Recently I was schmoozing with a congregant about how dreams can be like a little taste, a shtikel of prophecy. She told me a story about how a powerful dream helped her recover from a life threatening drug addiction. For too many years she had lost control of her own life, until one dream changed everything.
There was this reoccurring dream where she was in the back seat of a car at night and the car was speeding and swerving in and out of the oncoming lane. She was terrified and felt so helpless. One night when she could not stand it any longer, she heard the voice of God tell her, “I’m going to let you take the wheel now.” So she climbed up front with God as her co-pilot. She then felt God’s hand next her, pointing to a child standing in the middle of the road ahead. She knew exactly what to do. She floored the gas and ran over the child killing him. Then she woke up and everything was different.
When I heard this story I was horrified. I thought the dream was telling her that her addiction would lead her to run someone over and kill them. However, the woman who had the dream understood it completely differently. She was empowered by this dream, because when God gave her the wheel God was telling her to take control back over her life and she was being given such a gift, God gave her the power to take back the wheel of her life and to finally run over and kill her addiction…
Masechet Brachot in the Talmud has a whole chapter filled with wisdom on dreams. It is there we learn that the meaning and the affect of a dream must always go according to the way we interpret it. Our sages teach that, "One who has a bad dream and is upset about it can 'make it better' by telling a close friend and asking him together with two other friends to say "You have seen a good dream" - three times.” This is a ritual found in the weekday siddur called hatavat chalom. This magic dream incantation, is right there in the siddur for anyone to use, because as the Talmud teaches, “all dreams go after the mouth.” That is to say that the dream plays itself out only in the way that you interpret it.
Yosef is called a "Dreamer", a "Dream Interpreter," and a "Tzaddik" (righteous one). Many commentators say that he was called a tzaddik because he never gave into the seduction of his master Potiphar’s wife. Although this was an impressive display of righteousness, Rav Aryeh Trugman teaches that being a tzadik had more to do with his holy approach to dream interpretation and how this affected the way he interpreted his entire life. When Pharoah had a disturbing dream and could not find a satisfying interpretation, his butler told him about Yosef who “interpreted his dream according to the interpretation, and so it would come to be…”
Relatives and friends can have a very powerful influence on how we interpret our dreams. That is why we must be very careful that we only share our dreams with people that we can trust. Yosef learned this lesson early on when he told his brothers about his dreams and they responded by throwing him into a pit and selling him into slavery, “We’ll see what will become of his dreams!” they said. Yosef thought he already had it all. Unfortunately, he did not yet understand that it can take many years or even a lifetime for dreams to fully express their true meaning. He later learned that the way we interpret dreams determines the way a dream will be played out in reality. Yosef became a tzadik when he learned to apply this principle to real life.
On Shabbat we sing the psalm for Shabbat “Tzaddik Katamar yifrach- A righteous person is like a date palm tree,” that even from sandy, salty, nutrient-depleted soil a righteous person can bring herself to grow straight, to blossom, and bring forth the sweetest fruits. One of my mentors at JTS, Rabbi William Lebeau, told me that when he was growing up it really used to bother him that no matter what happened, his father would always say to him, “Gam zeh letovah - this too is for good.” But what if it doesn’t feel good right now? Later in life he came to understand what his father really meant, “This may not feel good right now, but we have the power to turn it into something positive if we choose to.”
When Yosef finally revealed his identity to his brothers he also revealed all those nightmarish things that they did to him, Gam zeh letovah. In the dramatic moment that he reveals his true identity to his brothers he says:
"Please come closer to me. I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt (shall old acquaintance be forgot!?) But now, do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you. For already two years of famine have passed in the midst of the land… God sent me before you to make for you a remnant in the land, and to preserve it for you for great deliverance. And now, you did not send me here, God did. God made me a father to Pharaoh, lord over all his household, and ruler over the entire land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:4-8)
Yosef knew that life is like a dream that goes according to our interpretation and how we actively choose to perceive it. Two people can respond to the same problems in very different ways. One is brought down and refuses to let go of their anger. The other one still experiences the pain and frustration, but all the while holds onto the hidden truth inside that, "Gam zeh Letovah - Even this can lead to good." Inside each of us is the spark of a tzadik (righteous one). No matter how bad things appear in the moment, we each have the power of “Gam zeh leTova- Even this is also for the good.” Though it may not be revealed for days, months or even years. Deep in my heart I know this is the truth.
We can’t imagine how many years it took for Yosef to get past his anger and vengeance toward his brothers so that he could see God acting through them toward the good. Most of psycho-therapy is about hearing people's life stories and helping them reframe their lives in a more positive and healing direction. Neurological research confirms that our memory is extremely malleable. The details of what actually happened in the past, are less important than the way in which we retell our stories to ourselves.
Reb Zalman Shachter Shalomi z”l taught that after we die, our souls will relive and fully inhabit every moment of our past lives. All of the mitzvot we do in this world become treasuries of spiritual bliss in the world to come. Why not celebrate and enjoy the good in our lives while we are still alive so that we will have even more joy in olam habah?
When we look back at 2015 may we have the courage and faith to transcend our anger and resentment and reconcile with family and friends and God by knowing in our hearts that Gam Zeh LeTovah, this dream too can be for good.”
Rabbi Aaron Philmus
Rabbi Aaron brings a traditional style and approach of prayer to the conservative synagogue. He has a background in ecology and Jewish education and teaches Torah through agriculture and wilderness skills, and plays guitar as a way to bring music to the synagogue. He’s a naturalist who believes that everything stems from nature, and he understands the plight of others who are less fortunate, and how to use the land to enrich ourselves.