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Dreams, nightmares, visions while we sleep - all are part of the nightly regimen. Sometimes we recall our dreams in the morning, other times we remember that we had a nightmare but cannot fathom what scared us so. Some visions are vivid or recurring, others frightening. Though the significance of dreams dates back to biblical times, not having a dream does not seem to be either ill-omened or promising.
It is therefore surprising that our sages state: "Whoever sleeps for seven days without having a dream is called wicked." This homiletic teaching is derived from the verse: "A person will rest in contentment (savei'a) and not be visited with evil" (Proverbs 19:23), changing the vocalization such that the verse reads: "A person who rests for seven (sheva) without being visited is evil" (B. Berachot 14a). What is so dire about a week of restful sleep without dreams?
The great commentator Rashi (11th century, France) seems to flip the order of the talmudic statement. Instead of saying one who doesn't dream is called evil, Rashi explains that precisely because such a person is evil therefore he is not visited by dreams. Following the biblical paradigm, dreams are understood to be veiled divine communiqu s. The wicked forfeit the privilege of a godly message as the Almighty does not deign to visit evil people.
Missing from this explanation is the significance of the seven days without dreams. The great hassidic master, the regal Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin (1797-1850), creatively rendered this teaching with contemporary significance. Unabashedly departing from the obvious meaning of the passage, he offers an ingenious reading of this passage.
Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin recalls that human life is likened to a fleeting dream in the High Holy Days service. Since the Hebrew term for days in Scripture can refer to years (Leviticus 25:29), "seven days" reflects the seven decades of human life (Psalms 90:10). Life can be lived in a trance-like state, frittering away opportunities and wasting potential. Our sages call for us to appreciate and seize the prospect of 70 years in this world. Thus, "one who slumbers in a dream-like state for seven days, without anything, is called evil?"
Elsewhere in the Talmud the Second Temple sage Honi pondered how the psalmist could describe the Babylonian exile as a 70-year dream (Psalms 126:1): "Could one really dreamily slumber for 70 years?" he queried, wondering how 70 years could simply be dismissed (B. Taanit 23a).
One day he perchanced upon a person planting a carob tree: "How many years will it take for this tree to bear fruit?"
"Up to 70 years," came the nonchalant reply.
"It is so obvious to you that you will live for 70 years, so that you will benefit from the fruits of this tree?"
Once again the response came in an unflappable tone: "I found this world with carob trees that my ancestors planted for me, thus I plant for my descendants."
Having satisfied his curiosity, Honi sat down to eat and sleep overtook him. A rocky overhang hid him from view, and he slumbered for 70 years.
When Honi awoke he found a man gathering carobs: "Are you the one who planted the tree?"
"I am his grandson," the man answered, and Honi realized he had slept through two entire generations.
The return to Zion after a 70-year sojourn rendered the exile like a dream in the eyes of those who merited the homecoming. Those returning to the Promised Land to resettle our ancestral terrain and rebuild the Temple felt the 70 interim years had been a fleeting dream, a national slumber. The people were now reawakening to continue their role on the world stage.
Here, a 70-year sleep is depicted as a positive attitude, for it bespeaks of continuity with a lost past, of connection to a national destiny. Honi could not understand how an exiled generation could just be disregarded. Perhaps in his Second Temple reality he yearned for the miraculous First Temple existence and was not able to reconcile the dissonance between the two periods.
Honi was taught a harsh lesson: Yes, 70 years can pass like a dream when that portrayal serves a national purpose of connecting to a previous reality. But for you who doubted the motives of this outlook, you will feel the brunt of a 70-year dream.
Honi made his way home. "Is the son of Honi alive?" he asked.
"No, the son of Honi is no more, but his grandson is alive," came the reply; two generations had vanished.
Without pause, Honi responded: "I am Honi!" But he was not believed. Perhaps seeking solace in a safe space, Honi made his way to the beit midrash (study hall).
Upon entering this familiar realm, he heard the sages commenting: "The laws are as clear as they were in the days of Honi," and they continued reminiscing of a by-gone era, "For when Honi entered the beit midrash, any question that the sages had, he would solve."
Encouraged by this memory, Honi announced: "I am he!" Again he was shunned and not accorded the respect he deserved.
In the case of Honi, the lost 70 years left him bereft of family and friends. A later talmudic sage appropriated this adage to the plight of Honi: "Either a havruta (study partner, peer) or death." Honi's fate was tragic: having lost everything, he asked for Divine mercy to take him from this world. With that Honi died, though in truth his existence in this world really ended when he began to slumber.
Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin concludes his comment on a sleepy existence: Our role and purpose in this physical world is to repair the fragmented reality for the sake of the Creator. If we dreamily slumber through our 70 years in this world, waiting to wake up, then we miss the meaning of life. If we do not take any action, if we do not fulfill our destiny, if we do not contribute to society, we indeed deserve to be called evil, for we have squandered the opportunities our existence proffers.
The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.