A Dream Follows the Mouth

Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Mevarekhim Ha'Hodesh
Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD

Professor, Rabbinic Studies
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD, is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and former Chair of the Department of Rabbinics for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She also enjoys serving as the Ziegler School’s faculty advisor for “InterSem,” a dialogue program for students training for religious leadership at Jewish and Christian seminaries around the Los Angeles area. Dr. Labovitz formerly taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Prior to joining the faculty at AJU, Dr. Labovitz worked as the Senior Research Analyst in Judaism for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and as the Coordinator for the Jewish Women’s Research Group, a project of the Women’s Studies Program at JTS. Rabbi Labovitz is also preparing a teshuva (rabbinic responsum) for consideration by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly on whether a person who is unable to fast for medical reasons may nonetheless serve as a leader of communal prayer on Yom Kippur.

posted on December 24, 2011
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading
Maftir Reading

Well I was wandering along by the banks of the river 
When seven fat cows came up out of the Nile, uh-huh...

Can I get a "bop-she-wah-di-wah, bop-bop-she-wah"? Thank you.

I'd like to suggest that it's not an accident that Pharaoh gets one of the great solo numbers in the famous play/rock opera, "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat." He gets a small, but significant solo speaking part in the biblical account, which opens this week's parashah, too.

But first the parashah, and Gen. chapter 41, opens with the narrator's description of Pharaoh, asleep and dreaming. The scene continues: Pharaoh wakes, returns to sleep and dreams again. In the morning, no one can adequately explain his dreams for him. Pharaoh's cup-bearer remembers (after two years of forgetfulness!) the Hebrew slave who once correctly interpreted a dream for him while they were imprisoned together; Joseph is released from prison and properly groomed to appear before royalty.

And then, in verses 17-24 - Pharaoh recounts his dreams again, in his own words. As the bible scholar Nahum Sarna wrote in the JPS commentary to Genesis (Etz Hayim essentially reproduces the JPS here), "The recitation of the dreams to Joseph contains a number of expansions of, and verbal variations from, the original narration. This literary device is a recurring feature of repetitions in biblical discourse." (For some other examples, note Avraham's servant's telling of his mission to find a wife for Isaac, or Potiphar's wife describing Joseph's alleged attack on her).

One of the reasons that these repetitions and the differences between accounts in such instances stand out is because the stance of the biblical narrator is usually what literary critics refer to the "omniscient narrator." That is, when an author writes a story, the author may take a number of different positions as a story-teller. S/he may narrate the story in a 1st person voice ("I"), in the voice of, and thus limited to the perspective of, one of the characters (think Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye). S/he may chose not to come in quite so close, using 3rd person instead, but still near to and largely in the perspective of a single character; in this method, the author only tells us what that focal character sees and thinks, since that character (like any person) cannot know (though s/he may surmise) what another person is thinking and experiencing (J. K. Rowling mostly uses this technique in the Harry Potter series, choosing to stay almost exclusively with Harry and his thoughts and observations). An omniscient (all-knowing) narrator, as the title suggests, can go into the thoughts and emotions of any character. The use of omniscient narration in the bible is, of course, meant to emphasis the Omniscient One, God, as the more or less direct author of the text. The biblical text is full of examples of the narrator seeing into the intimate, hidden thoughts of the characters; some examples just in Genesis include 2:23 (Adam and Eve's lack of shame), 4:5 (Cain's distress), 13:10 (Lot's assessment of the land), 17:17 (Abraham's reaction to the news that he and Sarah will have a child), 18:12 (Sarah's reaction to the same news)... Well, you get the idea.

In this case, the question that arises is: Since the omniscient narrator already knows - and has told us - what Pharaoh dreamed, what is added by also relating to us Pharaoh's own account of his nighttime experience? As the JPS commentary goes on to look at Pharaoh's words, verse by verse, a particular pattern starts to emerge that might suggest an explanation of this curious moment in the biblical text:

19.      never had I seen...    This previously unstated personal observation points to the real meaning of the dream. 
21.      This entire verse is not in the original narrative. Here, again, it directs attention to the key element... 
22.      In my...  dream      Significantly, the phrase (v.5) "a second time" is omitted, as though Pharaoh himself realizes that the two dreams are really one...

Pharaoh calls on Joseph to interpret his dreams. Joseph repeatedly insists that it is not he but God who provides the understanding (verses 16, 25, 28, 32). But the text suggests a yet more complicated relationship between the characters involved in this act of interpretation. Something about Joseph's intervention, or God's intervention through Joseph, lets Pharaoh himself contribute to the interpretation of his own dream.

The rabbis of the Talmud also think that dreams have meaning. They add an interesting corollary to this idea, however. They suggest that it is precisely interpretation that gives dreams their meaning. This rabbinic view underlies an extended passage in the Talmud (Berachot 55a-57b) that discusses the subject of dreams. As Rav Chisda is quoted as saying (Berachot 55a), "A dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read." On the following page (55b), Rabbi Elazar expresses another version of the same thought, but one that is perhaps even stronger in its implications: "All dreams follow the mouth" - that is, the interpretation. How one interprets a dream, this rabbi is suggesting, actually affects its implications for the dreamer. Indeed, our biblical "proof" for this claim comes from this very chapter: when telling Pharaoh of Joseph's abilities as a dream interpreter, the cup-bearer says, "as he interpreted to us, so it was." This is followed (on 56a) by an extended story of two rabbis, Rava and Abaye, who bring a series of similar dreams to a dream interpreter named Bar Hedya. To the one who pays him Bar Hedya gives good interpretations, to the one who does not, bad. Though the dreams are ostensibly the same, the results - because of the interpretations and the expectations of each rabbi due to the interpretations - are not. Also on 55b, the rabbis prescribe a ritual for someone who has had a dream that s/he found disturbing, so that its implications can be turned for good.

We are fond of wishing each other "May all your dreams come true," but we know that we have some dreams that on first blush we would very much not want to come true in real life (you know the one - it's the last day of the semester, you haven't been to a single class, and you don't know where the final is being held...). What both the biblical account and the rabbinic passage suggest to us is, that we are not meant to experience our dreams or any other aspects of our world passively, or at immediate face value. We cannot always (or even often!) control events around us, or the many perceptions that are constantly coming to us through our senses. But we are meant to dig below the surface, to be the interpreters of what happens to us, of what we see, dream, feel, experience. This is an awesome power that can effect great change - not necessarily of events that are to come, but how we understand them, prepare for them, handle them when they happen. The power of interpretation is one that can turn seven years of failing crops into a plan to save a nation (and many of its neighbors as well). And that is a process that Pharaoh begins on his own, before Joseph ever provides an interpretation of his dreams, as he himself thinks through them again, tells them yet again, and sees new insights into them.

May you have sweet dreams, but even more, may you be able to give all your dreams sweet interpretations, and make those come true.

Shabbat shalom.