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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Lights and Dreams for a Dark Hanukkah

Chag Chanukah Sameach! Happy Hanukkah! In these dark days, what a gift our tradition gives us, commanding us to remember the heroism of ages past and to fill our homes and our lives with light in the darkest days of each year. This year, it takes on extra meaning as we all feel the cloud that hangs over the Jewish people since October 7th. The candles also remind us that, no matter the circumstances, we have the choice to hold onto hope, onto our dreams for a future better than what we have known before. And, as the Torah always comes on time, this week’s portion gives us the perfect opportunity to speak about dreams. 

Once Joseph had a dream which he told his brothers… (Genesis 37:4)

With these words in the fourth verse of Parashat VaYeshev, we are introduced to the starring character of the fourth generation of the Jewish family. Joseph, much like his father Joseph, is a dreamer. Jacob is defined by his dreams - God places the continuation of the covenant in Jacob’s hands and vows to fulfill what was promised. Joseph, on the other hand, lives by his dreams. His dreams, his ability to discern truth and guidance from them, dominate his life and the life of his family. 

Dreams propel Joseph to the prime minister, the right hand of Pharaoh of Egypt. By some measure this made him the second most powerful human being in the world in the ancient world. Yet, not all dreams come true. Not everyone can be Joseph. My fellow millennials and I were raised on Dumbledore’s warning to Harry as he peered in the Mirror of Erised dreaming, tragically, of a family that could not ever be whole: “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”+

But what does Judaism say about dreams? Should dreams guide our lives as they did for Joseph?

In the Book of Numbers, it is written that the message of the Prophets of Israel will receive their message in a dream (Numbers 12:6). Maimonides develops this idea and teaches that dreams awaken our imagination, which is the driver of prophecy. 

For me this is a beautiful idea, that dreams play a role in prophecy because the Biblical Prophets of Israel are the guarantors of correct moral behavior. They are the arbiters of whether or not the Jewish people are fulfilling the moral side of the covenant made with God. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea all echo this principle when they remind the Jewish people that the ritual of worship that does not foster moral and just behavior is devoid of meaning.  

The inheritance of the prophetic role through their dreams speaks to the extraordinary power of the experience of dreaming. Their dreams do two things. They reflect who the prophets are in that moment, allowing them to solidify their understanding of who they are and their role in the world. Their dreams also imbue them with an inextinguishable faith in the potential for human change and improvement, for the Jewish nation to reflect the, admittedly, high moral standard demanded by The Creator through his mitzvot. I will admit that the prophets do not necessarily emanate positivity as they carry out their thankless task. But, who among us does not enjoy a good kvetch? I maintain that their loyalty and steadfastness to their mission belies an underlying hope that humanity will one day strive for justice.

Dreams, then, are simultaneously confirming, a pathway to ourselves, and sustaining, a pathway to what will be in our future. 

The story of Joseph is not the only biblical context in which dreams are mentioned. Psalm 126 (for Jewish summer campers the song you sing before Birkat on Shabbat) opens with the words: 

Shir ha’maalot bshuv Adonai et shivat tziyon hayinu k’cholmim.

A song of ascents. When Adonai restores the fortunes of Zion hayinu k’cholmim

As always, there are many ways to read these two words in Hebrew, one of the gifts of the language is that it lends itself to interpretation. Some read these words to mean that “the Jewish people saw their return to Zion in a vision”, others that the sorrow of dispersion will pass quickly as a bad dream. My personal favorite is Rashi’s interpretation, the most literal and direct as was his habit, that teaches that “we were like dreamers.” 

As we prepare to mark Hanukkah, our festival of lights, my thoughts inevitably turn towards our long, often troubled history. The first Hanukkah was not the first, and it was far from the last time that threats rose against the Jewish people, our ability to live, our very existence. From our wars of survival in the desert on the biblical journey to the Land of Israel, to our expulsion to Babylon, Haman, Antiochus, the Romans - the list goes on and on. 

In spite of it all, the Jewish people has maintained its audacious, brazen, ability to dream. In every generation, hayinu k’cholmim, we were like dreamers. The knowledge that one day we would be redeemed, was worked into the very DNA of who we are. The belief that there is something incorrect in the world that will one day be fixed shaped us and sustained us. As Former President of Israel Shimon Peres (z’’l) once explained this feeling, “The greatest contribution of the Jewish people to the world is dissatisfaction. We are never happy with the way the world is but care about how it should be.” It is our dreams, our faith in a better future that fills us with this dissatisfaction and calls us to action. 

Our heritage is full of reminders that we are vulnerable and the shadow of intolerance and hatred follows us everywhere we go. Even now, as I write these words, our sisters and brothers around the world are feeling a shift of tectonic plates beneath their feet. We cannot be naive or ambivalent to the real threats of this moment. Yet, let us not forget that for hundreds of generations that hayinu k’cholmim - we were like dreamers. In every daily prayer where our ancestors prayed for the fulfillment of the prophetic vision, every time we recited Psalm 126 and reminded ourselves that while we sow in tears we will reap in joy, at the end of every Passover seder where we closed by saying ‘next year in Jerusalem’, we were like dreamers. These dreams were our sources of hope, of light, that brought us through even the darkest chapters of our history.

Like Joseph, the Jewish People has been defined by our dreams. Dreams for a better tomorrow, dreams for a just future, dreams for a better life in a new world, dreams for a homeland - they have all defined the long and winding path we have walked. Shakespeare’s explained that “we are such stuff as dreams are made on.”* The Jewish people exemplifies this idea. Only tremendous dreams could have held together a small nation, dispersed throughout the nations of the world. 

As I light my Hanukkah candles over the next week I will celebrate that I, that we, are the benefactors of this heritage - and I will rededicate myself to the responsibility to pass it, and all the dreams that have gone into it, onto future generations. 

On this Hanukkah and this Shabbat, may you all be blessed to be like Joseph. May you live by your dreams, may they be the small sources of light that illuminate your way as we dream of, and work for, a better world to be built. 

Chag Hanukkah Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!

 +Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Scholastic, 1999.

 *Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. 1611.

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