Joseph, Freud, and Dreams of Hope
By Malki Rose
“A Song of Ascents. When God brings about the return to Zion, we were like dreamers. Then our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with joyous song.”
This week’s parsha, VaYeshev, marks the prophetic introduction to the children of Israel.
According to the Torah, a lovely young lad named Joseph, the son of Jacob (aka Israel), who feels different and mistreated by his brothers, has recurring dreams of greatness, whereby he sees eleven sheaves of corn bowing down to his own sheaf of corn, and then later sees eleven stars, the sun and the moon, bow to a star which he felt symbolised him.
As Rashi, Lloyd-Webber and many others have explained, the brothers were not at all impressed with his arrogant delusions of grandeur and eventually decide to do away with him, initially by ‘throwing him into a pit’.
From there begins a journey of a man who achieves such historically unique and extraordinary heights that he is unanimously adored, celebrated and worshipped by multiple nations and religions and indeed the annals of history.
As per his dreams, Joseph, (or according to Egyptology, Imhotep) is eventually, crowned Prince of Heliopolis (or ‘On’ according to the Torah), Vizier, Chief Architect, sets up the worlds first example of a large-scale capitalist economy and for the first and only time in history a man not of noble birth is venerated not just by all of Egypt but by his own Pharaoh. (Symbolised in his dream by the ‘Sun’)
Dreams can come true.
On closer inspection of the story, it appears that the pit Joseph was thrown into was a “pit” of despair and of confusion. The torah tells us that the pit, like the later prison cell “had nothing in it, it was empty”. As Joseph’s almost inconceivable adventures continue, it starts to look like a journey of exploration of his own self, a test of ones limits and an attempt to stretch beyond the emptiness and into the furthermost realms of the psyche. The ‘empty pit’ in which he is flung, in these terms, would essentially be akin to Lewis Carroll’s ‘rabbit hole’, a deep, dark avenue to exploration of strangely impossible and unchartered places in the mind, replete with the ‘snakes and scorpions’, perhaps Joseph’s inner demons which he must face, as well as that which Hamlet might have paraphrased as the “‘snakes and scorpions’ of outrageous fortune”.
Eventually, like young Alice, Joseph realizes that the only way to conquer the muddled pathways of our psyche’s hopes and fears is to learn to navigate them with an almost child-like optimism and sense of adventure.
These dreams were not just the beginning of one great man’s journey, but also the journey of a nation through an exile of the psyche and towards a dream of greatness, wholeness and a fulfillment of its national self.
The ancient world understood the value of the dream. The ancients understood that the unbidden communication in the night opens sleepers to a world different from the one they manage during the day. A strange but useful communication whereby our higher purposes (call it spiritual or call it existential), perplexing and unreasonable as they might be, come to us, and require interpretation in order to be truly useful.
In our allegedly ‘enlightened’ world, we ‘reason’ away anything lacking in rational, manageable credibility. Our modern aim – to always control the ‘darkness’ which could yield any force of potential disruption, and missing the chance to use these ‘disruptions’ to our individual or collective betterment. This commitment to maintaining control over all rational aspects of our lives means we often fail to listen to our dreams.
Freud termed dreams “the royal road to the unconscious” and worked to transpose the religious dimension of dreams into a better understood psychological reality.
Dreams were taken to be a disclosure of the denied part of the self; particularly the self’s repressed desires.
Freud seems to agree with the Talmudic or Torah approach to ‘dream interpretation’ as understanding that which G-d ‘reveals’ (Manifest content) and analysing that which remains ‘concealed’ (Latent content.)
Freud’s approach, despite being apparently ‘new-fangled’, utilized an almost Midrashic interpretive method, which involved the analysis of the various layers of manifest and latent content, of symbols, words, phrasing and images and remains consistent with the perspective of the ancient texts.
Dreams are recognized as disclosures of otherness, an otherness that may indeed open up an authentic reality and to a truth that lies beyond apparent reason. But as Freud rightly asserted, that, as with Joseph, everything depends on interpretation. Some dreamers, like Pharaoh for example, may have lacked the imagination or analytical skill needed to decipher the hidden self and its repressed desires.
Joseph’s Pharaoh gave him the name ‘Zaphnat Paneah’, which means ‘Revealer of Mysteries’. A name certainly befitting of a man whose interpretive acumen was so finely tuned to deciphering hidden content.
Dream interpretation can, as Freud asserted, pertain to psychological matters and the reality of repression. But it is not limited to those concerns. Dreams can, as we see with the story of Joseph, symbolise larger realities and possible futures, not just symbols of our past and present.
Such is the case of Martin Luther King Jr and his famous pronouncement of “I Have a Dream” in August 1963.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood . . . I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today! . . . I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
Four hundred years ago this too may sadly have been viewed as arrogant silliness, witchcraft perhaps, certainly a racial impossibility.
Even in 1963 King’s dream was a gift of imagination from beyond the realm of political or societal realism, projecting a wish for a future world, which he hoped would come to be. To believe that one day a slave could sit with slave owners as equals, would be like the ‘wolf lying down with the lamb’. If a time traveler had shown him Oprah Winfrey or Sidney Poitier, he might have indeed thought it to be only an impossible dream.
It is the inner drive for greatness that is the source for our dreams of redemption. After death, the Talmud teaches, the soul is questioned by the heavenly tribunal: “Tzapita layeshua?” “Did you anticipate the redemption?” (Shabbat 31a) The Rabbanim spoke of the obligation to yearn for our national return to the Land of Israel. Yet the logic of this approach is not obvious. On the surface what practical function is there in yearning for that which is beyond the realm of control or possibility? There is something outside our controlled management of reality which when heeded can generate great change and self or national fulfillment.
Every person has hidden talents or qualities that seek to be realized. The more intense the goal; The greater the yearning and persistence for it to be fulfilled.
The Gemara tells us “Do not disregard any blessing” (Megilla 15a) to understand the significance of our dreams and prayers, do not underestimate the power of a few encouraging words or images, for they have the ability to help us realize our hidden potential.
The concept is valid for both the individual and the nation. The potential for greatness exists in every person and in every nation; it is what we choose to do with that which is presented to us. So as Freud would have it, a dream becomes not necessarily ‘prophecy’, but perhaps ‘self fulfilling prophecy’.
Undoubtedly, the unprecedented return of the Jewish people to their homeland in 1948 could not have occurred without the existence of a persistent, yearning dream to do so.
Just as our private dreams are an expression of our inner talents, inspiring us to develop them, so too, our national dreams, even in the darkest hours, facilitate the return to Zion and the future fulfillment of our complete redemption.
Hence the phrase in Tehillim “we were like dreamers” (Hayinu K’Cholmim). This psalm offers an inspiring description of the redemption of the Jewish people and their return to the Land of Israel.
For it is dreams which (just as they did for Joseph who sat in a pit and prison of despair) keep one’s hope and faith of what will be, alive, and ultimately generate their own reality.
The only way out of the pit, prison, exile, or rabbit hole… is to dream our way out.
Dream it, believe it. Make it happen.