Mar. 3rd, 2010

estherhugenholtz: For discussing Torah and mitzvot (V'ahavta)

A Dutch proverb says: "dreams are deceptive". However, when speaking from within the Jewish tradition, I couldn’t disagree more. In this D’var Haftarah from 1 Kings on parashat Miketz, we will explore the significance and prophetic value of dreams.

Someone else who who believed in the power of dreams was the late Reverend Martin Luther King. In his momentous 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial, he bravely stated:

 "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." 

Further on in his speech, the late Reverend King cites from Amos and Isaiah, referencing the idea that in his dream of a better world, a more racially equitable world, righteousness will roar like streams and and every valley shall be exalted. The power of his words and of his dream echo across the generations.

In parashat Miketz, it is Pharoah’s dream--whose leadership represents the antithesis of freedom and social equality--that echoes across the generations. He dreams of seven fat cows being devoured by seven lean cows followed by a dream about seven solid ears of grain being swallowed up by seven thin ears of grain (Gen. 41:2-7). Many of us know what happens next: Joseph, the lowly Hebrew prisoner in his dungeon, is able to successfully interpret his dreams and is ‘exalted’ (to extend the metaphor from Isaiah) to a position of being the capable viceroy of Egypt.

The Haftarah links beautifully to this parasha where the evocative power of dreams is combined with wise judgement in leadership. The haftarah tells the story of how Shlomo haMelech acquired an ‘understanding heart’. Before his building of the Beit haMikdash, he--like his fellow Israelites at the time--brought offerings to God on the bamot, the high places. After offering a generous sacrifice in Gibeah, God appears to him in a dream. When God asks Shlomo what he wants, Shlomo answers wisely: he does not yearn after riches, power or success but rather after wisdom to judge right from wrong:


וְנָתַתָּ לְעַבְדְּךָ לֵב שֹׁמֵעַ, לִשְׁפֹּט אֶת-עַמְּךָ, לְהָבִין, בֵּין-טוֹב לְרָע:

"Will you give your servant an understanding heart to judge your people and to know the difference between good and evil". (I Kings 3:9)

God honors Shlomo’s request and he is given a heart that has the ability to listen (lishmoa), understand and judge fairly. In fact, immediately after Shlomo’s awakening (and him offering more to God in gratitude), Melachim Aleph narrates the story of two prostitutes living under one roof. Two prostitutes appear before Shlomo’s court and argue about the claim to a remaining living child. One of the mothers accidently killed her newborn by laying on top of him but it is not clear which of the two women is responsible for her child’s death. Both claim to be sincere about wanting to maintain custody over her rightful child.

It is through Shlomo’s wisdom and careful listening that he is able to discern the truth: because the true mother refers to the living child first (demonstrating her maternal love) while the false claimant emphasises the dead child (thus emphasizing her claim to possession). Shlomo, after trying the women with a trial that near-wagers the child’s life, goes on to judge correctly:

"The king said, "One says, ‘This is my son, the live one, and the dead one is yours’; and the other says, ‘No, the dead boy is yours mine is the live one.’So the king gave the order, "Fetch me a sword."A sword was brought before the king, and the king said, "Cut the live child in two, and give half to one and half to the other." (1 Kings 3:23-24)

Of course, his threat to kill and divide the child is only a ploy to pry the truth out of the women. Though shocking and traumatic to modern sensibilities, he appeals to the maternal instinct to place the interests of the child above all. He prooves apt at both seeing the big picture while at the same time recognizing that ‘God is in the details’. His close listening prooves effective.

In response, the people stand in awe of their wise king. This really is a turning point in Shlomo’s royal career. Previously, he had taken his royal lineage for granted after having secured the kingship with the help of the plotting of his mother Batshebah. Before, he was a king in title only. But at this moment, he is crowned with wisdom.

The haftarah is clear about the role of dreaming in this character development. It is through dreaming that Shlomo realizes where his priorities should be and it is through dreaming that he attains the ‘ruach hakodesh’--the holy spirit--with which to judge wisely. It is then no surprise, after the people’s enthusiastic and awestruct acceptance of his kingship, that Melachim Aleph recounts how his people know peace, security and prosperity, ‘with every man under his figtree and vine’. Under wise and equitable leadership, the people are content and the intention of God’s Torah is fulfilled.

The Talmud Bavli comments on the power and significance of dreams. In Masechet B’rachot 57b, it is stated that ‘a dream is one-sixtieth of prophecy’, just like Shabbat is one-sixtieth of the World to Come and sleep is one-sixtieth of death. Why one-sixtieth? Because this fraction represents a liminal moment. Just as one-sixtieth of chametz on Pesach or treif food in a kosher pot can determine or influence the status of the said food, one-sixtieth of prophecy in dreams hints at the budding potential of true wisdom in our dreams. Not a fully actualized potential, but one waiting to be unfolded.

Furthermore, the Talmud puns on the connection between Shlomo and dreams as it states earlier on the page that ‘if one sees Shlomo in a dream, one may hope for wisdom’. The connection between dreams, prophecy and wisdom in Jewish tradition is profound and ancient.

Yet, this is not where the story ends. Dreams may not be real but they call upon us to be realized. Ruach hakodesh is in vain when a dream that calls upon justice is not materialized. Martin Luther King didn’t merely state that he had a dream as a far-off messianic vision or as a figment of a fanciful imagination. No, his very and every intention is that his dream would come true. Dreams can be translated into hope and hope can be galvanized into action.

Both the parashah and haftarah teach us about the actualization of dreams: the despot Pharaoh, through the implementation of Joseph’s wisdom, was able to stave off famine for his people (though I am sure his motives weren’t entirely altruistic). Likewise, Shlomo took his dream to heart and fulfilled it immediately (the ‘smichut parshiyot’, the joining of the verses narrating his dream and his judgement of the prostitutes is significant in this regard). He judged wisely, knowing ‘good from evil’ but furthermore, he judged compassionately. Two lowly women--like the lowly Joseph--appeared before him. He could have sentenced them to death for prostitution or taken away the child from either of them altogether. However, his ‘understanding heart’ allowed him to judge with both din (judgement) and chesed (loving-kindness), a perfect balance of God’s justice in our world.

Dreams are not deceptive. They are only deceptive if they lure us away from loftier goals and ideals, if they imbue upon us a sense of fear, despair or worthlessness. But some dreams are worth dreaming--and pursuing. Dream a good dream of justice--be it in the small things of personal life or in the large scheme of the world--and pursue it arduously. And know that these inner prophecies may indeed come from God.

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Esther Hugenholtz

January 2011

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