A Dream Uninterpreted is like a Letter left Unopened
Updated: Jun 10
This week’s Torah portion of Mikeitz is special on so many levels, not the least of which is that it nearly always (98% of the time) is read during the holiday of Hannukah, and is one of the markers for calendar makers to check their work. Thanks to the musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”, it is also one of the most famous stories. (If you’re unfamiliar with the story, here is a fun link for you to learn about this week’s portion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ToMHmDaPumc )
Pharaoh has two famous dreams that neither he nor his ministers can interpret. Seven fat cows come out of the river and are swallowed by seven thin cows; and then seven healthy ears of corn are swallowed by seven thin ears. Joseph correctly interprets this as a heavenly teaching and prophecy that there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and that Egypt should store up during the first seven years to prepare for the seven years of famine. Pharaoh realizes that the “Spirit of God” is on Joseph, and makes Joseph his highest advisor. The rest of the Torah portion deals with the results of that preparation; how Jacob’s sons travel from Canaan to get food from Egypt during the famine (not recognizing Joseph as their lost brother), and the drama that ensues between Joseph and his brothers.
As it has for the last number of weeks, the Torah reminds us again of the importance of dreams. The Talmud teaches that although God’s face is hidden, He “will communicate with man through dreams” (Bavli Chagigah 5b), that “Dreams are one sixtieth part of prophecy” (Bavli Berachot 57b), and that “A dream uninterpreted is like a letter left unopened” (Bavli Berachot 55a). Dreams and dream interpretation are an ancient and vital piece of traditional Judaism (sadly, something that is often not taught in 21st century synagogues), and over 6 full pages of the Talmud are devoted specifically to symbol interpretations in dreams (Berachot 55a-57b). So dreams like Pharaoh’s can be understood if we look at the symbology; and can be understood as both insights and/or prophecies.
But the challenge for many people begins even before attempting to interpret their dreams: it lies in attempting to remember them at all! Judaism has some esoteric techniques to help remember our dreams, and even to dream lucidly. Drinking water immediately before going to sleep (Mayim Chayim is another phrase describing the Torah, so it brings Torah into our dreams), fasting (a recommended practice to encourage lucid dreaming in the Talmud tractate Berachot), and sleeping on our left side (the side of the sephirah or energy center of “bimah”, or “understanding”) all enhance our abilities to dream consciously and remember the dream. Additionally, it is a recommended technique from our Sages through our mystics such as Rebbe Nachman that we should keep a journal by our bedside, and write down our dreams, including date and time, in order to understand them more fully.
There are a number of techniques that are utilized to facilitate lucid dreaming in modern culture, as well as “astral projection”. Many of these are discussed by Jungians, Monroe, and others and can easily be found online or at a local “new age” bookstore. A consistency in most of these techniques is that the individual must set an attention before going to sleep that he will remember his dreams; and then be aware as he goes to sleep that if he dreams, he is to look at the palms of his hand. The concept is that by looking at one’s own hands while in the midst of a dream will “wake” up the person to the fact that they are dreaming, and they can then guide their own dreams.
On a simplistic level, the idea is that by identifying yourself as your Self in the dream it allows your psyche/spirit be more in control of the experience. But our Sages recognized that this type of practice is actually incomplete, as we are much more than just our physical body (as exemplified by our hands). Instead, our Sages understood that we are actually the 10 sephirot (energy centers) that are coalescing together in order to create the vessel for our n’shomah (soul). (As an aside, there are 10 dreams expounded in the Torah, each of which corresponds to a different energy center). So from the traditional Jewish point of view, to only focus on the hands would be incomplete, and could lead to misinterpretations and potentially negative experiences.
Rather, in order to begin lucidly dreaming, it would be more advantageous to focus on the Tree of Life (the image of the sephirot and how they correspond to the human body) prior to going to sleep; and in the midst of a dream to see the entire Tree of Life overlaying yourself. Below is the image of the Tree of Life/Sephirot overlaid on the human body. If you can keep this in your mind’s eye, terrific. If it is too difficult, especially at first, then keep this image in a place that you can see it as you go to sleep.
An other truth to recognize is that we are truly made in the image of God…specifically in the image of God’s Name of Yod Hey Vav Hey….not written horizontally but vertically. This is the other image to keep in mind upon going to sleep, or to have in a place that you can see as you drift off. This will not only help you dream more lucidly and/or remember your dreams; but will ensure that your dreams are Divine in origin.
Joseph did not need these tools as he was from birth inherently aware of the reality of dreams and dream interpretation. Most of us are not as gifted as our ancestor, and so these traditional Jewish techniques can help us remember and understand our dreams.
It is appropriate that this Torah portion is always read during Hannukah. When the nights are longest it is important that we keep the lights lit; and in the darkness of sleep, dreams are part of those lights of our souls. Our Sages left us a hint as to the importance of this Torah reading during the holiday of Hannukah. Mikeitz is the only Torah portion for which our ancient Sages list the number of words, 2025, at the end, and this is the hint to seeing yet another connection between the Torah portion and the holiday. The word “Ner” (“candle”) has the Gematria (numerical value associated with Hebrew letters) of 250. The eight nights of Hannukah x 250 =2,000; and Hannukah must begin on the 25th day of the month of Kislev: 2,000 + 25 = 2,025…a reminder from our Sages to calendar makers to make sure that this portion on dreams was read during Hannukah.
During Hannukah we keep the lights alive in the middle of the darkness of winter. When Joseph was in Egypt, he always remembered that everything in in the hands of God, including and especially dreams (“Not I, but God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare” Gen. 41:16). Hannukah is a reminder not only of God’s light, but of the importance that each of us have in showing the world the presence of God in everything that we do and say. Like Joseph in Egypt, we must never let the light of God in the physical world be extinguished; but keep it alive through our commitment to our practices, teachings, and Jewish communities.
May we all be blessed to have a year of light as we finish this Festival of Lights; and to always bring the spiritual light of God’s presence into everything that we do, say, and dream. May we walk in the presence of God’s light in the day, and dream in the peaceful teachings of God’s gifts in the night.
Rabbi Michael Barclay December 18, 2020 3rd of Tevet, 5781