City subway car, the elevated kind with tracks that run outdoors, up over the streets. Some friends have invited us, and they are with us in the train. The train goes up, up, and up. We can see the cityscape below us, and then we’re flying between the stars. A piercing high-pitched sound fills my ears. It’s uncomfortable, it’s unbearable, and the higher we get, the more overwhelming the sound becomes. It focuses my consciousness into one thin ray. The train goes to level 12, but it’s only at level 11. And I really, really, really don’t want to go to level 12.

A few hours after I woke up, I pulled the dream out of my memory and watched it. Naturally, I thought of the prophet Yechezkel’s vision. The heavens opened and he saw a vehicle with wheels, flashing and sparking, moving in straight lines. And he heard noise, like the sound of rushing water, like the sound of God, like the sound of multiple overlapping conversations, like the sound of a camp teeming with people. (These are his descriptions.) And then he saw the likeness of the kavod, the shechinah, the presence of God, and he fell on his face. And then he was given a prophetic mission.

Fortunately, The symbols in my dream aren’t pointing in the same direction as the symbols in Yechezkel’s vision. Yechezkel was on his way to receive a prophetic mission; I’m just trying to learn about myself, and to let go of bad emotional habits. The prophet saw a likeness of the kavod; I declined to go all the way up to level 12. He had his vision while sitting on a bank of the River Chebar with other refugees from Yerushalayim. I had my dream the night before I attended a class on forgiveness that directed my attention to a traumatic event from my teen years in New York City. I think my dream is reminding me how difficult it can be to let go of very deep anger and fear. Each time I try, all sorts of deafening inner noise comes up, and I don’t want to go to the next level.

I choose not to interpret my dream in terms of famous archetypal symbols. Instead, I choose to give the dream a very personal interpretation based on my own life. And that’s part of the beauty of dreams. They don’t communicate using a universal symbol system. Each person’s psyche spins images that are personally meaningful. We may all be dreaming about processes of inner growth that are common, but we will access them and represent them using our own personal symbols.

The prophet Zechariah reports that he receives his transmissions in a night vision. And the visions he reports are quite bizarre. There’s a man on a red horse, and suddenly the man is standing between some trees, and suddenly he’s an angel. And then an altar suddenly appears, and then a man with a measuring tape shows up, and a high priest, and a menorah. And a different angel, a talkative angel, asks Zechariah, “Don’t you know what these symbols mean?” and Zechariah says, “No, sir!” And suddenly a scroll is flying around.

The Radak, David Kimchi, a 12th century commentator, says that Zechariah’s night visions are not as clear as the visions of the pre-exilic prophets. Insead, they are obscure, deteriorated form of prophecy, because after the destruction of the first temple, prophetic antennae didn’t work so well anymore.

I don’t agree with the Radak that Zechariah’s prophetic dreams are a kind of low-grade booby prize. Instead, I think that reporting on dreams is a conscious statement of universalism by a universalistic prophet. Zechariah, the prophet who predicts that the new Temple will be a “house of prayer for all people” is telling us that God can be accessed through many different symbolic systems.

In the Torah, Yosef’s ability to interpret dreams hints at this same truth about symbols. Listen to some midrash about this – created by me, but in a traditional style.

First, a literal level of the text: Yosef dreamed that eleven sheaves of wheat bowed down to him. When he told his eleven brothers about the dream, they interpreted it as an expression of Yosef’s arrogance. They asked him, Im moshel timshol banu? Literally, “Do you really think you’re going to rule over us?” After that, Torah says, “Vayahalom od khalom akher,” literally, “Yosef dreamed another, different dream.” This time Yosef dreamed that sun, moon, and eleven stars revolved around him.

Let’s look a little more deeply at both these Hebrew phrases. Why does Torah say Vayachalom od khalom akher, he dreamed another, different dream. Why not just say that he dreamed another dream? Or that he dreamed a different dream? Because both words, od, another, and akher, different, are significant. Yosef’s additional (od) dream had the same message as the first, but expressed the message through different symbols, akher. When Yosef’s brothers hear the second dream, they respond, Im moshel timshol banu, which can also be translated as “Must you continue to speak in parables?”

This conversation between Yosef and his brothers teaches us about different levels of spiritual development. Yosef’s brothers represent people who need to be taught very literally and specifically about God and religious belief. Yosef represents a person who can discern God in many different guises. Though Yosef lives for many years as a lone Israelite among Egyptians, each time he interprets a dream he credits God with the interpretation. And each time he offers an interpretation, he enters into the symbolic language of that particular dream. It doesn’t matter that each dream uses an idiosyncratic set of symbols. It is as if each dream Yosef interprets strengthens his belief in God – as if each journey into a new symbolic system teaches him more about God.

You might even say that Yosef’s mother recognized this quality in him when he was an infant. Torah tells us that when Yosef was born, his mother Rachel said, Yosef YHWH li ben akher. The usual literal translation of this is “May God increase me with another child.” But it can also be read as Rachel’s declaration that Joseph would be a ben akher, different from his brothers, and able to discern God in many different symbolic guises.

Last Saturday night, I watched my favorite Christmas movie, Miracle on 34thStreet. The movie tells the story of an elderly man who works as a department store Santa Claus. His very presence brings peace between rivals. This man believes he is Santa Claus – or maybe he really is Santa Claus. That’s the mystery set out for the audience. I love this movie because it ends with a courtroom battle between lawyers representing faith and reason. The movie teaches that faith requires imagination, humor, willingness to let go of fixed ideas, seeing things from other perspectives, and recognizing the good in people who at first seem to think very divergently! Exactly what the prophet Zechariah demonstrates, and exactly what the sode (mystical) level interpretation of Yosef’s name teaches.

We know that our sages fixed the cycle of Torah readings, and later the cycle of haftorah readings. And we know that they believed in a kind of spiritual astrology, in which they recommend that we contemplate certain themes at certain times of year. Why contemplate dreams, interpretations, open symbol systems, the many guises of God, and faith at this time of year?

Is it because, at this time, deepest darkness gives way to light, just as Zechariah’s night visions spoke of hope and renewal, and just as our nighttime dreams can help us find clarity in our own lives?

I leave that question to you – because the answer can only be found by contemplating the theme.

Image: http://scienceblogs.com

  1. Just a suggestion from my own dream guru, Dr. Arato, numbers can have important meanings, so what do 11 and 12 mean to you?
    On another note, your dream was amazingly in synch with the story of the prophet’s in so many ways, and all before you interpreted it here.
    Yes, we all have such mornings, and thank g-d no matter what, we wake up, and still get going.

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