Thursday, November 14, 2013

On Dreams, Part 1: Bread and Dreaming (portion Vayeshev)

 At first glance, our tradition’s most curious blessing is HaMotzi, which we say before consuming a meal with bread.  Consider the literal translation of the Hebrew: “We praise You, Sovereign of the Cosmos, who brings forth bread from the earth.”  Odd, for even a young child knows that God does not “bring forth bread from the earth.”  God, as it were, makes wheat.  It is up to us to grind that wheat into flour and then bake it into bread.

But the Rabbis teach that this divine/human partnership is the whole point of the blessing.  Bread is the paradigmatic Jewish food, the one that turns a nosh into a meal, because it points to the true nature of creation: God provides the raw materials, but what we do with them, for good or ill, is up to us.

With this in mind, let us turn to this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, and an insight from the Hasidic commentator Mei HaShiloach.  His focus is on dreams, which lie at the heart of the parasha, which features Joseph as both a dreamer and a dream interpreter.  Mei HaShiloach teaches: “All things of the world are like a dream that needs interpretation.  ‘Bread’ (lechem) is a word made of the same Hebrew letters as ‘dream’ (chalom).  This is because both bread and dreams must be ‘interpreted’ as must all things from which we derive benefit.”

What is Mei HaShiloach saying?  That for Joseph—and for us—dreams, like wheat, constitute a sort of starting point, but what matters more than the “ingredients” with which we begin is what we make with those ingredients.

By way of example, our tradition offers a little-known ceremony called hatavat chalom in which a person can transform a troubling and seemingly nightmarish dream into a good one by convening three witnesses and declaring in front of them: “Master of the Universe: I have dreamed a dream and do not know what it is. . . May it be your will that all my dreams shall be for good.  If they are good dreams, strengthen and reinforce them.  But if they require healing, heal them.  As you have transformed the curse of Balaam from a curse to a blessing, so shall you transform all of my dreams to good. . .”   The witnesses then proclaim the dream a good one, thereby nullifying all of its ill effects.

What a beautiful model this offers us all, and not just in our dreams!  Life is less about what happens to us than how we consciously choose to respond to our fate.  May we find the strength and courage to interpret our dreams—and the events and choices of our waking life, enjoyable and difficult alike—for blessing.

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