The Spiritual Life of Dreams

By Holly Lebowitz Rossi

Published February 06, 2004, issue of February 06, 2004.
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Call me crazy, but I am suspicious of anyone who claims to have heard a message from God delivered through his or her dreams. But if anyone could convince me that such a communication is possible, it’s Vanessa L. Ochs.

Ochs, a professor at the University of Virginia who is an expert on the history of Jewish spirituality, said that dreaming can be a spiritual activity and that dream interpretation is a practice that has its roots in the Bible and the Babylonian Talmud. Further, the practice of “dream incubation” enables people to project a question, topic or object into the universe and fall asleep anticipating a message, inspiration or insight.

So if you have Tu B’Shvat on the brain, the Jewish new year for trees that begins on February 6, tree-related symbols might appear in your dreams. An olive tree, the Talmud says, would mean that you will be blessed with abundance. The branch of a vine means that you can expect to greet the messiah.

Those meanings, which Ochs says were attached to trees in talmudic times because trees had a specific function and social role then, might not feel immediately obvious to modern dreamers. But the exercise of exploring what a tree might symbolize this Tu B’Shvat — rootedness? renewal? that you read “The Lorax” recently? — is in itself exciting and, forgive the pun, fruitful.

It also gives the layperson “the opportunity to be a midrashist,” Ochs said.

Dreams capture the creative imagination because they represent just that — the creative side of our psyches that is unfettered by such pesky constraints as gravity, time and space. Is it a coincidence that dreams have been the linchpins of so many icons of pop culture, from “The Wizard of Oz” to “The Matrix” to Bobby Ewing’s miraculous resurrection on “Dallas”?

Ochs’s most recent book, “The Jewish Dream Book: The Key to Opening the Inner Meaning of Your Dreams” (Jewish Lights), together with “Bible Dreams: The Spiritual Quest” (SPI) by Rabbi Seymour Rossel, show that dream interpretation is not solely the province of Hollywood screenwriters, Freudians and New-Agers but a practice that has its roots in some older Jewish tradions.

The journey into dreamland happened in very different ways for Ochs and Rossel, illuminating the differences between the two authors’ approaches. For his part, Rossel said he tapped into the vast treasure trove of biblical dream stories, from Abraham to Jacob, Joseph, Samuel and Solomon, while lecturing in his role as an adult educator for the Union for Reform Judaism.

Accordingly, Rossel discusses the activity of dream interpretation as serving a public function, a way for Jewish communities and families to share deeper insights than might occur to us in waking hours. “Those dreams which are significant are meant to serve a public function,” said Rossel, who urges people to discuss their dreams on a regular basis. “If you don’t share them with us, we’re losing that kind of creativity.”

Ochs’s entree into the subject came on a more personal level, when she and her teenage daughter, Elizabeth Ochs, embarked on a study session of Brakhot. The talmudic tractate is replete with material on dream symbolism and interpretation, and the mother-daughter team began

sharing thoughts and insights on a Jewish view of dreams. Lavishly illustrated by Kristina Swarner, “The Jewish Dream Book” is the result of their study together.

Dreams are intimate expressions of our inner yearnings, and a Jewish approach to dream interpretation connects with a larger trend in American spirituality, Ochs said.

The book’s purpose, she said, is that “particularly in an age where people are seeking a greater spirituality in their private experiences, to let them know that there are spiritual traditions of dreaming that shouldn’t be forgotten.”

Dream interpretation also has a religious function, both authors assert.

In ancient and biblical times, there were three major ways that God communicated with humanity: through visions, prophecies and dreams. Only dreaming is a universal experience that all Jews throughout time are guaranteed to have, so it makes sense that the rabbis who codified dream interpretation in the Talmud saw Jewish teachings reflected in the unconscious meanderings of the mind.

“The rabbinic sages found in the interpretation of dreams a way to affirm the Jewish values that they wanted to transmit,” Ochs said.

So do Jews dream Jewish dreams? Rossel thinks so.“There is a Jewish aspect to it that has to do with how you perceive your culture,” he said, “Jews will very rarely dream of a Jesus figure or a Mary figure, or dream of animal spirits as the Navajo do.”

Instead, he continued, “If you’re Jewish, you dream in Jewish ways. We look for things that are informative to our community,” such as images of healing, transformation or ways of coping with life stresses, from a divorce to a midlife crisis.

We are also searching for connection with God. For example, Rossel analyzes the patriarch Jacob’s dream in which he sees a ladder full of angels stretching into the sky as a moment of reconciliation between Jacob, who had tricked both his brother Esau and his father Isaac, as well as God. Jacob, Rossel argues, was unsure of whether God would consider him worthy after his actions. In the dream, God gave Jacob the answer for which he had hoped.

“It means that wherever the Jews go in the Diaspora, they’re not separate from Israel, they’re not separate from home,” Rossel said.

Ochs cites a verse from the book of Job that encapsulates the human yearning for a whispered word from God. She writes: “For God speaks time and again — though man does not perceive it — in a dream, a night vision, when deep sleep falls on men, while they slumber on their beds.”

The assumption that we have any control over what or how we dream might be an obstacle for skeptics. That’s where Rossel and Ochs come in.

Though Rossel’s volume is more analytical than practical, both books offer techniques and practices that will help readers looking to get more out of their dreams. Chief among these is “incubation,” in which you plant a subject or question in your mind after a pre-sleep purification ritual that may include a prayer or immersion in a mikvah. Ochs also lays out rituals to perform when you have a nightmare.

For hatavat chalom, or “making a dream better,” Ochs suggests that the dreamer should convene three friends or family members to help transform that post-nightmare feeling into something positive.

There is no way to inoculate against bad dreams, however. “We get good mail, and we get junk mail,” the Internet-savvy Ochs said. “Bad and scary stuff does get through.”

But, she added, “A dream should be opened, if you have your virus protection on.”

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