I had a bad dream, a חלום רע — cholom ra.
Its total duration seemed to have been a week though in reality probably no more than an hour. It lingered longer, however, following me into the daytime, challenging my reality, and painting my blue sky gray.
Dreams, in Jewish tradition, oppose the modern theory that dreams have no inherent meaning on their own. Contemporary research posits that neurological structures in the brain become activated while we are asleep and assess, process, and encode the day’s activities somehow. In contrast, dreams were thought to confer the power of prophecy on the dreamer in bygone days. The Talmud states that “dreams are one-sixtieth of prophecy,” while averring that dreams contain nonsense, and interpretations are up to the interpreter.
In the Torah we read of Joseph’s dreams in the house of Pharaoh and their interpretation. In the first dream, he described his brothers’ wheat sheaves bowing his own upright sheaf. Further, he dreamed the sun, moon, and eleven stars, representing his parents and brothers, bowing to him. The brothers pejoratively call him a dreamer and conspire to throw him in a pit, sell him to traveling Ishmaelites, and end with Joseph being sold to Potifar in Egypt. Joseph was imprisoned, and while there, interprets two dreams for which events passed as he said. Then the Pharaoh had the dream of the seven emaciated cows consuming the seven fat cows which none of the magicians in Egypt could explain. Pharaoh gave Joseph a chance, and his interpretation so pleased Pharaoh, that Joseph became the chief minister in Egypt. Events came to pass as Joseph foresaw (Genesis 37-41) and the Israelites flourished.
Likewise, the Book of Daniel relates Daniel’s parallel elevation in status after his interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams.
Many other cultures have traditions of interpreting dreams. The Babylonians discuss dreams and perform dream rituals in The Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2100 BC). Through ancient times, escalating with Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, to the modern Dream Interpretation Dictionary online, people want to know the meaning of these nocturnal visions.
I love to sleep, largely I suspect, because of my dreams. They defy Hollywood‘s brilliance. My dreams are in Technicolor. Sight, sound, smell, and texture surround me. Strangely, however, I see myself from the vantage point of an observer. I am the star of my own movie. The dreams are bigger than life and often better than life. I can fly. I have power not experienced in the real. My dreams thrill and intrigue me. Sometimes, like on that night however, they are bad.
The morning of this bad dream, I awoke with the foreboding of terrible outcome. Someone dear to me would 1) lose her life, or 2) his fortune, or 3) their mutual respect and love. I’m not going to say which one it was, but you get the idea. I stood by watching myself in my dream, helpless to change an outcome. I didn’t stay asleep to see the actual thing happen; I awoke shaking, sweaty, desiring coffee.
Although I’m not a lucid dreamer, I would like to become one: confronting bogeymen, kissing handsome princes, and filling my arms with treasures. Other times I would want to be a benevolent teacher, directing others in my dreams to learn from me, instructing them in life skills that avoid evil and promulgate good. I’ve wanted this ability since childhood but don’t know how to cultivate it. One more item for the bucket list.
Ritual prayers exist to avert ill effects from bad dreams, like the paragraphs said under our breaths during the Priestly Blessing (birkat Kohanim). But mostly, we Jews have a tradition: to learn the true meaning of dreams, we must be on a very high spiritual level. I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it.
May we all be blessed with only beautiful dreams, and banish the bad dreams forever.