Vayeshev: The Dream Cycle (Part 1)

Dream. Interpret. Create. Repeat. 

That’s how both life and art are crafted.  As a rabbi in a city of dreamers, I’ve had the good fortune of getting to know some of the creatives that shape popular culture. Whether they imagine a world of pirates or take us to the moon or make us laugh at a group of friends not so unlike our own, these artists bring dreams to life. 

A few weeks ago I was sitting in a cafe with a writer friend and asked her where she got her ideas. She told me that she finds inspiration in reading, taking a walk on the beach or even standing in line at the check-out counter. “The key,” she said,  “is not in the moment of inspiration, but in the moment just after.” It’s that moment where we ask ourselves, “What does it mean?” “How do I interpret this?” “How would this vision work itself out?” The beauty of artistry is in the moment after the dream, when you place yourself into the flow of inspiration and then do something with it. When dreams become deeds, art is created.    

Dream. Interpret. Create. Repeat.

The French writer Théophile Gautier was wrong when he popularized the phrase, “l’art pour l’art,” or “art for art’s sake.”  A movie is meaningless unless someone is there to watch it. Likewise, a portrait is mere colored oil smeared on canvas without someone there to see it, to think about it, to interpret it. Every dream created into art needs an audience, even if the audience is only the artist herself. Nothing is for its own sake, especially art. As the rabbis say, a dream left uninterpreted is like a letter left unopened.(Berakhot 55a) The dream, once manifested in art, can never be torn away from the world. Dreams need interpretation; art needs the artist. 

As I’ve written elsewhere, religion gets a bad reputation because it’s interpreted wrongly. Religion is neither science nor a system of morals. While religion describes certain truths, it does not describe the world just as it is.  That is not religion’s goal. Neither can we say that religion is the only source of ethics. There are many ways to learn “how to live,” religion being only one of them.  Religion shares ideas with science and morality, but it is neither. Religion is art – the art of life. It takes the moments of inspiration – the dreams of both ourselves and God – and interprets them through text and deed and creates life.     

Dream. Interpret. Create. Repeat.

The beauty of artistry is in the inspiration and interpretation; the danger is when your dreams are your undoing. The biggest pitfall of the life-artist is when you fall into the trap, thinking that your dreams are yours alone. There is great danger in believing that you are the protagonist in your own story, and that you are the sole creator of your life. Every one of us was born into this world, which means you emerged from other people’s dreams about you. They thought of you before you were born, maybe before you were conceived. Your ancestors too, emerged out of their ancestors’ dreams.  You are part of an ancient and continuous dream cycle, interpreted and created in many different ways throughout history. The Torah says this great cycle goes back to the very beginning; we were created by a God who dreamed of us, to be fashioned in God’s image. Each of us a work of art, dreamed of before our birth and created by others so that we may create. Your dreams are not exclusive to you, they are both echoes and prophecies of the world that was and the world to come.  

Dream. Interpret. Create. Repeat.

The danger of self-righteousness is at the center of the story of Joseph. He is the quintessential dreamer and artist in the Bible. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, we begin his novella. Joseph shows us how the dream cycle can easily be broken. He dreams wondrous things but in the moment just after, he takes his inspiration and creates nothing out of it but jealousy from his family. He goes deeper into his art, leaving the dreams of others behind. His exuberance when he says to his brothers, “Hear this dream which I have dreamed!”(Gen. 37:5), comes off as arrogance. When they heard that they were mere sheaves of wheat that bowed to Joseph, the text reminds us that, “They hated even more.” (Gen. 37:8).  In his second dream, this time the sun, moon and galaxies of stars are all bowing to Joseph. He has placed himself in the seat of the Divine, offending even his father. (Gen. 37:11)

In just a few short verses, Joseph sets himself up as a prophet whose prophecy destroys his relationships with his family. He is so taken by his own power to dream, that he forgets that he is the product of the dreams of others. So consumed was Joseph with his own story of grandeur that he was blinded to his brother’s hatred and his father’s disapproval.  It’s no surprise that when he went out to see his brothers tending their flocks, gussied up in a special coat, they plotted to kill him, or at least sell him as a slave, where he eventually ended up in prison. (Gen. 39:20)

This is where the parasha leaves us.  Joseph, the dreamer who thought he would be on top of the world with the galaxy at his feet, has fallen deeper and deeper into pit after pit. His brothers’ love became murderous.  His slavemaster turned on him.  He is now far from home and far from freedom. He dreamt he was the highest of the high but in reality became the lowest of the low. There was nowhere else to go – no farther for him to fall. By excluding others from his dreams, be became excluded from their dream – even his fellow prisoners. (Gen.40:23

This is the danger of life and art.  When you believe that your dreams are your own, and not enmeshed in the dreams of others, you will stumble and fall into pit after pit. I know too many people who act like Joseph, believing that their life story only has one main character.  Whether it’s the spouses who cheat because they are bored with their partner and end up alone, or the business people who have no regard for their customers and go broke, or the politicians who are just looking for their next higher position and end up losing the election because they never actually helped people, these “Josephs” who see only one dreamer in their lives and exclude the dreams of others can break down and become miserable. 

Religious life can help you out of the darkness.  It can inspire you to rise up, to make a difference, to dream of a world and make that world a reality – especially if you know that you are in an eternal relationship that has never been broken. You are never alone in the covenant. But if you believe that you are alone in your dreams, you will end up alone. If you dream only for yourself you will end up by yourself. 

Luckily, the Joseph story is not a capricious tragedy.  A second dynamic begins to emerge. Joseph will correct his course and repair the dream cycle. You can too. It begins at the beginning knowing that you are part of something greater. I’ll write more about this next week.  Stay tuned…

Dream. Interpret. Create. Repeat.

Shabbat Shalom 

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