I dreamed about my late mother. Just a simple dream.
I am walking with my mother. But I can’t keep up. So, she is half a block ahead, waiting for me.
My late mother is so precious to me. But, when I was young, she was full of grief. And I still carry the scars.
But, when she was 76, she reviewed her life. She let go of pain; made new choices; became kinder and gentler. And I was so lucky that we were still close. I got to learn from her older adult self. As if she raised me a second time.
That’s the meaning of my dream. I am always catching up with my mother’s wisdom.
So I was excited to notice that, in this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, Isaac dreams about his father. The whole thing is tucked away in one little sentence.
God appeared to him that night and said “I am the God of Abraham your father. Don’t be afraid because I am with you. I have blessed you and made your offspring many because of my servant Abraham.” (Gen. 26:24)
What a numinous dream! God bursts in from another realm. And Isaac hears a healing message. So, he wakes ready for a new stage on his spiritual journey. But what direction should he travel in? What does the dream mean?
Medieval commentator Ba’al HaTurim (1269-1343) thinks the dream means Isaac’s existential mood can change. Isaac has suffered for many years. He Isaac does not feel safe in the world. And he probably thinks God is not looking out for him. After all, his father Abraham tried to kill him in a religious ritual.
Thus, in the dream, God appears fearsome. God says, “I am Elohim,” the judge. Not, “I am Yod Hey Vav Hey,” source of love. But still, this fearsome God tells Isaac, “You don’t have to be afraid anymore. Because of what Abraham did, I’m sending you extra blessings.”
Ramban (1194-1270) thinks the dream calls Isaac to develop social confidence. Because God actually is on his side. The dream, says Ramban, is about Isaac’s business. Specifically, his conflicts with other shepherds, who challenge his right to dig wells in Gerar. But God is about to fix things. The dream predicts it! Soon Abimelech, King of Gerar, visits Isaac. “We see that God is with you,” Abimelech says. “So we are with you, too.”
But I think the dream invites Isaac to re-imagine his father. Because, like my mother, Abraham changed as he got older.
Young Isaac is raised by the middle-aged Abraham. And this Abraham is kind of a rake. His shepherds fight about grazing rights. He gets rich using his wife as bait. Also, he has no clue how to be a father. Some of his mistakes traumatize Isaac. So, young adult Isaac cuts off contact with Abraham.
Yet Isaac still repeats all of Abraham’s mistakes.
Isaac can’t help it. As a child, he encounters the world through his family of origin. So, he copies his father. He doesn’t have to think about it; it’s just his felt sense of how to be an adult in the world. His shepherds fight. He misrepresents his wife’s identity. And he loves his children unevenly.
But now, Isaac is ready to change. To stop unreflectively copying his father. After all, the father he knew was a relatively young man, still feeling his way into wisdom one mistake at a time. Once Isaac thinks about it, he can see the old behaviours are not helpful. Even Abraham outgrew them. Eventually, Abraham became a kinder and gentler elder: a generous person, a reliable spouse, and an attentive father in his new family.
Thus, God shows up in a dream to reassure Isaac. “You don’t have to be afraid. Yes, I know you need extra blessing because of what Abraham did. But don’t worry. I am with you.” You too will change; you too will heal.
Photo: My father, grandfather and great-grandfather.