All ten dreams recorded in the Torah are found in Genesis, earning the first book of the Torah the subtitle, Book of Dreams. Here are some examples:
1. Genesis 20:3-7: Philistine King Abimelech dreamed that God admonished him for stealing Sarah from Abraham.
2. Genesis 28:12-15: Jacob dreamed of a ladder reaching the heavens with angels ascending and descending on it.
3. Genesis 31:10-13: Jacob dreamed that an angel instructed him how to outsmart his father-in-law, Laban, in the division of Laban’s flock of sheep. The angel also told Jacob to leave Haran to go to Eretz Yisrael.
4. Genesis 31:22-24: Laban, in pursuit of his son-in-law, was told by God in a dream that he should not harm Jacob.
5, 6. Genesis 37:5-11: Joseph dreamed two dreams: one of binding sheaves of wheat with his brothers in the field where Joseph’s sheaf stood up straight and those of his brothers bowed down to his sheaf, and another in which Joseph dreamed that the sun, moon, and 11 stars bowed down to him.
7, 8. Genesis 40:7-19: Imprisoned Joseph correctly interpreted the dreams of the incarcerated butler and baker.
9, 10. Genesis 41:1-7: Pharaoh dreamed that seven fat cows emerged from the Nile river and were swallowed by seven emaciated cows; then he dreamed of seven plump kernels of grain swallowed by seven shriveled kernels of grain.
The dream-filled Torah portions Vayeitzei, Vayishlach, Mikeitz, and this week’s portion, Vayeishev are read during the Hebrew month of Kislev when Hanukkah is celebrated. Genesis also provides accounts of how the dreams turn out. Similarly, the Books of Maccabees I and II reveal the consequences of the Hasmonean battles.
Although it is not possible to know dream outcomes before they are played out, the tension a dreamer confronts is whether or not there is any strategy to advance the dream’s prophecy rather than passively waiting for the outcome to unfold. Certainly, if there were always ways to influence the aftermath of dreams, there would be no failed marriages, estranged relationships, and other disappointments in life.
“Sequel,”1 a poem by Sara Henderson Hay, emphasizes that the outcome of a dream is not always the expected sequel:
And there, in the Beast’s place, stood a handsome Prince!
Dashing and elegant from head to toes.
So they were married, thus the story goes,
And lived thenceforth in great magnificence,
And in the public eye. She christened ships,
Cut ribbons, sponsored Fairs of Arts and Sciences;
He opened Parliament, made speeches, went on trips …
In short, it was the happiest of alliances.
But watching him glitter, listening to him talk,
Sometimes the Princess grew perversely sad
And thought of the good Beast, who used to walk
Beside her in the garden, and who had
Such gentle eyes, and such a loving arm
To shield her from the briers, and keep her warm.
Rabbis and cantors witness hopes and dreams at life’s signal moments: a bar and bat mitzvah, college entrance, marriage, childbirth, circumcision, naming, choosing of career paths. With good fortune and charmed lives, these moments reveal what one rabbi once tactlessly suggested was a guide in to how to “hatch ‘em, match ‘em, and dispatch ‘em.” But that guide does not teach people how to have better predictors for successful outcomes, or what to do when hoped for dreams are dashed and childhood innocence fades, marriages fail, and poor judgment results in family estrangement, unsuccessful ventures, and even premature death. Often rabbis and cantors are at a loss of how to guide those with lost hopes and shattered dreams as they listen to people say with regret: “I dreamt that one day that …” or “I thought it would turn out differently than …” Of course, what matters even more than lamenting shattered dreams and lives in need of repair is how to help individuals increase the odds that dreams will be fulfilled.
Why aren’t there better predictors to see what happens before it happens? Why doesn’t Beauty ever get to know what will ensue after the Beast becomes the handsome prince? Angela McBride in her book, The Growth and Development of Mothers,2 mourns the loss of the dreams she brought to her marriage and to motherhood:
I have a loving, understanding husband, two pretty and bright children, and I regularly feel like screaming: “Why didn’t anyone ever tell me that no one lives happily ever after?” Why do fairy tales always end with the prince and princess marrying? Why don’t they tell you what happened to the couple in the next fifty years? How did the prince and princess feel when the babies started coming? Did Cinderella ever wake up in the morning to the cry of her baby, feeling as evil and fussy as her stepsisters? How much growing up did the prince and princess have to do to help their children grow up?
In the championship bicycle race in the film Breaking Away, an older, more-experienced competitor thrusts a baton into the spokes of the main protagonist’s bike, thereby shattering the young man’s dream of victory. His plaintive cry to his father, “I didn’t know that people cheat,” reveals his sorrow at his lost innocence and belief in fair play.
This season of Hanukkah provides an opportunity to take a page from the Book of Dreams and recognize that there may be more than luck to having dreams turn out as anticipated, or even better. It takes awareness that personal intervention rather than passive waiting for an outcome may, at times, turn dreams into reality. The Maccabee’s did not passively sit and watch events play out. Instead they took up the challenge of forcefully turning their dreams into reality. It is the lesson to be learned when we read the accounts of Torah dreams and the expectations of the Maccabees for personal or political redemption. To improve the odds of realizing dreams and visions, it is useful to take a page from the dream of Theodor Herzl, father of modern Zionism who said it best: “If you will it, it is no dream.”
- Sara Henderson Hay, “Sequel” in Story Hour (New York: Doubleday, 1963)
- Angela McBride, The Growth and Development of Mothers (New York: Harper & Row, 1973)
The story of Joseph and his prophetic dreams in Parashat Vayeishev is familiar to us all, even iconic. It is the beginning of the foundational story of the Jewish people — the 430-year sojourn in Egyptian slavery leading to the Exodus and the coming together as God’s people at Mt. Sinai. Without Joseph and his dreams, the children of Israel would never had ended up in Egypt in the first place.
But Joseph himself could not know what would come of his journey into Egypt, neither for himself nor for his descendants. Even if he had known, there was nothing he could have done about it, for the journey was not of his own volition.
Because of his dreams, he was brought into Egypt at the tender age of 17, and put to work as a servant. From this lowly position, and as a result of dreams, he eventually rose to a position of power and authority, making an invaluable contribution to his adopted homeland.
Today there are Dreamers among us whose journeys in some ways mirror those of Joseph. Brought to this country as children, not of their own will, they have made the United States their home. And like Joseph, they do not yet know the invaluable contributions they might be able to make to the country. Depending on government, they may never be given a chance to find out. And we all will be the poorer for that loss.
Thirty-six times we are reminded in the Torah to be good to the strangers in our midst, for we know what it is to be strangers in a strange land. Joseph’s journey led us to that experience of oppression, and inspired in our ancestors empathy and a sense of righteous justice for those who find themselves similarly strangers among us. May we, the descendants of slaves and dreamers, employ that empathy now, as we stand together with the Dreamers of today.
Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1−40:23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 244–260; Revised Edition, pp. 244–262;
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 208–232
Haftarah, Amos 2:6–3:8
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 352–354; Revised Edition, pp. 263–265