Dreaming is something we all experience (ideally while sleeping at night, but at times during the day - albeit never during class!). Dreams can be vividly animated, yet when we are jarred from our reveries and forced to reenter the atmosphere of reality, the details often become hazy and obscure. The Jewish Nobel laureate, Shai Agnon, eloquently articulated this sentiment upon his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966. He remarked (in translation), “As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But I always regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem. In a dream, in a vision of the night, I saw myself standing with my brother Levites in the Holy Temple, singing with them the songs of David, King of Israel, melodies such as no ear has heard since the day our city was destroyed and its people went into exile. I suspect that the angels in charge of the Shrine of Music, fearful lest I sing in wakefulness what I had sung in dream, made me forget by day what I had sung at night; for if my brethren, the sons of my people, were to hear, they would be unable to bear their grief over the happiness they have lost. To console me for having prevented me from singing with my mouth, they enable me to compose songs in writing.”
Parashat VaYeishev is framed by two sets of dreams, Yosef’s dreams and the butler and baker’s dreams. While it is apparent that dreams play a pivotal role in the lives of Yaakov and Yosef, the importance of these biblical dreams to us is not as obvious. One simple, yet profound, message is the value of vision, the need to dream.
The dreams the Torah records are more than prognostications of the future. The Torah’s dreams open a window to the vision and perspective that shaped the destiny of our people. Revisiting Yaakov Avinu’s first dream at the beginning of Parshat VaYeitzei, we see that after fourteen sleepless years in the study hall of Shem and Aver, Yaakov deliberately sleeps at the holiest place in the world, the site of Yitzchak’s Akeidah and future home of the Beit HaMikdash. What compelled Yaakov to sleep there; the accommodations were far from luxurious? Rav Mayer Twersky shlita explained (“Continuing to Grow While Facing Adult Priorities and Pressures,” Torahweb.org) that Yaakov consciously went to sleep in order to dream about his future. Embarking on a new stage in life and aware that new terrain would test his mettle, Yaakov Avinu seized this opportunity to chart his destiny. Without proper planning and strategy and without his dreams, Yaakov realized that he could easily fall prey to Lavan’s influence. The dream of a terrestrial ladder that reached heavenward portrayed Yaakov’s yearning for spiritual ascent in all of the earthly challenges he would encounter.
Expounding on Rav Twersky’s poignant analysis, the vision and perspective linked to the dreams of our forefathers have particular significance as a preface to the hostile environment of Galut. This idea is evident in Parshas VaYigash (BeReishit 46:2) as Yaakov and family descended to Egypt and Hashem addressed Yaakov, “BaMa’arot HaLailah,” in visions of the night. Rav Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk explains in his Meshech Chochmah that Yaakov’s dream of Hashem’s protective promise was a prelude to the night of the Egyptian exile. Both of Yaakov’s dreams provide a vision for the future and cast a ray of light to penetrate the impending darkness of exile.
Yosef’s dreams in this week’s Parashah can be understood in the same vein. Yosef’s life in general, and specifically the challenges he faced in Egypt, paralleled Yaakov’s life and the challenges Yaakov endured in Charan (see Rashi 37:2 citing BeReishit Rabbah 84:6). For this reason, Yosef was the primary heir of the unique teachings, the “survival skills,” Yaakov had been taught at the academy of Shem and Aver (see Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky zt”l’s Emet LeYaakov beginning of this week’s Parashah, 37:3 and beginning of Parshat VaYeitzei 28:11). Just as Yaakov’s dreams fortified him and enabled him to rise to the challenges that faced him, Yosef’s dreams were his blueprint of survival in the foreign, hostile and immoral environment of Egypt.
Fast-forwarding over three and a half millennia, for us, a critical message of these patriarchal dreams is the importance of vision and future aspirations as individuals and as members of Am Yisrael. The magnitude of this message is underscored by its link to the nighttime of exile through which we continue to grope. As individuals, we must fortify ourselves by dreaming about our future, formulating spiritual goals to develop as Bnei Torah and create families that will uphold, uplift, and perpetuate the beauty and traditions of Torah. As a community we must dream, yearning for the dawn of our redemption and the complete, peaceful, and harmonious restoration of Eretz Yisrael and our Beit HaMikdash.
The upcoming holiday of Chanukah, a holiday associated with the power of Torah (see HaAmek Davar beginning of Parshat Tetzaveh, Shemot 27:20) and the relics of our Beit HaMikdash (see Ramban beginning of Parshat BeHa’alotecha, BeMidbar 8:2 and Ran, Shabbat comments to 21b) is a perfect time to reawaken our nationalistic dreams and inspire our personal aspirations.
The Torah’s dreams and the festival of lights challenge us to continue dreaming and formulating plans and strategies to be better people and a stronger nation. Together we yearn for the day when all Jews will become dreamers, and all of our dreams will be realized; evoking the rays of our redemption will illuminate the entire world with the knowledge of Hashem and the resplendent repertoire of Am Yisrael.