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Parshas Behaaloscha (5775)

Of Prophets and Dreamers

In the end of this week's Torah portion, we find Moses' brother and sister challenging him for having separated from his wife Tzipporah on account of his receiving constant prophetic communication from G-d.

Miriam and Aaron felt that since the two of them were also prophets, but were not required to withdraw from normal life, neither was Moses. G-d then appeared suddenly to all three siblings, defending His trusted servant's actions, and establishing the uniqueness and superior level of Moses' prophecy. He said, "Hear now My words. If there shall be prophets among you, in a vision shall I, G-d, make Myself known to him; in a dream shall I speak with him." (Numbers 12:6)

The commentaries explain that other prophets receive G-d's word in a vision or dream that lacks clarity, or when they are in a trance, so that their physicality cannot interfere with the spiritual nature of the message, but Moses' vision was like something seen through a clear lens and is given him while he is fully conscious.

The Torah here is telling us an amazing thing - that while dreaming, or while in a trance-like state, it is possible for a human being to receive a form of divine communication or prophecy (the one exception being Moses, the greatest of all prophets, who was able to receive prophetic visions even while fully conscious.) Indeed, the Talmud makes a statement in Berachos 57b that "a dream is a sixtieth of prophecy", which seems to indicate that even the dreams of the common man have some "prophetic" significance.

Now we know that true prophecy, in which G-d communicates with man through a prophetic vision, ceased to exist amongst the Jewish people well over 2000 years ago with the passing of the last great prophets at the beginning of the Second Commonwealth. (And ever since then, we Jews have been a "non-prophet organization".) So what then could the Talmudic sages mean when they say that dreams have something in common with prophecy?

Scientists today are altogether ambiguous as to the real nature, meaning and significance of dreams, not knowing if dreams have the great significance that Sigmund Freud claimed they have, or are just mere figments of our active and fanciful imaginations. And I'm sure that many people have had dreams - or know others who have had such dreams - in which (they claim) something that is going to happen in the future was revealed to them. Still others have had dreams in which their dead parents or other relatives have appeared to them.

Now I know that this is starting to read like the script for a Jerry Springer show ..... but the fact is that most of us have dreamed some really spooky dreams at one time or another in our lives, and we often wonder what, if any, meaning these dreams really have.

A KABBALISTIC VIEW OF DREAMS AND THEIR SIGNIFICANCE

Let us explore the nature of dreams and their significance as seen from a traditional/mystical perspective. Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto, the great 18th-century Italian Kabbalist and thinker, wrote the following in his work The Way of G-d (pp. 180-185):

"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, and this conceives and envisions various images. Some of these images arise from the individual's experiences while awake. Others may be the result of substances that rise to the brain, either from the body's own hormones, or from the food that one eats. These images are the dreams that all people experience."

"G-d also decreed that the bond between the body and the divine soul (Neshamah) should be somewhat loosened while man sleeps. [Certain] portions of the soul rise and sever themselves from the body. Only one portion, the nefesh (soul), remains with the lower [animal] soul. The freed portions of the soul can then move about in the spiritual realm wherever they are allowed. When these higher levels of the soul perceive something, they can sometimes transmit it, step by step, until it reaches the animal soul. The imagination is then stimulated, and forms images in its normal manner. [A person can then see this as a dream.]"

"A person can sometimes receive information and knowledge about his future in this manner. This occurs as a result of G-d's decree. The information is then revealed to the Soul by one of G-d's servants. It is then transmitted down to the Nefesh and visualized by the imagination, either clearly or obscurely, as decreed by the Highest Wisdom."

"Dreams in general can therefore arise either from the imagination itself or as a result of the stimulation of the Soul according to what it perceives. In the latter case, the initiating agent is always one of the spiritual Forces that make something known to the Soul. If that spiritual Force is one of G-d's holy servants, then the information that the soul receives will be true. If it comes from the opposing Forces, on the other hand, then it will be false."

"All dreams, however, are intermingled with the distorted images originating in the imagination itself. Our sages thus teach us, ‘It is impossible to have a dream that does not contain worthless information’."

In a nutshell, what the Kabballah is teaching us is that the majority of our dreams come purely from our imaginations and from whatever we're thinking about during the daytime hours. Meaning, of course, that we shouldn't put much weight and significance in them. However, that does not rule out the possibility that some dreams we experience have a semblance of truth to them, and could even be telling us something that will happen to us in the future.

A "PROPHET-ABLE" EXPERIENCE

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains that this has very little to do, however, with the divine communication and prophecy that our great prophets and leaders experienced in ancient times, and which were recorded in the Scriptures. While it's true that every prophet other than Moses would receive his prophecy through a vision or dream - as G-d told Miriam and Aaron in this week's Torah portion - all this really means is that G-d manipulates man's natural power to dream, and uses it as a means to transmit a prophetic vision. This does not mean, however, that a dream and a prophetic vision are in the same category. G-d's wisdom merely deemed that a dream should be an adequate vehicle for prophecy. And when the sages teach that "a dream is a sixtieth of prophecy", they just mean that both contain information which man could not attain with his powers of reason alone.

The reason why the prophet had to be asleep or in a trance-like state in order to receive a divine communication, was because only when the physical senses were dulled, was the prophet able to experience the amazing power and holiness of G-d's word. And the entire purpose of prophecy, whether it be on the level of Moses or on a lower level, was to communicate to the Jewish people the word of G-d - His words of comfort to His people in their times of suffering and sorrow, or His words of admonishment and reproach during times of spiritual corruption. [For a full treatment of the Jewish concept of prophecy, its exact nature, and the preparations required for receiving prophetic visions, see Luzzatto's The Way of G-d pp. 204-235.]

Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, we no longer have prophets in our midst, and, save the occasional "prophetic" dream that a person experiences, we Jews have no access to direct Divine communication with which to comfort ourselves throughout the long and sorrow-filled 2000 years of exile since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem and exiled our people to the four corners of the earth.

And especially today, when the news that comes out of Israel is never good, and all of us wonder when, if ever, there will be an end to all the violence, and peace will finally reign in the Holy Land - surely we could use a nice Jewish prophet who might bring us comfort by sharing with us G-d's plans for a better future for our people. But, alas, we don't have such a divine communication ... or do we?

DANIEL AND THE FOUR KINGDOMS

The truth is that G-d did leave us with just such a "comforting" communication over 2000 years ago - a "prophecy" which He transmitted to Daniel through a dream that Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, dreamed, and related to him.

In the Book of Daniel (2:31-35), the dream of Nebuchadnezzar is described:

"You, O king were watching and behold! a huge image; this image which was immense, and whose brightness was excessive, stood facing you, and its form was fearsome. This image - its head was of fine gold, its breast and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of copper, its legs of iron, and its feet partly of iron and partly of earthenware. As you watched, a stone was hewn without hands and the struck the image at its feet of iron and earthenware and crumbled them ... And the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth."

Daniel interpreted for Nebuchadnezzar the prophetic import of his strange dream as referring to the "four kingdoms" that would dominate the world scene throughout the course of history, until the coming of the Messiah.

The "head of gold" described in the dream refers to Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian dominion of the world. Just as silver is inferior to gold, and the chest is lower than the head, so will the kingdom that follows Babylon - that of the Persians and the Medes - be inferior and lower. The "belly and thighs of copper" mentioned in the dream refers to the rule of Alexander the Great and his successors, which will rule the whole earth. This is indicated by the symbol used for this kingdom, copper, which is among the most resonant metals. The sound of the third kingdom - the kingdom of Greece - will reverberate throughout the whole world.

The fourth kingdom - the kingdom of Edom or Rome - will be as strong as iron, which crumbles and flattens everything. The metals crumbled and flattened by iron are ready to be refashioned into other forms for the benefit of their owners. The Roman Empire, where practicable, will not destroy the nations it conquers; rather it will remold them for Roman exploitation.

The area occupied by the Roman Empire came to be dominated by two religions, Christianity and Islam. Both together comprise the latter day fourth kingdom. One is as strong as iron, the other as weak as pottery. Only the feet and toes were pictured in the dream as being of pottery and iron. The legs, though, were made only of iron. The division of its empire occurred late in the history of the fourth kingdom. At its outset, as pictured, it was strong and mighty throughout.

And Nebuchadnezzar's prophetic dream concludes with the stone that was hewn without hands that struck the iron feet and crumbled them. Daniel explains this to mean that towards the end of the days of the two rival kingdoms represented in the dream by the iron and the copper - the Roman and the Arabic empires – G-d will establish a kingdom that will never be harmed nor will its sovereignty be left to another people; it will crumble those kingdoms that oppressed it, and it will stand forever.

This, of course, refers to the kingdom of G-d which will be ruled by the Messiah, who will take all the Jewish people back to our rightful homeland, where we will once again be able to dwell in peace and harmony, leading spiritually fulfilling and meaningful lives.

May this prophetic dream of Daniel and the Four Kingdoms - one of the last divine communications to the Jewish people before they went into exile - be a source of strength and comfort for all of us, and may we all merit to see its fulfillment speedily and in our day.

[Sources: Derech Hashem (“The Way of G-d”) by Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto, translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (Feldheim Publishers); Artscroll Book of Daniel]

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