Torah | Realizing our dreams and those of our people


Genesis 41:1-44:17

Zechariah 2:14-4:7

The first time I met my mentor, Rabbi Avi Weiss, he asked me in a low, soft voice: “Yonatan, tell me about your dreams.” In the years that followed, in yeshiva and then as rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, I quickly learned that dreams form the bedrock of vibrant communities.

As we know, dreams play a critical role in the Book of Genesis. Surely, Abraham was the father of all dreamers. Only a dreamer would have responded to God’s call to go to an undiscovered land. Similarly, Jacob’s dream of the angels ascending and descending the heavenly ladder captures our longing to spiritually reach the divine.

But above all, Joseph is the Torah’s quintessential dreamer. Joseph, ba’al hachlomet — “Joseph, the one who is possessed by dreams,” as his brothers mocked him — initially paid a heavy price for his dreams. With time however, Joseph’s dreams also became a source of power and inner strength. Joseph’s ability to interpret the ministers’ dreams in prison, and thereafter the meaning of Pharaoh’s dream in the royal palace, ultimately allowed him to become Egypt’s viceroy, a true man of power.

In this sense, Genesis is truly the book of dreamers. It teaches that every beginning requires a dreamer and that every great change is defined by a dream.

Jewish law also recognizes the power of dreams. Countless rabbinic passages discuss rules and customs related to dreaming. In fact, according to Jewish law a person is permitted, even encouraged, to fast and pray after experiencing a bad dream. One should even afflict oneself as one does during a traditional fast day, lest the bad dream reflected a bad omen or came as a result of past transgressions.

In a similar vein, the Talmud records prayers composed by our early rabbis to be said upon experiencing a dream. One prayer is particularly powerful: “Master of the world, I belong to You and my dreams belong to You. I have dreamed a dream and I do not know what it is. Whether I dreamed about myself or about others, or my companions dreamed about me, if they are good dreams, confirm them and reinforce them like the dreams of Joseph, and if they require a remedy, heal them, as Moses sweetened the waters of Marah” (Tractate Brachot 55b).

In a moving teaching Rabbi Yochanan notes three indications that a dream will be fulfilled: “Three types of dreams come true: a dream that occurs in the early morning hours, a dream dreamed by one person for another person, and a dream that is resolved within a dream” (ibid.).

I believe that Rabbi Yochanan’s enigmatic advice is not only a guide to predicting an unforeseen outcome; it must also be read as advice for proactively making our dreams come true.

The first type of dream is “a dream that occurs in the early morning hours.” It is a dream on the verge of wakefulness. Every dream must retain a certain level of connection to reality in order to see the light of day.

The second type is “a dream dreamed by one person for another person.” It is a shared dream. Dreams can’t be realized in a vacuum of apathy and lack of concern for the dreams of others. Dreams require communal support. For our dreams to come true, we need to be deeply invested in each other’s lives to the point that we start dreaming each other’s dreams.

The third type is “a dream that is resolved within a dream.” In this case, a person dreams two dreams, with one of the dreams offering a resolution or explanation of the other. Perhaps this type of dream captures the notion that truly grand dreams must offer and create space, and ultimately allow for the resolution, of other smaller dreams. Indeed, I would argue that authentic communities must create sacred spaces in which personal dreams find spiritual support, religious guidance and realization within the larger, collective dream.

This Hanukkah, as we celebrate the rededication of our holy Temple, and as we enter more deeply into the dreamscape of Joseph, let us also rededicate ourselves to our dreams. May our dreams be on the verge of wakefulness, may we share in each other’s dreams, and may our individual dreams find expression and resolution in the ultimate dream of our people.

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. He can be reached at [email protected]


Rabbi Yonatan Cohen

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. He can be reached at [email protected].