Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson
Radio Show Transcript – December 12, 1999
Rabbi Simon Jacobson: Good evening. We’ll be doing an abbreviated show till approximately 6:35 so Mike Feder won’t be with us tonight.
Tonight’s show will be about dreams. It’s a topic that I always hear people talking about wherever I travel, in my classes, and with the people I meet. People dream, and as usually is the case, anything that is exotic —the unknown, the mysterious, the subconscious— always intrigues us.
However, I am reminded of the story of a fellow who came to a rabbi, a great mystic, who clearly had the power to interpret dreams, and he tried to elicit from him some type of interpretation of his unique dreams. The Rebbe said to him, “Listen, it’s hard enough for us to figure out what to do while we are awake! Let us deal with our dreams once we’ve figured out how to live our wakeful hours…”
The Rabbi didn’t want to feed into the sensationalism that is often associated with anything unknown. Dreams definitely do play an important role, not just in our lives but in Torah thought in general, particularly in the mystical dimension. You find the classic stories of dream interpretation in the Bible: Joseph is particularly known for the dream interpretation of his own dreams and then his interpretation of the dreams of the Egyptian ministers and then of Pharaoh’s. So clearly there’s much to be said about dreams from a Torah perspective, and I hope to be able to cover as much as possible in the short time we have tonight.
I don’t promise any dream interpretations, but I do hope that I can shed some light on the topic based on Talmudic sources, and on mystical sources, the Zohar… but let me, at the outset, set this in motion:
What is a dream? We all dream, and we have no recollection of most of our dreams. Those that we do remember are a bundle of confusion: there are things that we do understand and sometimes it’s associated with memories or experiences of that day and our lives; sometimes it’s completely random, almost ludicrous.
So the Talmud states that there are two contradictory elements in any dream. Number one is that there is no dream without nonsense. Ein cholom bli devarim betalim is the Hebrew expression. On the other hand it says that a dream is often a 60th of a prophecy: a form of prophecy. The real problem is this: that since it is all bundled into one snowball, it’s very difficult to distinguish between the two—which part is nonsense and which part is meaningful. So that is why we find it difficult to relate to dreams, because in essence it’s really a glimpse into the subconscious, and the subconscious mind is not just another dimension that is yet to be discovered, the subconscious mind actually works differently from our conscious mind. Our conscious minds function in a linear fashion—cause and effect: things make sense at least in the logical world that we have created in our experiences. The subconscious mind is a completely different type of experience where contradictions are not necessarily contradictions. Paradoxes can be the norm, because realities there don’t take on the same defined shape and form as they do in our conscious world.
To use an example from quantum mechanics—those of you who are physicists listening in—it’s become pretty popular in the mainstream to know that on the quantum level of subatomic particles and microscopic world of existence, there’s the concept that though it’s been seen as bizarre and still remains bizarre (no one can comprehend it but it’s been proven), there’s a state of being which can’t even be defined as a state, it’s seen as a state of probability, a state of uncertainty, that only becomes defined once it is experienced by an observer or once it reaches the macroscopic level. So there is a state where things are, I won’t call it an amorphous state, but it definitely is one in which things are in a state of probability, not clearly defined and don’t work by the same rules as a conscious world does.
A dream is a glimpse into that world. And that is why dreams can be very contradictory, very paradoxical, and within them can definitely lie images and factors that reveal and illuminate parts of our subconscious. However, since we are so comfortable living in a conscious world, the dream remains a distant and illusive thing.
Most of us find that we wake up in the morning and our dreams were so vivid, yet we can’t even remember what they were. A little time passes and we can’t recollect them at all. But if we write it down or tell it to someone, we can retain it in our memory.
What’s the reason for that? Since a dream exists in that state of probability, a glimpse into a different world, so to speak, once you’ve woken, it’s not necessarily possible for you to really articulate it or remember it unless you actually write it down or ground it or concretize it in your personal experience.
That’s why you’ll find it said in the Talmud that with dream interpretation—which you find in the Bible and in other places—often the interpretation itself can define the dream one way or another.
What I mean by that is that a dream can usually be interpreted in two different ways: it can be interpreted in a positive way, or often it can be interpreted in a negative way. And the interpreter himself or herself can actually have an effect on how that dream plays out in a person’s life.
So this is just a brief synopsis of what dreams are about. What I really want to address, of course, is their relevance to our lives and their relevance to our experiences. Can we learn something from these dreams, can we become better people, can they help us grow, can they help us solve dilemmas, can they help us perhaps look into our own inner psyches in a way that can make our lives more sensible to be able to deal with and take on the challenges of our lives?
Now, to answer the next question—What relevance does it have to our lives?—why would we dream and why would G-d allow a human being to have a glimpse into the subconscious, the fact is, the subconscious is a very mysterious world, and frankly, sensationally speaking, even though we like to know what’s going on there, I would submit that most of us wouldn’t like to necessarily see our subconscious in full blast, in its full glory, because it is a completely different type of reality than our own. In the different literature of Jewish mysticism, you’ll find people who have “traveled into the garden,” so to speak, people who’ve gone into the world of the subconscious, entered into a deeper or more profound dimension of existence, and did not always came out unscathed.
People can get hurt when they enter that place; hurt because sometimes when you see things too real that are not masked and are not couched and are not packaged, one has to really be prepare to be able to contain and process it. That is why, in a conventional approach, if you went over to a mystic, someone who really can interpret a dream, he usually won’t interpret it for you because the attitude will be, as the statement goes, “Those who say, don’t know; and those who know, usually don’t say.”
So if you have someone who’s interpreting your dreams, especially if that person is charging you for it, you can assume that if it comes too easily for them to interpret your dream, and they’re not too reluctant, there may be ulterior motives involoved.
However, there is an authentic form of dream interpretation, and it’s important to know that. For instance, in the Bible itself (in the book of Genesis) when it discusses dream interpretation, you find that Joseph, when he was asked by the two ministers when he was in prison with him to interpret their dreams, the first thing Joseph says is, “G-d is the one who interprets dreams.” And then he continues and states, “So tell me what you dreamt.”
He qualifies it very clearly to say that G-d interprets dreams. Then, when Pharaoh tells him two dreams that he had, Joseph again repeats those words in a somewhat different language, but with the same idea and concept that it is G-d who is the understander of dreams, and the one who causes a person to dream.
That acknowledgment tells it all. Joseph simply saw himself as a channel. The mere fact that a human being can live in this conscious world and function, without necessarily understanding the significance of his or her dreams, means that G-d does not necessarily want you to have that deeper understanding.
However, there will be times when a message needs to be told to you: something that needs to empower you, something to warn you, something to help you, and then there may be a dream that will reoccur—as it happened in those Biblical stories—to make you aware of it and to spark your interest, and in that situation there may be a message that you need to uncover.
Now, of course, on our own it’s hard to always interpret those dreams, which is why it’s important to have a refined, spiritually dedicated human being who can help a person understand them. But that’s only in the case where it is absolutely necessary for our lives.
In other words, if we have dreams and we don’t understand their meaning, that in itself is a message, that perhaps you don’t need to understand them to be able to function. The only time a dream can be relevant to us is when it actually helps us to become a more responsible human being. If it’s some excuse or some type of escapism from reality (I know some people who are experts on what’s going on in their dreams, but have real difficulty functioning when they’re awake) then there’s a problem with that.
So the dream is meant to enhance us and make us more responsible, more developed, more self-actualized human beings. And in those cases, a dream can give us some type of glimpse into a reality that’s beyond our own.
But there are dreams (I’ve heard stories of this) where a person came to someone who was a dream interpreter and he told him the dream and the interpreter said, “I don’t really have an interpretation.” The truth is, he did have one; however, he didn’t feel he wanted to spell it out, because as I mentioned, a dream can be affected by how you interpret it. And often, by ignoring it, particularly a dream that has negative connotations, it can be useful because if it wasn’t concretized but remains in that state of probability, that amorphous state, and never materializes.
So it’s important to not always take our dreams seriously, as we would conscious experiences. Sometimes it may be best to ignore certain dreams. If G-d wants to get a message across to us through our dreams , He’ll make sure that either we dream it again, or we’ll have other ways that will remind us and make us aware. Let’s go to Allen on the phone.
Caller: Good evening Rabbi. The question I want to ask is for recurrent bad dreams, nightmares that happen almost every night. What do you recommend as a remedy or a solution for this? How does a person go about trying to remedy this? I read that a small percentage of all adults have recurrent nightmares every night, but I haven’t done any research into trying to find a remedy for myself, but I am plagued with this (laughs).
Jacobson: Well, the fact that you can laugh about it is a good sign. The question is, do you remember the exact details of the dream? I’m not asking you to say that on the air…
Caller: Most of the time I do.
Jacobson: And do you find any relevance or relationship with anything in your experiences during the day or during your life?
Jacobson: Well, that’s important. I would say, that without breaching any confidentiality on your part, I would say that it’s important, because another thing that the Talmud says is that a person dreams about at night what a person thinks about during the day. Which, of course, is reflective of a deeper or related dimension to experiences that we have during the day.
In other words, a dream shouldn’t be seen as an isolated experience that has no relationship with the rest of you. It is part of it, and often it may be an exaggerated part. It may be trying to emphasize something that is some type of negative behavior or negative type of environment that you may be in; for instance, a person may have a very obnoxious boss at work and that really just wears him down. I can see a person like that having recurrent dreams about that boss.
In different forms and fashions, it just reinforces the experience of having a negative, irritating environment that one lives in.
Caller: I don’t think that’s the issue with me.
Jacobson: No, fine. I just gave that as an example. I feel that if you have recurring nightmares, there are things that you may need to change, both in your conscious daily experiences and particularly what you do right before you go to sleep. I was going to make a suggestion at the end of the show but I might as well begin now. The suggestion is as follows: most people go to sleep either with a television on…
Caller: I don’t.
Jacobson: Okay, there we go. Listen, we’re eliminating all the possibilities! We may be able to solve your issue yet. And I’m trying to do this without knowing what the dream is.
Caller: Just one more thing before the remedy. The dreams are so bad that they affect my whole day. When I wake up, it stays with me the whole day and impairs my functioning. It’s been this way for about six months now.
Jacobson: Do you want to tell me what the dream is about?
Caller: It has to do with my family, my parents and my siblings. That’s basically what it has to do with, that’s the main thing.
Jacobson: I suspected as much. So it is reflecting true experiences in your life, not some concoction or fantasy.
Caller: Well, it’s not reality that I’m dreaming; it’s not true experiences. It’s nothing that is actually happening. It’s just bad things that are happening.
Jacobson: But do you have a good, nurturing relationship with your family? Are the vibes good at home?
Caller: Not the best. No.
Jacobson: Without going further, I’d be happy to communicate with you one-on-one. You can write to me at email@example.com and be more specific, and then I will try to respond. But I will say some things here.
Caller: I’ve tried other things. People have told me to say the Shema before I go to sleep, to study Mishnayos, and other things like that which I’ve tried.
Jacobson: Has it helped?
Jacobson: Well, you send me an email and I’ll send you some comments, okay?
Jacobson: And I appreciate your call. Many of us go to sleep and the last thing we do is we either leave the television on or fall asleep with the Wall St. Journal or some other newspaper on our nose. It’s critical that the last moment before you go to sleep should be done in a sacred way. You see, your soul is returning to that subconscious place, to it’s natural shell and it’s important that the way you enter that area, that environment, is how it will have an impact on you.
Now, it’s not guaranteed, as we see with the case with Allen, however it definitely helps. And there are other things that need to be looked at, for example, in the case where a person may be dreaming negative things about their family, then in that type of situation, what’s important is that they look at what’s going on in their lives.
If they’re in an abusive environment, or even subtly negative experiences, it may be that their dream is telling them to wake up and address the issue.
Now, I don’t know how deep it is, and it needs to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. That’s why it’s difficult to talk about Allen’s issues because I’m sure they’re unique to him, but in general a dream should not be ignored if it’s recurring, for six months, and it’s actually disrupting your life. There must be something else going on.
And maybe it’s a combination of things: of going to sleep in a purer, more spiritual way, waking up in a purer, more spiritual way and cleaning up some of your environment throughout the day. A combination of the above can have that type of impact.
Let’s go to David on the line.
Caller: Hi Rabbi Jacobson. I had a really fantastic experience at your class on Wednesday night.
Jacobson: You’re talking about my Wednesday night class? Well I may as well take the opportunity to mention that I give a class every Wednesday night on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (346 West 89th St., corner Riverside Dr.) at 8:00pm. Everyone is welcome. David go on.
Caller: I had this dream. I was in the process of interviewing some people about a new business direction, and I had this dream about snakes. And it just happened that because I was studying the Torah portion of the week, last week and this week (we read about Joseph being thrown into a pit of snakes and scorpions as one of the challenges that he survived)…
And it made me say to myself that you can either look at the dream normally—snakes scare the heck out of me (I would just run away from anything related to snakes, whether it’s in a personality or in people, or if it’s the real thing).
And there may be a positive spin on this that, Boruch Hashem, I could look at it in a positive way, that I could survive, and I did, in the dream, not where I’d be afraid of the snake, I realized I was not attacked or bitten by the snakes. I walked through the corridor of snakes. And I said that in this business venture, even though I may have trepidations that these people may be the equivalent of a pit of snakes and scorpions, that I can look at the positive aspects of it and survive it. I can give it the attempt. What are your thoughts?
Jacobson: I think that if that message really resonated for you and it helped you, how can one argue with success? You actually used the dream in a very positive way and that’s a good example.
Okay, we have Devorah on the line.
Caller: Can a dream show or hint to anything that will happen in the future or even the next day? I had one such thing happen last year. I had a dream that my sister came to me—she had gone on a Shabbaton (for real)—and she came to me in the dream and she said that she wants to come home for Shabbos, she doesn’t want to go on the Shabbaton. Then the next day she called (for real) and said that she had broken her arm. So could it mean anything?
Jacobson: Thank you for your call. A dream is a glimpse into a person’s deeper psyche and there’s no question that it can have messages both in the past and in the future. The real question that has to be asked is, “Why would G-d want you to know what was going to happen ahead of time?” Usually, that’s not the way it works, but however, if something worked out (as I said to the previous caller), then obviously, how can anyone argue with that type of foresight? So I thank you for the call.
These questions are great, and as usual, when you talk about a topic like this, it intrigues us all because as I mentioned, it’s a glimpse into another world, another reality, and other realities happen to be very interesting to us.
And that’s perfectly fine if you behave and use that in a responsible fashion, meaning, that you use it to become a growing, more productive person, and not as a form of escapsim.
Let me just interrupt for a minute to say that if you want to get in touch with us to give us your comments or ask questions, you can call us at 1-800-3MEANING, which is 1-800-363-2646. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we have our website which is www.meaningfullife.com, and you can download transcripts of the radio program from past shows. Also, if you want to write to us, the address is: The Meaningful Life Center, 788 Eastern Parkway, Suite 303, Brooklyn, NY 11213.
Let’s go to Esther on the phone.
Caller: I really love your show. I think you’re great and what you’re saying is tremendous. I wanted to share an experience I had. I was suffering from anxiety, and I was having difficulty sleeping for months and then one Shabbos, when I was reading Nishmas, I came to the words, “Hashem never slumbers, Hashem never sleeps,” and that night when I went to sleep I thought, “Well, if Hashem is up, I don’t have to worry anymore, I can go to sleep, because He’s up anyway and He’s guarding me.”
And since that experience, I don’t fear anymore because I know G-d is awake and He’s taking care of me. There’s nothing to worry about. It was really a helpful tool for me and I shared this with a lot of people who were going through similar situations and it really helped them. It’s also a very spiritual thing to know that you’re not alone and that G-d is with you and you have nothing to fear.
I think insomnia could come from fear and anxiety, fears about the future, worrying about the past—I just felt like I’m giving it all up to G-d and everything’s okay and everything will be okay. I just wanted to share this with you.
Jacobson: Thank you Esther. That’s a very important point and I second it, of course, particularly that, as I said, an experience that actually helps someone is a great way for all of us to learn from, and that’s with a case of insomnia where you’re not even dreaming.
Definitely when a person goes to sleep and is able to sleep and there are dreams, it’s important to remember that, as Joseph said, dreams do come from G-d and there are messages in them. However, at the same time, G-d gives us the power and the ability to deal with any challenge, and therefore dreams, as I discussed in a previous show on superstition, have no control over our lives. It is G-d who controls life, including the dreams we have. They may be glimpses, they may be images, they may be reminders, they may be wake-up calls, it may be some or all of the above, however, they don’t control our lives.
It’s important to know that and it’s critical to know that our job is to have a relationship with G-d, to know that G-d is with us. Even when there are challenging situations and a dream may reflect something negative, we have to see it as such, as a glimpse into another reality that is helping us live more meaningful lives.
Thank you Esther for the call.
Since this is going to be a shorter show, let me get some business out of the way. These shows are sponsored by listeners, by people such as yourselves, by friends whom I would like to acknowledge, and this particular show has been sponsored by and is dedicated to my dear friends Sam Goldstein, and Menachem and Faygie Shagalow. I want to thank them personally, and may they be blessed to have both healthy conscious experiences and healthy unconscious ones and sweet dreams, as they say.
You and all the listeners are welcome to help us out in any way that you can, because a show like this and all the activities of the Meaningful Life Center, are sponsored by people like you and we welcome your sponsorships. You can call us at 1-800-363-2646 (1-800-3MEANING) to make your pledge, and help us bring this show and similar activities and programs, including our website.
I just did a recent class on the Millennium, since millennium madness is in the air. I felt I should dedicate a class to it—looking at a deeper dimension of it, both the Jewish perspective, a more mystical perspective of milleniums in general, and what it means for us in our lives—so if you call and make a pledge of $50, we will send you my tape entitled “On the Threshold of a New Millennium,” so make mention of that when you call.
Now, we’re here discussing dreams, and I thank the callers for all their thoughts and questions.
Now, dreams, the world of the exotic, the world of the mysterious, is a world of paradox—and paradox is supreme in the world of dreams—and in a way it’s a reminder to us all that life is a paradox. As a matter of fact, the term “dream” is even used as an analogy, as a metaphor, for the exile that we are in; exile meaning that in a world like ours where there’s a dichotomy between spirit and matter, between G-d and the material universe, when each of us suffers from a dichotomy between our own materialistic needs and our spiritual needs, that this is considered as a state of dreams, because a dream is that world where paradoxes are prevalent — the story of our lives. Which one of us can’t say that we don’t have a paradox in our lives: one moment we’re inspired and really motivated, and the next moment we procrastinate and go back to our old habits?
We are walking paradoxes, and many times the reality that we are in is a form of a dream; so a dream is also a message to us all, that even when we’re awake, we have to realize that there are paradoxes that are all snowballing together, and it’s important for us to wake up even when we’re awake.
At the same time, as I was discussing this evening on the show, dreams are a glimpse into another world.
Next week the show will be on the “Power of Prayer,” and I’m mentioning it not just to tell you what we’re going to be discussing, but also to welcome and invite your emails to email@example.com on the power of prayer, stories that you may have about prayer, how it may have worked in your life, or if you feel it didn’t work in your life. You can call us as well at 1-800-363-2646 and we’ll address the power of prayer and your comments next Sunday.
Since we have a few more minutes, on a personal note, I don’t dream that often in a way that I can remember, but as all of us, we have to look at dreams as a way of reminding us that reality is much larger and much greater, its horizons are much broader than what we have in our personal limited view and perspective, in the myopic vision of our conscious lives.
That may be one of the reasons why G-d created us in a way that we sleep and that during sleep something happens: our mind goes to another place. But beyond that, a dream has another message for us, and that is perhaps to look at our lives in a deeper way; that how we go to sleep, how we wake up from sleep, is all a big mystery. Medicine, with all its advances, has barely touched the surface of what sleep is, what dreams are. What the Torah teaches us is that we have the ability to put ourselves to sleep in a way that can transform us and refine us, and in a very healing way, help us grow. And that is, if a person goes to sleep, not with the television on, not with a newspaper, but to read something spiritual, perhaps even sing a song to yourself, to think of a story, to read something that talks to your soul — that is the best way to put yourself to sleep.
Remember, sleep is an experience where your soul enters an entirely different dimension, as the Midrash says, it goes back to drink the waters of spirituality. By going to sleep the right way, our dreams will definitely be sweeter, purer, and most importantly, when we wake up, we go into life with a new type of celebration.
So may you all have pleasant dreams, and pleasant awakenings, and I’ll see you all next Sunday, from 6-7pm, here on WEVD 1050am. This has been Simon Jacobson and Toward a Meaningful Life. Thank you very much.