The Wisdom of Dreams

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

‘Akedat Yitzhak, Sha’ar Twenty-Nine

R. Arama dedicates this sha’ar to the insights given by the intellect or dreams on the one hand and prophecy on the other. Yosef tells Par’oh dream interpretation comes from Hashem, for R. Arama raising the question of how prophecy is any different. What light is shed by prophecy we cannot get from dreams?

I used the metaphor of shedding light because R. Arama did, noting we need light to see. He adds white light contains all other colors, the reason it can reflect all such shades. I am skipping his discussion of optics, a field of much concern to medieval and early modern scientists and philosophers, who wondered how the eye sees, the relationship between the object itself and the image in our heads, a philosophical question for them as much as a technical one—do we all really see the same objects, is your red my red, etc.

What Hashem Knows, and How

He dips into it only to remind us of the qualifative gap between our perceptions and Hashem’s (as it were). Hashem does not need light to see, because everything is found within Hashem; Hashem’s self-knowledge, so to speak, brings knowledge of all objects in existence. Nations that worship powers other than Hashem put themselves in darkness by their worship of those other powers, where the Jewish nation is held fully within Hashem’s purview (with a closer relationship and closer Providence), despite occasions when some or much of the nation puts itself in darkness by their sins [he isn’t quite clear; I think he means the Jewish nation never became or becomes wholly devoted to worship of another power, Gd forbid, is therefore still within Hashem’s self-perception when they sin. Other nations, sadly, can become dedicated, as a nation, to worship of such alien powers.]

Human Intellect, Wisdom, and Prophecy

Kohelet 2;13-14 uses the metaphor of light for human wisdom (wisdom has it over folly like light over darkness, the wise person has eyes in his head, where the fool walks in darkness). R. Arama says a wise person has eyes in his/her head because even a blind wise man “sees” the world better than a foolish or wisdom-rejecting person of ordinary sight.

Similar ideas underlie Mishle 6;23, mitzvot are like a candle, and Torah like light, showing us the path to take, mitzvot in specific areas, Torah more broadly. More examples of wisdom spoken of as sight come when Moshe tells Yitro he will be like eyes for the nation if he stays (Bamidbar 10), and the Sanhedrin were called the eyes of the Jewish people (Horayot 5b).

The idea is strongest for prophets, the reason excellent advice is sometimes compared to prophecy, as when II Shemuel 16 says Ahitophel’s advice was like speaking to Hashem. As would be true of someone who actually spoke with Hashem, Ahitophel’s counsel was always on target, although he got there purely intellectually. Par’oh, too, reacts to Yosef’s interpretation of his dream as if light has been brought to bear on a dark matter.

R. Arama thinks they are all of a piece, the intellectual process a matter of seeing how the world is interwoven, understanding cause and effect, chains of events, the kinds of insights enabling a person to read dreams as well. For Yosef, it started with the awareness of Gd, key to knowing how the world truly works.

[I think he means good dream interpretation and good advice both build on an understanding of the world, the better and broader one’s understanding, the better the insight. Without Hashem as part of the picture, a dream interpreter handicaps him/herself—s/he may come up with interesting pieces, but will be hampered by this huge and central missing element.]

Dreams: Psychology or Proto-Prophecy?

The idea of needing wisdom and insight to interpret a dream “correctly” assumes the dream reflects some objective truths, taps into a form of wisdom epitomized by prophecy. The Torah describes Yosef as interpreting each dream according to its truth, implying the dream had a set truth when first experienced.

At odds with that view, Berakhot 55b says dream depend on the meaning given by their interpreter, no matter whom. Berakhot 56a ratifies the point with a series of stories where Rava and Abbaye bring the same dream to the same interpreter; because Abbaye paid him and Rava did not (you get what you pay for…), the man interpreted the dream positively for Abbaye, negatively for Rava, getting it right for each. More surprising, R. Nehorai tells of having brought the same dream to twenty-four dream interpreters, being told a different interpretation by each, and all of them coming true!

The stories do not fit the model of dreams as divinely-granted truth, because how could they be subject to the interpreter’s whims?

On the other hand, a bit later, 57a, the Gemara offers stock symblisms for various items in dreams. At a conceptual level as well, R. Arama struggles with the idea Hashem would send a message about the future—as Yosef said, interpretations belong to Gd—and some dream interpreter could turn it on its head.

Levels of Information in Dreams

The answer lies in realizing dreams are not all the same (R. Arama connects the idea to Iyyov 33, a discussion I am not entertaining here). Hashem gives word of the near or far future—for people to prepare better for it—in three ways. There’s prophecy, where Hashem Himself appears, as Hashem told Aharon and Miriam in Bamidbar 12, be-mar’eh elav etvada, ba-halom addaber bo, in a vision I will make Myself known to him, in a vision I will speak with him.

Below that, there’s ruah ha-kodesh, divine spirit, where the recipient’s physicality is temporarily denied or suspended, as Daniel describes his encounters with angels and other metaphysical matter [R. Arama knows actual prophets sometimes speak that way as well, to him a sign they were early in their career, not as accustomed to the experience as they would later become. Rambam thought all prophets had to lose their physicality at the moment of prophecy].

Only Jews can have these experiences, as Moshe requested in Shemot 33;16, ve-niflinu ani ve-amekha, he and the Hashem’s nation be distinguished from all others (R. Arama is building off of Berakhot 7a, which understands Moshe to have asked for the Divine Presence not to rest on other nations).  The lowest level happens to all people, some of their drams having a bit of objective substance, some much more. Berakhot 57b says dreams are a sixtieth of prophecy, and R. Arama points out a sixtieth is the amount we elsewhere in halakha (Hullin 97b) view as small enough a presence to be considered nullified by the larger whole.

Dreams with any such substance challenge us to figure out which is which, a task leading many to turn to experts, dream interpreters or other wise people. Par’oh says to Yosef [remember, he is also studying Miketz], “I have heard you can hear a dream to interpret it,” a recognition of the skill needed to ferreting out true from false in a dream.

Dream Interpretation, A Brief Introduction

The ability to spot signal in the noise defines the levels of dream interpreters. Hazal did not mean dreams follow whatever the interpreter says, they meant those of the interpreter’s ideas the person who had the dream accepts, identifies as true once s/he hears it (giving the dreamer him/herself a role as well, only those parts of the interpretation that ring true being the ones that will come true.)

Each interpreter might miss other true parts of the dream, might have too little insight to understand or bring forth. Those parts will come true as well, although we may not recognize it when they do (because no interpreter alerted us to it).  The idea explains how two or three contrasting explanations can all be true, each expressing different elements of the dream [I think he fudges a bit here, because the case of R. Nehorai and the twenty four interpretations seems to mean they all interepreted the entire dream, or at least addressed the same main elements].

At the top of the pyramid, a truly excellent dream interpreter, like Yosef, might see the dream’s relevance in the moment, for the future, and for the Messianic era (as R. Arama said in the previous sha’ar).

The process must account for the dreamer him/herself: an armed robber or a Torah scholar would appropriately receive different interpretations for the same dream. Yoma 87b says one who sees himself hanging on a palm will be the head of the academy one day, where R.  Arama is sure such a reading of a dream can only be for Torah scholars. An armed robber who sees him/herself hanging on a palm should not expect the same result.

The multiple factors included in formulating an interpretation are why R. Yohanan (in Bereshit Rabbah and Berakhot 57a) said dreams follow the interpretation.

The Interpreter’s Control Over the Meaning, Or the Lack of It

His model explains to his satisfaction how Bar Hedaya could interpret the dreams so differently for Abbaye (who paid him) and Rava (who did not); he shared the good parts of the dream with the paying client, the bad parts with the non-paying one [the meaning of the dream wasn’t changing, the aspects of the dream shared with the client were]. It was a money-making ploy, a way to let the word go out it was worth paying him (although a free service, I think he means, people would quickly learn they got better results when they paid. Like basic and premium.]

He also knew Rava’s misfortunate life (as Rava himself says in Mo’ed Katan 28a, R. Arama reminds us, where he says children, life, and food—family, health, and finances, I think– are not a matter of merits, implying he had a hard life), giving him a sense of what the dream would mean for Rava [like a mentalist.]

One incident in the series tells R. Arama he must be right. Bar Hedaya told Rava about a flaw in the writing of his mezuzot, and it turned out to be true. There’s no way Bar Hedaya’s choice of interpretation erased mezuzot at Rava’s house.

[I am sympathetic to his resistance to indeterminate dreams, defined only by their interpreter. I am less sure of his specific claims about Bar Hedaya, whose interpretations for Rava and Abbaye refer to the same parts of the dream. R. Arama is about to point out another problem; he will try to explain it away, not fully convincingly to me.]

Rava eventually found out dreams follow the interpretation and the Gemara tells us he was angry with Bar Hedaya; were R. Arama right, there would be no reason for anger, because Bar Hedaya didn’t affect the outcome. R. Arama says the anger came because he realized Bar Hedaya could have chosen to emphasize other elements, and/or shared the unfortunate parts more gently, as a warning how to avoid them. Shabbat 11a tells us a fast can avert or redirect the bad of a dream, where Bar Hedaya presented it as a fait accompli, all because he was not paid

[This is a piece of Gemara we will encounter soon in daf yomi, for those studying it, and it’s odd either way; did Rava think dreams were set in stone, impervious to prayer or fasting? Did he see Abbaye receive a good interpretation for the exact same dream, and never stop to wonder? For another time.]

R. Arama has now laid the groundwork to consider the parsha, has staked his view of dreams as revealing more or less truth, depending on the person, and dream interpreters as more or less accurate, depending on the person. How it worked in Miketz, we’ll see next time.

About Gidon Rothstein

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