‘To the mystics, the Torah is a dream and every character in it is you. “ Poet and author Rodger Kamenetz’s book The History of Last Night's Dream goes deep into the how and why dreaming matters and when in our cultural evolution dreams became less valuable than facts. The diminution of dreams starts right here in chapter 12, right in the middle of a family feud.
Context: One more mysterious anti-Moses protest leads to dramatic consequences and the revelation of an essential shift in who gets to communicate with the divine, how, and how not. Dreams are demoted in this dense, complex and heavily debated chapter. Miriam and Aaron approach Moses with rebuke over the Kushite woman he has taken, and proceed to question his exclusive access to God. There’s lot to uncover in this story so far but this time we’ll focus on the response. Adonai intervenes with a stern warning to them and all future prophets:
“ Adonai said: Hear My words.When prophets of יהוה arise among you, I will make Myself known to them in a vision, I speak with them in a dream.” (Ba 12:6)
But not Moses - who gets special status by not only seeing God but also hearing the divine words, not through dreams, mouth to mouth. And when this message is delivered from within the pillar of the cloud, it ascends, and Miriam is suddenly afflicted with scales, quarantined for a week, while Moses prays for her healing and the people wait.
Dreams were the form of divine instruction in Genesis - that’s how Abraham knows he’ll be the father of a nation, Jacob knows he won’t be alone, and Joseph gets the whole story spinning through his power of dreaming. But then the dream dies - not there in the last two books and now it’s showing up as a provision: prophecy from now will be limited and dreams are suspicious. In the next, fifth and last book of Torah prophets who are dreamers are condemned to die. Kamentz writes: “We have inherited this ancient ambivalence...We don't’ kill dreamers, we just ignore them; we don't kill dreams, we just forget them.”
From Moses onwards the prophetic channeling of whatever god is or has to say comes through words - and is severely limited. The future prophets will be lesser, generally hear the ‘word of god’ and the only prophet whose dream is recorded is Samuel, who dreams of hearing a voice. By the time Maimonides writes in the 12th century, he’ll claim that there are prophets “But all of them do not see the vision of prophecy except in a dream, in a vision by night, or during the day when a deep slumber falls upon them.” But it doesn’t merit much value. We had to wait for Freud for that.
Earlier generations may have crafted hierarchies of revelations and access to the sacred spheres - likely the much later historical background of this chapter, where even protest by Miriam is severely put down. But despite the rabbinic attempt to curb the imagination, poets and mystics, dreamers and artists, like Miriam and Aaron perhaps, often dare dream and sometimes bring visions, and speak up, and pay prices, and pass on the why and how of dreams as divine information, waiting, still, to be revealed.
(Speaking of dreams: Anybody else out there really excited for this week’s release of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series on Netflix? )
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