I have often wondered how much faith we should place in our dreams, by which I mean our actual dreams, the ones that happen while we’re asleep and range from vivid fantasies to recurring episodes of not being prepared a test. While it’s easy to dismiss dreams as frivolous, social scientists and researchers point to dreams as an important mechanism for processing emotions, problem solving, and working through anxiety. Sigmund Freud famously encouraged us all to take our dreams seriously; they are, he said, windows into the deep unconscious.
But dreams took center stage long before Freud, in the biblical story of Joseph. For those of you who, like me, grew up singing along with Donny Osmond’s “Any Dream Will Do” from the cast album of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the message is clear: our tradition believes that, at a minimum, dreams are a worthy subject of discussion. They might even be the key to our success or failure. After all, it is Joseph’s dreams of wheat and stars that initiates a series of events that ultimately sends him to Egypt, where he makes his way up in the ranks, through the very vehicle that launched his journey: his ability to successfully interpret dreams, first for the butcher and baker and then for Pharaoh.
It is not, however, the dreams themselves but how Joseph understands and acts upon them that charts his path forward—for both good and ill—first landing him in a dark and dangerous pit for arrogantly sharing his dreams with his brothers and, later, placing him in the highest offices of power by reading Pharoah’s dreams as a call to protect the vulnerable population of Egypt from famine.
Every year, this beloved tale of Joseph the Dreamer is read on the Shabbat of Chanukah, and this is not coincidental. Both the Chanukah and Joseph stories begin in places of great darkness and danger, yet, ultimately, through the power of dreams—both literal and figurative—end in joy and fulfillment.
This year in particular, the lesson of dreaming feels more acute. The dream of health and protection has been elusive for so many. And yet who has not spent time dreaming about trips and activities they hope to, once again, experience? It is fundamentally human to continue to dream, even during our darkest moments, in the hopes of ushering in a new reality. It is not the dreams themselves but the hard work towards fulfilling these dreams, as fantastical as they may seem, that moves a vision forward, step by step.
This week, on Chanukah, as we read the story of Joseph, we’e seen glimpses of hope and even dream fulfillment as the first vaccines are distributed. And I’d like to think that this is no coincidence, but rather a wink from our tradition, reminding us that dreams and the work we do to make them happen, individually and collectively, do, in fact, matter.