The famous story of Joseph continues this week and it begins with Pharoah’s dream of seven fat cows eaten by the lean cows. Similarly, the seven fat ears of grain are eaten by lean ears. It seems the Torah once again offers modern-day insights on the here and now because we are amid a cost of living crisis meaning we should have saved up during the plentiful times now food, gas, electricity and other essential items are, for some, unaffordable. The traditional view holds that every narrative in the Torah must be considered a record of events which actually transpired.
To quote a kabbalistic expression: The Torah speaks about the upper realms, and alludes to the lower realms. Thus, every narrative in the Torah is a record of an actual event, but that event represents far more than what transpires in the material world. There is something special delving deep into the text and finding alternative meaning. The Lubavitcher Rebbe described the historical integrity of the Torah being preserved, and the relevance of the Torah is not as a book of records, but “as a guide, reflecting spiritual truths that should be applied in our Divine service”. So the decoding of Pharoah’s dream is somewhat meta, bringing interpretations of the interpretations.
The Book of Genesis recounts several stories that involve dreams: Jacob sees a ladder with angels ascending and descending, Joseph dreams of his ascension to power, Pharaoh’s steward and baker dream of their separate fates and Pharaoh dreams about years of plenty and famine. All these dreams were messages from God. In fact, dreams are the medium through which God would often communicate to the prophets. But does Jewish belief normally extend to dream-ology and hidden signs in slumber? Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (known as “the Rav’) explains that meaningful dreams emanate from a very high spiritual level; a level that completely transcends this physical world and can therefore feature supernatural events that completely defy logic. It is widely held that most of our dreams today are not messages from God; they are simply thoughts that are recycled from what occupied our minds during the day.
Negative dreams experienced after stressful incidents can certainly be attributed to those incidents; they don’t foretell anything bad. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, and other sages no doubt, was approached numerous times by people who were disturbed by their bad dreams. The Rebbe stated that unless the individual is of exemplary piety, his dreams are not messages from God, and there is no reason to be concerned about them; rather they should simply not think about them. Nevertheless, if a person is nervous because of the dream, they should interpret it positively, give charity, check their tefillin and mezuzot to ensure that they are kosher, and/or strengthen his faith in God and the observance of His Torah.
I suspect all of that fervent spiritual activity will surely help one sleep better. In the past people would fast after a bad dream since fasting was thought to have great power to avert potential bad decrees. One should look forward to the fulfillment of a good dream up to 22 years afterwards. We learn this from Joseph, whose dreams were only realized after 22 years.
There was a Talmudic commentator called Rabbi Yaakov of Marosh who asked many questions via shaylat chalom (question posed to God for which one hopes to receive a response during a dream). Rabbi Yaakov received 89 responses via dreams; he recorded them and they are published under the title: Shailot U’teshuvot min Hashamayim (“Responsa from Heaven” – a reproduced edition is available on Amazon).
Some of Joseph’s time in Egypt was frankly a nightmare but once he was paraded as the decoder of dreams, well he lived quite nicely, and you could say for him that was a dream come true.
Written in memory of Shalom Dovid Ben Yisrael z”l