Dreams are a significant part of the lives of both Jacob and Joseph.
Jacob dreams of a ladder that is anchored in the ground and goes up to heaven while the angels rise and descend on it. He also dreams in Laban’s house of an angel who tells him to return to the land of Canaan.
While dreams appear at key moments in Jacob’s life, they are particularly dominant in the life of Joseph. They are the source of his travails and the catalyst for his success. Dreams propel his entire life forward, from beginning to middle to end.
As a young man, Joseph dreams of the stars and of the sheaves. These dreams create such enmity from his brothers that they seize him, cast him into a pit, and sell him into slavery in Egypt.
Once there, he interprets the dreams of the baker and of the wine steward, which have the eventual effect of freeing him from prison and bringing him to the attention of Pharaoh. The climax of this narrative of dreams is the double-dream of Pharaoh, which foretells what will happen in Egypt in the coming year and which catapults Joseph to a position of tremendous prestige and power.
In all these stories, dreams serve as messages from God, as ways in which God communicates with mortals. Indeed, later in the Torah we read that God speaks to the prophets through dreams: “If there be a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known unto him in a vision; in a dream will I speak unto him” (Num. 12:6).
If we perceive our dreams as coming from God, they can be a powerful way in which God can be present in our lives. But taking that approach also contains within it a danger. It can give us license to act in certain questionable ways because, to quote the Blues Brothers, we believe that “We are on a mission from God.” Because Joseph believes that God has shown him in his dreams that his brothers will bow down to him, he feels justified in acting in ways that raise serious ethical questions in order to make these dreams come true.
Most of us nowadays do not think this way. For us, dreams are not from God. They are a natural functioning of our brain, a surfacing of our conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions, which allow us to build memory, process emotions, and do mental housekeeping.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Gemara is aware of this more real-world interpretation. In an extended passage dealing with dreams (Berakhot 55a), the Gemara states that what we see in our dreams is a function of what we were thinking about and feeling during the day. At the same time, it also embraces the Biblical and metaphysical perspective, stating that dreams are 1/60th of prophecy. The Gemara then articulates a provocative third approach: that dreams will come true, but they will do so according to how they are interpreted.
These three approaches operate together. Our dreams are no longer of the Biblical sort. We live in a time when there is no prophecy. God’s involvement in the world is different than it was in Biblical times. Our dreams are merely a by-product of what we have been thinking during the day.
But God is not absent from this experience. We were created in God’s image, and that yearning soul that strives for the full realization of its potential is the divine within us that surfaces in our dreams. What we aspire for, what we envision as our possible future, what we dream for when we are awake—that is the 1/60th of prophecy that speaks to us in our dreams when we sleep.
That doesn’t mean that these dreams will become real. It is we who must provide the other 59 parts of this equation. A dream follows its interpretation. If we see and experience it as nothing other than an artifact of our subconscious, then that is all that it will be. If, however, we see it as a vision of a possible future, then we can help it come true.
This is not always a good thing. When our fears and anxieties surface in our dreams, they can take hold of us. We can find ourselves, on a subconscious level at least, feeding into these anxieties and enabling them to be actualized. This prophecy may become self-fulfilling, and not for the better.
The same can be true in the reverse. Dreams that speak to us about our yearnings and aspirations can serve as prods to push us to achieve what is possible, even if those dreams appear distant and out of reach. As we know, visualization is a powerful tool that can help a person achieve any goal.
If we give our dreams the interpretation of a possible future, we can make them 1/60th of prophecy. We can partner with God in making our dreams come true.