“Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it. Now I have heard it said of you that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning.” (Genesis 41:15)
Each year around September, I have the same bad dream. I arrive in synagogue to conduct Rosh Hashana services before a full house. And I have forgotten to write a sermon. I stand before the congregation not knowing what to say. Then, thank God, I wake up. In real life I have never forgotten to write a sermon. But dreams are strange and often scary.
Jewish tradition puts great importance on dreams. Who can forget the wonderful scene in the musical Fiddler on the Room where Tevye claims to have a dream. He uses the dream to convince his wife Goldie to allow their daughter Tzeitel to marry the tailor Motel. Goldie, deeply superstitious, is convinced by the dream. But you do not need to be superstitious to understand that dreams have power.
The Talmud (Berakhot 55b) teaches, “Rav Huna bar Ami said in the name of Rabbi Pedat in the name of Rabbi Johanan, One who has a dream for which his soul is distraught should have it interpreted in front of three. Interpreted? Didn’t Rav Hisda say, A dream not interpreted is like a letter not read. Rather, he should find a way to make the dream better before three.” The Talmud was concerned about the power that dreams have over our psyche.
It was Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, who was the most prominent modern thinker about dreams. Born Jewish, Freud rejected religion as an illusion and a mass neurosis. Nonetheless, I find many of Freud’s ideas were deeply influenced by his Judaism. Freud taught that in addition to our conscious self, humans have a very active unconscious. It is like the part of the iceberg below the sea; we are unaware of our unconscious, but it has a great effect on our consciousness.
An important part of our unconscious is our dreams. Dreams often begin in our unconscious minds as wish fulfillment, but these wishes are distorted by disturbing forces deep within our psyche. One of Freud’s most important books was On the Interpretation of Dreams. He believed that through talking out one’s dreams with a psychotherapist, one can have healing of the inner psyche. Freud used the interpretation of dreams to try to cure his patients of various neuroses and anxieties.
Of course, the classical example of an interpreter of dreams is Joseph. In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph leaves prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Pharaoh had dreamt of seven fat healthy cows that were swallowed by seven sickly cows. Then he dreamt of seven healthy stalks of wheat swallowed up by seven sickly stalks. Joseph understands the dream immediately. There will be seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of storing food during the years of plenty to feed Egypt during the years of famine. By interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph becomes the second most powerful man in Egypt.
The question is, do dreams have hidden meanings? Were Joseph, the Rabbis of the Talmud, and Sigmund Freud correct, that dreams contain important messages for one’s psyche? Does God communicate with us through dreams? Or are dreams simply the random firing of the synapses in our brains, with no further meaning? Personally, since dreams arise in our unconscious and this unconscious is the hidden part of our minds, dreams must be important. They may be the way our minds try to solve problems while we are asleep.
One of the great mysteries of the universe is how the mind works. I am publishing a book shortly on the role of consciousness in the universe. But part of the mind is also unconscious, below the surface, hidden from our awareness. Perhaps when we are sleeping, that part of our mind is hard at work for us. Perhaps God even communicates to us through our unconscious when we are sleeping. Maybe God is telling me, “Rabbi, Rosh Hashana is coming. Get those sermons written!”