Drash on Parashat Vayeshev
Rabbi Dr Orna Triguboff
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra
Dreams, Sleep and Inspiration
This week’s Torah reading ends with Joseph in prison in Egypt. He has been jailed unfairly and during his incarceration, has been able to successfully interpret the dreams of the royal baker and butler. Joseph’s skill in interpreting dreams will one day save him. Wisdom regarding dreams and sleep are found in many of the teachings of the sages and are particularly relevant in this day and age, where the number of people with sleep issues is astronomical.
The Talmud describes dreams as being 1/60th of prophecy, saying that every dream has a glimmer of truth or wisdom within it. The Talmud also states that the interpretation of a dream is dependent on the person giving the interpretation, possibly implying that discussing dreams with another can be useful. To jump a few millenia, Freud said that a dream unexplored is like a letter unopened.
Underpinning discussions about dreams and sleep, is the concept that each person has a physical body and a soul. According to the Zohar Book of Radiance, when a person goes to sleep, the soul lifts out of the body and goes on a spiritual journey. It relates to one of the prayers said before sleep: be-yadcha afkid ruchi, be-eit ishan “Into your hand I entrust my spirit, when I go to sleep.”; and to the morning prayer modeh ani lefaneich, she-hechezarta bi nishmati – “I give thanks before You, that you returned my soul to me.”
These two prayers bookend the particular journey of the soul (or psyche) during sleep. The part of the soul that remains in the body during sleep is called the chiyuta d’liba “Life force of the Heart”.
As the soul journeys in the spiritual realms, it has what we experience as dreams and they can be varied and come from different levels in the spiritual worlds. The Zohar goes on to describe experiences of ascent of the soul into Garden of Eden type spaces, where lush vistas are experienced by all the senses. Other sages describe learning at celestial academies, where knowledge is gained and insights are revealed. These ideas and realisations are then brought back during the waking state.
The 13th Century teacher, Isaac of Acre wrote about an intriguing state of consciousness called nim-ve lo-nim “sleep but not sleep”. This state occurs as a person wakes up and only if the person doesn’t jump out of bed immediately. It is a time of drifting from sleep to waking, and from waking to sleep. This liminal state can last for a few minutes and can be a blessed time to remember the night’s journey of the soul. Insights, new ideas and dreams might all be accessed during this in-between state.
Whether it is discussing a dream with someone close to you, or deciding to wake up gently one morning so as to give time for remembering the night’s experiences, Judaism has some fascinating ideas about sleep and dreams.
During Chanukah, I hope you can join the “8 days of Light” emails I will be sending out and the online music and meditation session for Chanukah and all the other wonderful offerings of the UPJ.