In times of prolonged pain, be it emotional or physical, our world constricts and perspectives contract. We focus on the moment-to-moment or the day-to-day. Right now, this describes many of us.
The waves of pandemic (and waves of variants) evoke waves of trauma that we have yet to process. We have long since put aside aspirations of self-actualization and seek merely to preserve aspects of ourselves from two years ago. Uncertainty of the future is itself a source of pain, and we have stopped dreaming about what it might hold – or what we could create.
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Miketz (Genesis 41:1 – 44:17) shows why dreams are so important – perhaps now more than ever. We read:
After two years’ time, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, when out of the Nile there came up seven cows, handsome and sturdy, and they grazed in the reed grass.
But presently, seven other cows came up from the Nile close behind them, ugly and gaunt, and stood beside the cows on the bank of the Nile; and the ugly gaunt cows ate up the seven handsome sturdy cows. And Pharaoh awoke.
He fell asleep and dreamed a second time: Seven ears of grain, solid and healthy, grew on a single stalk. But close behind them sprouted seven ears, thin and scorched by the east wind.
And the thin ears swallowed up the seven solid and full ears. Then Pharaoh awoke: it was a dream!
Pharaoh’s magicians cannot make sense of his dreams, but Pharaoh does not give up. What he saw in his dream is too significant to pass by – even if he does not yet know what it signifies. In time, Joseph is summoned, due to his reputation for interpreting other people’s dreams. He sees clearly into the Pharaoh’s and predicts seven years of plenty followed by seven years of scarcity. The Pharaoh prepares accordingly, setting aside food stores to ensure Egypt’s survival during the future famine.
Joseph not only staves off profound pain and suffering but also shows that dreaming is not something that happens to us passively while we sleep. It is something that requires deep introspection, dialogue, and insight. While we cannot control our dreams, we can surface them, engage with them, and see how they call us to action.
It is this active, forward-looking process that many of us have had to put aside during this present time of travail. Yet as Parshat Miketz also shows, it is precisely in these times of upheaval – or forthcoming upheaval – that our dreams can provide guidance and enable us to take visionary steps. Our dreams enable us to move beyond the present and look forward, and perhaps even discover a path back towards self-actualization.
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and the Director of Leadership Formation at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies.