Sermon Shabbat Mikets 5779
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona
I wonder how many of you have dreamcatchers in your homes? I know that many of our daughters—and sons—grew up sleeping under these Native American pieces here in Tucson. According to the guy who sold me mine long ago there is a belief among indigenous Americans that the night is filled with dreams, some bad, some good. The dreamcatcher’s design is supposed to catch bad dreams and allow the good ones to come through to your child. Lovely.
Originally called a “spider web charm” by the Ojibwe or Chippewa people of the Great Lakes region and hung over babies’ cribs, dreamcatchers became popular during the Pan-Indian movement of the 1960s and 70s and were adopted as New Age merchandise shortly thereafter. However you feel about cultural appropriation, dreamcatchers are found everywhere here in Tucson and throughout the west, on sale from museums to convenience stores, more popular even than kachinas. With my own eyes I have even seen dreamcatchers with Jewish stars woven into them. Perhaps next year we’ll have dreamcatchers in Hanukkah menorah designs, or maybe a Hanukkiah with a dreamcatcher built into it. So goes American-Jewish merchandising.
But the original goal of dreamcatchers, to control the flow of dreams, is actually a window into a primal human need. What are dreams, and what does it mean to have a dream and then try to interpret it? The Hebrew word for dream is chalom, and in the simplest way dreams are the unconscious play of the mind while we are in REM sleep, the deepest form of sleep. According to scientists, dreams are an involuntary flow of emotions, images, sensations and ideas. We all have them, typically five to seven separate dreams a night, although most of us don’t remember most of our dreams; some of us don’t remember any of them. In spite of an almost obsessive human and scientific interest in them, we still really don’t understand the purpose of dreams. But there are teams of people who spend a lot of time studying them.
This interest in dreams isn’t new: for aboriginal Australians tens of thousands of years ago dreams were the way the world and its creatures and features were created, during a period they named “The Dreamtime.” And in the Middle East, some of the oldest surviving writing deals with the study of the meaning of dreams. Dream interpretation was considered an academic discipline in the very first civilizations in human history, the Sumerian city-states, and that interest has continued through every subsequent culture. Sigmund Freud based a great deal of his psychiatric theories on dream interpretation, and our interest in understanding what happens when we enter the “prison of sleep” and our minds begin to wander wildly remains very strong.
Dreams are wonderful but they are also a problem. For autocratic rulers throughout history—and nearly all rulers throughout history have been autocrats—control was the primary goal. Power, for most powerful people, demands control. But dreams represent a time when our primary tool for exerting control, our minds, are literally out of control. As such, dreams pose a kind of threat, when visions of potential problems and disasters are allowed to freely roam through the unconscious mind, to be remembered in whole or part the next morning.
To an all-powerful ruler this has to be profoundly disturbing. We see this at the beginning of our Torah portion of Mikets, in which Pharaoh has his confusing and troubling dreams. He seeks simple intepretations of them, and grows increasingly distressed when no one can unpack his dreams and solve the riddle of their meaning. This follows an ancient type-scene in which great rulers dream of the collapse of their kingdom only to see the dire dream-prediction later come true. Sometimes these stories are about actual dreams of the king or emperor; sometimes they are dream-like oracles or scenarios delivered to the ruler, or even prophecies literally written on a wall. Either way, if you are uber-powerful when awake the idea that strange visions may come to you when you are asleep predicting failure and downfall is deeply unsettling.
Dreams present a problem for other types of people, too, and there are many Jewish teachings that reflect discomfort with dreams. In the Talmud the rabbis express fear that the “prison of sleep” is too much like our final prison of death. When we are asleep we don’t have any ability to act; we are, in a way, like a prisoner in jail. This is why our morning prayers, our Birchot HaShachar, say, “Blessed are You, God, Ruler of the universe, who frees the captive prisoner, matir asurim.” This is not a blessing about redeeming soldiers captured in war. It is actually a way of saying, “Thank you, Lord, for freeing me from the prison of lost control that is sleep.”
In our Zohar class we have been exploring how dreams are a real problem for mystics, too. You see, a primary goal of all mysticism is to enhance our awareness of the presence of God, to find the divine everywhere in our lives. The best way to do this is to create a greater level of intentionality in thought, to become clearer and more conscious of what we are thinking about at all times. Mystical work seeks to make more mindful of everything going on both inside of us and around us, to be increasingly attentive to our inner and outer worlds. Meditation helps us harmonize those worlds, and contemplation trains us to focus on ideas and practices that improve our opportunity to sense God everywhere.
As Jacob famously says in the story of the angels on the ladder—also known as the Stairway to Heaven tale—“Truly, God was in this place and I, I did not know it.” Through mysticism we try to become aware that God is in this place, and every place; to “know it,” if you will.
But no matter how carefully we train our minds to experience the mystical presence, whether we call that presence God or Shechinah or Ribono Shel Olam or another name, no matter how much we focus on controlling or shaping our spiritual impulses, thoughts and feelings, when we go to sleep we lose all of that control. Sleep is the great equalizer, when we lose the ability to direct our thoughts. We are helplessly subservient to that unconscious flow of images, ideas and experiences cascading through our sleeping brains. In sleep, the best-trained mystic, the most advanced practitioner of the most sophisticated form of spirituality, the greatest Kabbalist or Guru or meditative monk has no more volition than a 2 year-old baby. Once we close our eyes and drift off to REM sleep we are at the mercy of processes beyond our control. Without any ability to channel or direct the process, we dream.
It is no wonder that those who follow Kabbalah invented something called a Tikun Chatzot, a midnight awakening meditation that interrupted this process of dreaming and sought to create a time for deeper mystical awareness and connection with God at just the time dream-sleep would be most intense. In a way, the month of Elul is testament to the anti-sleep aspects of Jewish tradition. In those Jewish movements most identified with Kabbalah, the Sephardim and the Chasidim, the last month of the Jewish year is the time when we begin our repentance with Selichot, prayers of apology. While we Ashkenazic Jews have Selichot prayers at midnight, we only do this once, on the Saturday night prior to Rosh HaShanah. But the more mystical Sephardim and Chasidim hold an entire month of Selichot services, getting up from bed in time to be at temple at midnight every weekday of Elul, interrupting their personal dream-time to offer personal prayers of repentance. And the Selichot prayers are intensely mystical. In other words, they seek to stop the flow of dreams so that they can assert a greater level of control over thoughts and actions. That way, we can focus on teshuvah, repentance, which surely must be a conscious, waking process, not some dreamy experience.
Eventually, failing to dominate the world of sleep through mystical, intellectual, or spiritual training, the Kabbalists give up. They finally decide to explore just what dreams actually are, and what really happens when we fall asleep.
Zohar begins this process with a midrash about what happens to our souls when we fall fully asleep. According to tradition, just 1/60th of our souls remain in our bodies. Almost all of our souls journey to Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, where they commune directly with God in a blissful foretaste of paradise. That means that when we start to wake up, our souls must return to our bodies or we won’t wake up at all and will die. The beautiful, poetic morning prayer Elohai Neshama, which thanks and praises God for restoring our pure souls to us and allowing us to live another day, is actually an almost practical statement of gratitude based on this remarkable teaching.
The Zohar then tells us that dreams are also 1/60th part prophecy, that is, when we dream we are receiving a form of communication directly from God. The hard part is knowing how much of the dream is revelation and how much isn’t. Or, to put it another way, which part of what we dream comes from God and which part comes from a weird movie we saw before drifting off, or from eating too much garlic at dinner. 1/60th part prophecy sounds both too important to ignore, and much too ambiguous to believe in.
And yet, the Zohar also says, about Mikets, this week’s Torah portion, “An un-interpreted dream is like an unopened letter.” We should not ignore such powerful potential communication. We may not be able to invite or cultivate dreams, we may find them disturbing at many levels, we may even try to prevent ourselves from having dreams, but once they come they must be treated seriously. The Zohar goes on to explore just what dreams may mean, if they are true or false, if they are favorable or unfavorable, and, most importantly, what this process is all about. And perhaps that is where all of this dream exploration leads.
The figure most closely associated with dreaming in Jewish tradition is of course, this week’s hero, our ancestor Joseph, the great dream interpreter of the Torah. His brothers even derisively call him “Ba’al hachalomot”, the master of dreams. Joseph rises to great prominence because of his ability to interpret the Pharaoh’s two terrible dreams in Mikets. And his unique ability to leap to the top of the heap relies primarily on an extraordinary talent for understanding and explaining dreams. So how does he do it? What can Joseph teach us about dreams?
It is apparent in these sections of Genesis that Joseph is able to probe the unconscious imaginings of the minds around him—and of his own mind—and discern the parts that are truly divine prophecy from all the rest. He has the uncanny ability to find the 1/60th part of true golden revelation in dreams, and filter out the 59 out of 60 parts of dross that surround them.
I think Joseph is so successful in interpreting dreams because he is very, very good at putting aside what really doesn’t matter. Joseph ignores the aspects of the dreams that aren’t important. He finds the kernel inside the husk, filters out the chatter, hears the central melody within the noise. In Talmudic terms, he goes straight to the ikkar, the root, the heart of the matter. He understands the one thing that is really important and focuses his attention on exactly that. When people listen to Joseph and come to understand his emphasis on priorities, that ability to do what is most urgent first, they succeed beyond their own dreams. When they can’t do that, when they are distracted by their own ego needs or busyness or resentments, they miss out.
Perhaps that is what dreams, or at least our Jewish approach to dreams, can teach us best: how to focus on which parts of our dreams really matter. That is true of what we imagine when we are awake, what we more generally call our dreams, our goals in life. These can be filled with images of fame and fortune, of beachfront relaxation or new homes or cars or children’s accomplishments or winning the lottery, even of sports teams winning championships. But how many of these are really not true dreams at all but just the 59 parts out of 60 that are just, well, stuff, and I don’t mean “the stuff that dreams are made of?”
Perhaps the greatest modern dreamer in Jewish history was Theodore Herzl, father of Zionism, who helped dream the State of Israel into existence. His most famous quotation is, of course, im tirtzu ein zo aggadah; if you will it, it is no dream. More than anyone, he was able to focus a disparate and divisive group of Jews into a movement that led to the modern miracle of a Jewish state.
Some might say that Congregation Beit Simcha, similarly, is a kind of dream. But we are quickly becoming something very real, and will continue to do so, so long as we remain true to our central dream of a congregation committed to Jewish excellence, warmth and creativity.
So I’ll ask you tonight, on a personal level: what are your real dreams, on this Shabbat of Hanukkah? Which of them are truly divinely inspired, and which are not? It is that question that we each have to answer.
A friend recently told me that her greatest dream was of material success, really making it financially. Yet everything she is most interested in doing now is actually related to spiritual growth. Another friend spoke of his dream of becoming free of encumbrances, being able to travel and move without hindrance. Yet he has just entered into a serious relationship that will prevent that. I know people who dream of making aliyah to Israel when that is not a genuine possibility for them, who dream of making it in Hollywood and yet remain anchored in Tucson.
And I know other people whose dreams are of repairing breached family relationships, of spending more and better time with those they love, of working to heal the world and help the homeless and hungry. Who dream of deepening their Jewish knowledge and commitment and who seek to find greater joy and meaning through service.
In this season of flickering lights and dreams, may we each commit ourselves to finding the worthy, divine dreams that hide within us, the truest of our own dreams. And may we learn to filter out the others so that we can, like Joseph, make those very real, holy dreams come true.