Our souls’ insights become tangible through our dreams
Hannah’s anxieties were puzzling. She was a popular girl from a good Bostonian home. She was enjoying every Torah-learning moment at NCSY’s National Yarchei Kallah in Stamford, Connecticut. So why was she a nervous wreck?
She then confided in me that she suffered from nightmares. On the instruction of her therapist, every morning, as soon as she woke up, she’d write down her dreams in a special diary. She would then review and discuss them with her therapist.
I asked her if she could trust me with a one-month experiment. Every morning, when she woke up, she should immediately start her day, ignoring her dreams and taking a break from her therapist. (To clarify: I’m a staunch believer in the benefits of therapy; this was an unusual exception.)
Hannah tried this for a month and then sent me a short note: “Thank you! The nightmares have gone.”
Oneirology, which is the fancy word for the science of dreams, can basically explain every dream as our subconscious expressing itself while we sleep. Bad dreams express our worries and anxieties. It’s not rocket science to know that you need to calm down a kallah a week before her chasunah when she dreams that her chassan is chasing her with an axe. Suppressed deep-seated fears come out in dreamland.
Of course, we know that’s not the full story. Sefer Bereishis is filled with significant dreams. With the exception of Moshe Rabbeinu, our prophets received nevuah through dreams. The Brisker Rav used to do hatavas chalamos, deliciously translated as amelioration of dreams, on a regular basis. Obviously, we take dreams seriously.
But why? What’s going on?
LEVELS OF DREAMS
Tractate Berachos dedicates three dapim (55-57) to the interpretation of dreams. It opens with the following cryptic statement of Rav Chisda, “Kol chalom v’lo tvas,” which is literally translated as, “Every dream except for fasts.” The Aruch (the classic dictionary of Rav Nassan ben Yechiel of Rome, 1035-1106) explains, “Every dream is significant except for the dreams of someone fasting.”
The simple meaning of this statement is explained in the Shaarei Tzion (Orach Chayim 220:1). When we fast, we’re stressed and in discomfort. Any dream we have when under pressure, physical or emotional, can be safely ignored. Rav Elyashiv’s pithy observation is that today everyone is stressed or in pain. Therefore, in our generation the default rule is that there is no need to pay attention to dreams (Shiurei Berachos 55b).
How would we know if our dreams are exceptions to Rav Elyashiv’s rule? One indicator is to note that our dreams tend to unfold like a story. Being chased by someone scary is one common example. The dreams mentioned in Tanach are of a different genre. They’re symbolic; Yaakov Avinu sees a ladder, Pharaoh sees thin cows swallowing fat cows, Zecharyah sees a menorah. The dreams in Berachos all follow this pattern.
What happens if you see an elephant in a dream? A pomegranate? Obviously, they’re only significant if before you went to sleep you hadn’t been thinking of Dumbo or your Rosh Hashanah fruit platter. Only if they arrive with no trigger are we receiving a message from a higher realm.
To grasp how significant dreams work, we need to understand a few things about what happens when we go to sleep. “Sleep is one-sixtieth of death, a dream is one-sixtieth of prophecy” (Berachos 57b). Every night, when we go to sleep to rejuvenate our guf (bodies), our neshamos ascend, in a limited form, to the higher realms. This has two repercussions, one for our bodies and one for our neshamos.
Our guf, divested on a certain level from its neshamah, tastes death. Spiritual impurities (ruach ra’ah or mazikin) have access to our bodies. Every morning we wake up and taste techiyas hameisim, the dead coming back to life. We celebrate our new lease on life with the Modeh Ani prayer. The spiritual impurities leave us, except for a remnant on our hands which we remove by washing negel vasser (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 4:2, based on Zohar Vayeishev 184b). Our body has earned its cup of coffee.
What happens to our neshamos?
A TASTE OF PROPHECY
The Vilna Gaon used to famously say that Hashem created sleep for the sole purpose of allowing man access to the secrets of Torah that are unachievable in daylight hours through sweat and toil (Rav Chaim Volozhin’s introduction to Safra D’Tzniyusa).
When a talmid asked the Arizal why he was smiling during his Shabbos afternoon shluff, he answered that it would take him 80 years to teach the revelations he’d learned during those minutes. Rav Yosef Karo and the Ramchal wrote freely about their nocturnal visits of maggidim, angels who teach Torah.
This is way above our heads. Is there anything about what happens to our neshamos at night that is understandable?
The Ramchal opens our eyes and says (Derech Hashem 3:1): “[When we sleep] the freed portions of the soul can move about in the spiritual realm wherever they’re allowed. They can interact and associate with such spiritual beings as (1) malachim who oversee natural phenomena, or (2) malachim associated with kabbalah (prophecy or hidden concepts in Torah), or (3) sheidim (demons).”
Imagine listening to the weather forecast and hearing about a hurricane heading toward Florida. And then it actually happens. What’s your reaction? Do you solemnly proclaim, “Unbelievable! That meteorologist has the power of prophecy!” Hopefully not. You realize his expertise allows him to access information at its source. That’s how he boldly predicts weather patterns days before they happen.
Similarly, everything that happens down here in our world has its origin in the Higher Worlds (see Derech Hashem 1:5). When we sleep, our neshamos have access to the “malachim who oversee natural phenomena,” who in turn provide us with information as to what’s happening at the source.
Questions remain. When is a dream truly prophetic? When is it controlled by sheidim? Most important, how is information accessed by our holy neshamos in the Higher Worlds transmitted to our mundane physical body and minds? In other words, using a mashal of travel accessories, if our neshamos are circulating a realm where the spiritual electric system uses 240 volts, and our lowly bodies can only handle 120 volts, how can we make our hairdryer work? We need a transformer, something that can translate the world of 240 to the world of 120. Similarly, we need a transformer to bring home what our neshamos have learned.
Hashem created an extraordinary transformer inside our minds. It deeply affects humanity in ways we can barely comprehend. In one word: imagination.
VESSEL — AND KILLER
Is the imagination a good thing or a bad thing? At first glance it’s pure gold. In the words of the Arizal, “Hadimyon kli haseichel” the imagination is the vessel that contains the intellect. Just like a good wine is useless without a wineglass, our intellect needs imagination to ground it into the practical world. If we find ourselves in a strange city, with our intellect alone, we’re literally lost. Dimyon allows us to compare what we see with places with which we’re familiar and then navigate our unfamiliar surroundings.
We use our imagination to solve complex math problems and l’havdil to pasken a sh’eilah. Every beautiful painting, poem, song, or design, every tasty recipe and cocktail is a function of our creative imagination. Indeed, the opening words of Rav Yisrael Salanter’s Ohr Yisrael begins with a poem that pays homage to the imagination, “Ha’adam chafshi b’dimyono v’asur b’muskalo [Man is set free with his imagination and imprisoned with his intellect].”
Rav Yisrael continues his poem with the frightening words, “Oy l’dimyon, ha’oyev hara halozeh [Woe to the imagination, that bitter enemy]. Hadimyon nachal shotef v’haseichel yitba [The imagination is a raging ravine, and the intellect is drowning].” Rav Yisrael maintains that every bad middah and every aveirah, without exception, has at its core the tyranny of dimyon. What’s going on over here?
Let’s use an extreme example to make our point. A boy is convinced he’s Superman. He jumps out of a window and dies. His imagination has literally killed him. At what point does dimyon switch from being “the vessel that contains the intellect” to being “that bitter enemy”?
The answer lies at the nerve center of our society. When we use dimyon as a tool to bring us closer to reality, it’s golden. Our definition of reality can be described as anything that brings us closer to the pillars the world stands on: Torah, avodah, and gemilus chasadim. For example, if you want to truly help someone, you need to use your imagination to understand what they’re feeling. Your dimyon allows you to step into their world.
The Kuzari (3:5) describes how a chassid prepares for tefillah. “His imagination invokes images that help him attain an elevated state, for example, images of Maamad Har Sinai and Avraham and Yitzchak at Har Hamoriah.” Imagination enhances the ultimate reality, our connection to Hashem.
But what happens when in our minds we create an imaginary world and step into it, convincing us that this is the true reality? That’s the moment when the intellect is drowning. We’re no longer anchored in the real world. We’ve have become an avatar in a computer game. In a sense, we’ve ceased to exist.
Rav Dessler shares a story that shows how at the core of every bad middah is disconnection from reality (see Michtav MeEliyahu 1:111). Paul smokes two packs a day, has chest pains, and coughs up mucous and blood. His doctor begs him to give up smoking, challenging him that the next time he picks up a cigarette he should declare, “Cigarette equals death.” Paul goes home, has dinner, makes himself a cup of coffee, and as is his custom, takes out a cigarette. He remembers the words of his doctor and solemnly declares, “Cigarette equals death.”
Suddenly, a voice inside whispers, “Paul, this is your imagination talking. Just one cigarette? Why the fuss? It’s only 12 milligrams of nicotine, statistically that’s nothing. C’mon Paul, it’s no big deal.”
The sweet voice prevails. Like the nachash talking to Chava, Paul exits the world of reality and enters into the imaginary world of taavah. In that world, the logical course of action is to smoke a cigarette. That night, the chest pains return.
DROWNING IN IMAGINATION
As a sign that we’re the last generation before Mashiach, society has collectively made the choice to live in an imaginary world. If you think my words are exaggerated, answer the following questions with brutal honesty:
Have you ever been affected by advertising? Ads invite you to enter into their imaginary world so that you buy their product. Without advertising, every major industry would fall apart. Remember that advertising as we know it is only about 100 years old.
Have you ever thought that something has actually happened in the history of sports? An adult man in shorts kicks a ball between two posts and a billion people cheer. Nothing is happening outside of our collective imagination. In reality, a man kicked a ball. Society decides that something important has happened, giving value to dimyon. Remember that Manchester United was established in 1878. A world obsessed with the imaginary world of sports is a pre-Mashiach phenomenon.
Have you ever FaceTimed a loved one and thought that you are actually looking at that person? Felt strong emotions from watching a video clip of paid actors? In reality, you’re looking at pixels and the wonders of silicon compounds. Everything you feel is happening in your imagination. Today, we can spend eight hours a day looking at a screen, buying into the sheker that we’re looking at something that’s emes.
If you’re feeling resistance to these ideas, don’t feel bad — we all do. The Mishnah in Sotah (9:15) declares “B’ikvos Meshicha… ha’emes tehei ne’ederes — In the era that precedes Mashiach, truth will cease to exist.” It can still be occasionally found in the safe havens of a Jewish home, a beis medrash, or a shul. Step outside, and the world is drowning in dimyon. It dominates every aspect of our lives, from how we choose our political leaders to mundane activities such as online shopping.
FOUR LEVELS OF DREAMS
Let’s get back to dreams. We now have a new appreciation of the “transformer” that bridges our neshamah to our guf while we sleep. When we sleep, our seichel, intellect, departs and gives free reign to our dimyon, imagination. In the words of the Ramchal (ibid): “When man sleeps, his faculties rest, his senses are quiet, and his mind is relaxed and hushed. The only thing that continues to function is his imagination.”
Rav Elyashiv observed that in our anxiety-filled world, dreams can be dismissed. We now understand that what we see in our dreams is our experiences, thoughts, anxieties, and fears, passed through the prism of an unfiltered imagination.
A higher level of dreams is when our imagination is hijacked by sheidim. Trust me, I have no idea how this works. I just understand that the fertile soil on which sheidim operate is the world of dimyon. Something we should want to avoid at all costs. The main thrust of bircas Hamapil and the pesukim that accompany the bedtime Krias Shema is to protect us from those dreams (Yerushalmi Berachos 1:1). The last words we say before we retire is, “B’yado afkid ruchi [into His hand I entrust my ruach]… Hashem li, v’lo ira [Hashem is with me, I shall not fear].”
Higher still is when our imagination is visited by malachim. To earn this lofty level, we need to dedicate our lives to living a life of emes, a world in which our imagination is grounded in reality. Remember we mentioned that higher dreams appear as symbols and not stories? The symbol is the transformer.
If we see an elephant in our dream, it’s a sign that the malach trusts us to interpret that imaginary vision correctly. An elephant in Hebrew is a pil, literally something wondrous, like the nature of the elephant itself. The symbolic pil is a Heavenly sign to expect a peleh, a wondrous event. Dream interpretation is the wisdom of correctly grounding the messages from higher realms through the transformers of visions in our imagination.
The highest level of dreams is nevuah, prophecy (see Derech Hashem 3:4). A navi takes living in reality to a different level. He disconnects from a physical world filled with sheker. His imagination is a pure conduit for messages from Above. He’s trusted to interpret his dimyon to perfection, understanding the messages he must convey to the people. Unfortunately, this level has been taken away from us, and we pray for its return.
THE YOM KIPPUR DREAM
We’ve come full circle and can now enjoy a deeper understanding of the holy words of the Aruch. He taught us that “every dream is significant except for the dreams of someone fasting.” Dreams use dimyon as a transformer between the neshamah and guf.
There’s one day a year when, if kept correctly, our guf becomes irrelevant. Like wine without a wineglass, the neshamah has nothing to ground it to the physical world. That day is Yom Kippur. Our essence can be elevated to an experience that is other-worldly.
That’s the world beyond dreams.
Moshe Rabbeinu didn’t need dreams to experience Hashem. Similarly, there will come a time, which Yom Kippur portends, when there will be no need for transformers (Taanis 31a). The tzaddikim will form an exalted circle, and hopefully you and I will be among them. We’ll point directly at Hashem and declare, “Zeh Hashem kivinu lo, nagilah v’nismecha b’yeshuaso — this is Hashem, we have awaited Him, let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation” (Yeshayahu 25:9).
Rabbi Menachem Nissel is a mechanech in Jerusalem and is the author of Rigshei Lev: Women & Tefillah. He is a talmid of Rav Moshe Shapira ztz”l.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 755)
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