The Source Material of Dreams

The Source Material of Dreams

Reach high, for stars lie hidden in your soul. Dream deep, for every dream precedes the goal. -Pamela Vaull Starr

Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, has a disturbing dream. Seven sickly bone-thin cows consume seven healthy large cows; seven sickly shriveled wheat stalks absorb seven healthy robust wheat stalks. Pharaoh is shaken by the vision and knows it portends some danger to the Egyptian empire. After his advisors and wise men fail to interpret the dream to his satisfaction, the young Hebrew slave, Joseph, imprisoned in the royal dungeon is remembered and brought to Pharaoh to try his luck at interpreting what no one else could. Joseph does it, predicts seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, is elevated and thereby saves himself, all of Egypt and eventually his family, who join him in Egypt once the prophesized famine hits the region.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 41:1 (Miketz) explains the components that make up a person’s dreams and what elements of them are prophetic.

There are three inputs to our dreams: food; thoughts; and what he calls “strengthening of the soul.”

Food causes “fumes” to go to the brain. Dreams that come as a result of what we ate are nonsense. Our thoughts during the day, will lead to dreaming of those matters at night. Those dreams hold no significant importance.

However, the third element of a dream comes from the “strengthening of the soul,” and according to Rabbeinu Bechaye entails a minor prophecy. The dream’s source is the soul and is independent of anything we might have thought about previously. It comes from the power of our imagination to picture matters that the soul senses while awake. Our imagination then illustrates these visions to our mind in our dream-state when we are free of the noise, inputs, stimuli and distractions of our waking hours. These visions are true when the person’s imaginative powers are strong and he hasn’t thought about the vision previously.

This is similar to the minor prophecy that the sages attribute to children and fools, as they don’t have the same mental filters rational adults have developed for such prophetic messages.

He adds that both the righteous as well as the wicked can receive such prophetic dreams. In Pharaoh’s case, God specifically sent the prophetic dream to him, to set in motion the release and elevation of Joseph.

May we strengthen our own souls and dream prophetic dreams.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanuka Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Jewish community of Atlanta. I had the privilege to enjoy your southern hospitality in a time of need.

The Trick of Dream Interpretation

The Trick of Dream Interpretation

Man, alone, has the power to transform his thoughts into physical reality; man, alone, can dream and make his dreams come true. -Napoleon Hill

The subject of dreams comes up heavily in the Book of Genesis. It starts with Jacob and his famous ladder that reaches the heavens. However, it’s his son, Joseph, who gets the lion’s share of dream narrative in Genesis.

It starts with Joseph’s own prophetic dreams, which imply his future ascendancy and the subservience of his brothers to him. It’s followed by the dreams of his prison-mates, Pharaoh’s wine steward and baker, whose dreams he correctly interprets. And it ends most dramatically with Pharaoh’s dreams, which Joseph is called on to interpret, which he does successfully and in the space of a day takes him from the dungeons of Egyptian to control of the Egyptian empire.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 40:9 (Vayeshev) gleans a vital lesson on the lost art of dream interpretation, of which our ancestor Joseph excelled. He explains that the key to a positive dream interpretation starts with the words the dreamer chooses when describing the dream.

Pharaoh’s wine steward, when telling over his dream to Joseph, uses the word (in Hebrew) “In my dream,” (“bachalomi”) which is also related to the Hebrew verb “to heal” or “health.” Joseph correctly interpreted that the dream was a sign of good things to come based on the wine stewards choice of words. However, Pharaoh’s baker started his dream narrative with the Hebrew word for “also” (“af”) which is unfortunately synonymous with the Hebrew word for “anger.” It was clear to Joseph from the baker’s word choice that his future was bleak, and that is indeed what happened. Three days later the wine steward was elevated to his former prestige while the baker was executed, exactly as Joseph predicted.

Rabbeinu Bechaye’s point is that we should always be careful in our choice of words, for we never know the impact they may have, especially in the interpretation of ethereal and potentially prophetic dreams.

May our words ever be positive and our dreams sweet.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the British and French engineers and workers of the Channel Tunnel, who finally met up after more than two years of digging, 27 years ago, this week.

Talmudic Risk-Diversification

Talmudic Risk-Diversification

Risk more than others think is safe. Care more than others think is wise. Dream more than others think is practical. Expect more than others think is possible. -Cadet Maxim

The Torah is filled with stories of people who risked it all, put their faith in God and beat the odds. Perhaps the most famous is Moses, the humble shepherd with a speech impediment, who listened to God and challenged mighty Pharaoh and the Egyptian empire. Moses went on to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, leaving Egypt decimated and in ruins.

However, for those that haven’t heard the voice of God, our sages suggest a more nuanced approach to risk.

Our patriarch Jacob faced the possibility of war against his brother Esau; therefore, he spread out his risk in preparation for the potential battle, splitting his forces into two. Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 32:9 (Vayishlach) connects the strategy of spreading or diversifying risk to an important Talmudic teaching related to financial risk management:

“A person should always split his capital into three: one third should go into land, one third should go into business and one third should be readily available.”

The logic behind the Talmudic dictum is both reasonable and fiscally sound. To have one third of one’s capital in land (back then it wasn’t as volatile as today) was a stable long-term investment. One third in business was where one could earn a greater return on investment, with its accompanying level of risk. To keep one third liquid allowed the possibility for fast reaction to opportunities in the market, emergencies, or as became common in later centuries, rapid escape. Included in this mix is the other financial command of setting aside one tenth of one’s income to charity.

A modern-day portfolio according to Talmudic financial advice would then consist of the following:

  • 30% in stable, long-term investments,
  • 30% in higher risk, higher reward entities,
  • 30% in cash or highly liquid instruments, and
  • 10% for charity.

The Torah tells us of the fantastic financial success that the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob enjoyed and attributes it to divine intervention. However, it is likely that once they had their wealth they knew how to protect it and grow it intelligently, with continued divine assistance.

May both our risky and our more mundane endeavors be blessed with divine success.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the city of Scottsdale, Arizona. A wonderful place to conduct business.

Dangerous Jealousy

Dangerous Jealousy

The disease of jealously is so malignant that is converts all it takes into its own nourishment. -Joseph Addison

In Judaism there’s a concept of an “evil eye.” An evil eye is when someone looks upon another in some negative fashion. This is most commonly the result of jealousy.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 30:38 (Vayetze) discusses the destructive power of such jealousy, how people can unwittingly bring it upon themselves, and how it can attack and damage even the most miraculous interventions.

The first example is Jacob’s wife Leah, who upon giving birth to Judah, her fourth child, thanks God (Judah’s name is actually based on the Hebrew word Thanks). Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that because of Leah’s gratitude for a greater portion of children of what she knew was prophesized for Jacob, the evil eye immediately fell upon her, and she was stopped (temporarily) from having further children.

The second example was the descendants of Joseph, who declared proudly their blessing of being a numerous people. After that statement Joshua directs them to go to the forest. The sages interpret the passage to mean a command for them to go to the forest to hide from the evil eye.

The most glaring example was the actual Revelation at Mount Sinai and the delivery of the Ten Commandments upon the Tablets of the Law. It was given with incredible fanfare, lightning, thunder and Shofar blasts. Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that the evil eye immediately fell upon the event, which led in turn to the breaking of the Tablets shortly thereafter. When the second set of Tablets was given quietly, inconspicuously, no evil eye fell upon the event. The second set of Tablets was never destroyed.

Finally, Jacob, who was attuned to the concept of the evil eye, in his efforts to increase his herd, utilized strategies that would be perceived as natural, to hide what he understood was the miraculous intervention he knew was taking place. His low-key understated work efforts hid what was truly going on from onlookers and protected him from the evil eye.

Rabbeinu Bechaye warns that “the power of the evil eye is so great that it can affect even things that miracles touch.”

May we beware of jealousy in all its forms and reduce our chances of attracting it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Krieger and Silverman families for their blessed hospitality. May the evil eye never enter their homes.

The Blessing of Multiplication

The Blessing of Multiplication

Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing. -Salvador Dali

Isaac starts to feel his age. He has lost his eyesight. He is uncertain as to when he will die. He wishes to bless his firstborn, Esau. He orders Esau to prepare a festive meal for him. As Esau hunts for game, Isaac’s wife Rebecca directs the younger twin, Jacob, to claim the blessing. Jacob disguises himself as his hairier brother, Esau, serves his father a sumptuous meal, and gets the coveted blessing from mislead blind Isaac. Shortly thereafter, Esau and his father discover the deception and thereafter Esau burns with a murderous hatred for his brother that would send Jacob into exile and influence the entire history of the Jewish people.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 27:4 (Toldot) wonders why it is that Isaac requests a festive meal in the first place? What is it about a sumptuous meal of delights that seems to be a prerequisite for giving and receiving a blessing?

He answers that Isaac wanted to bless Esau with material prosperity, and therefore required some sample of material prosperity present to enact the blessing. Hence the need for the festive meal for this particular blessing. Rabbeinu Bechaye brings other examples as supportive evidence:

During Temple times:

  • On Sukot we brought water libations to ask for the blessing of rain.
  • On Passover we brought the first grains to ask for the blessing of produce.
  • On Shavuot we brought the two loaves to ask for the blessing of fruit.

And in general:

  • Whoever is careful to wear Tzitzit merits fine garments.
  • Whoever is careful with the Mitzva of Mezuza merits a fine house.
  • Whoever is careful with Kiddush merits fine wines.

Rabbeinu Bechaye points out that the real rewards for the performance of any Mitzva is actually in the next world, and what we receive in this world are merely the “fruits” of the performance of those particular Mitzvot. Nonetheless, there is a powerful connection between the objects we utilize in our service of God and the blessings that result.

May our possessions be good, useful and beautiful and may we receive the blessing of their positive influence and development.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Yeshiva University. It was wonderful to spend Shabbat at my alma mater and see how the community has grown and developed since my student days.

Say little, do much

Say little, do much

A dog that barks much is never a good hunter. -Proverb

The Torah and the Rabbis had little use for braggarts. They consistently look unfavorably at those who talk much, but at the end of the day don’t come through. On the other hand, they laud those who under-commit yet over-perform. We should always be striving to deliver beyond expectations, as the ancient sage Shamai famously exhorts in Chapters of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) 1:15, “say little and do much.”

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 23:15 learns the above from the story and actions of Abraham. When the angels come to visit Abraham, Abraham states that he’ll give them some bread, but in actuality brings out a veritable feast, including mounds of freshly baked cakes and freshly-prepared meat. Abraham proves himself to be the model of generous hospitality. The righteous say little and do much.

Conversely, the wicked say much and don’t even do a little. We see this from the scene of the negotiation between Abraham and Efron. Abraham’s wife Sarah had passed away in the city of Hebron. Abraham needs to bury her and has identified the Cave of Mahpelah, within Efron’s property as the ideal location. Efron is effusive in his declarations that he will gift not just the cave, but the entire property to Abraham. However, the bottom line is that Efron demands a princely sum of 400 shekel for land whose market value was likely significantly cheaper. Rabbeinu Bechaye adds that the numerical value of Efron’s name is equivalent to “evil eye,” indicating his miserly attitude.

There is a direct correlation of being generous with ones time and resources for the benefit of others and delivering over and above the call of duty, without saying much or drawing attention to oneself. Likewise, there is also a direct correlation between loud proclamations of future generosity and effort, yet a stingy and underwhelming  performance.

May we be among those who say little and do much.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our daughter, Tiferet, on her Bat-Mitzvah.

 

Punishment for Undue Credit

Punishment for Undue Credit

A man’s pride will humiliate him, but a humble man will obtain honor. -Proverbs 29:23

Anonymous – Camille Flammarion, L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888), pp. 163

Many of us may have experienced the annoyance of a friend, a sibling or a colleague, taking credit for something we did, a brilliant idea that we actually suggested first, a beneficial act that we initiated or some other effort where we should really have gotten credit. Conversely, we may have inadvertently taken credit ourselves in such cases, when in truth it was somebody else who was responsible.

Rabbeinu Bechaye in Genesis 19:13 suggests that such crimes stem from undue pride and arrogance, that God doesn’t take kindly to the stealing of “credit,” and that he will punish such wrongdoers by humbling them and thereby teach them some needed humility.

Perhaps surprisingly, he learns this lesson from a poorly phrased comment by God’s angels. The angels were coming to destroy Sodom. They stated “we’re destroying;” when they should have said “God is destroying.” Their initial punishment was that they were not able to leave the place until they admitted that “God sent us to destroy.” Their further punishment was that they were banished from God’s presence for 138 years, for we only see these angels again generations later with the patriarch Jacob.

Even the greatest personalities were guilty of such missteps of arrogance, including Moses, Samuel and Deborah:

  • Moses said: “Whatever is too hard for you to judge, you’ll bring to me.” Punishment: Didn’t know answer to question of the daughters of Zlofhad.
  • Samuel said: “I’m the seer.” Punishment: When came time to anoint the next king, he thought it was Eliav (David’s brother); God reprimands him, saying he’s wrong, that man “sees the eyes, but God sees the heart.”
  • Deborah said: “Until I, Deborah, arose.” Punishment: The divine spirit left her.

Rabbeinu Bechaye concludes that there is a particular danger for anyone who attributes any divine credit and honor to themselves. When we delude ourselves into thinking that we are due honor, when in fact it is God moving the pieces behind the scenes, we are liable to set ourselves up to being humbled in order to correct our mistaken notions.

May we retain our humility and always give credit where credit is due.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Yoni Tocker on his Bar-Mitzvah and all those who deserve the credit for such a beautiful event.