Dream Masters: From Yosef to Balaam to Freud


How does a donkey talk? How can an animal recognize angels while a powerful prophet like Balaam does not? These questions, along with 23 others, animate the Portuguese scholar, Don Isaac Abaranel’s commentary on Parshas Balak.

The Torah portion of Balak speaks about the evil prophet Balaam who was employed by King Balak to curse the Jews. Abarbanel’s questions about the story are many, but they fall away when we understand the meaning of the narrative. The first step is to recognize that the event mostly takes place in a dream sequence. Now, in dreams there are no rules. If the story is a dream what are we, observers of the dream, to learn?

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, titled his landmark work, The Interpretation of Dreams. He asserted that every dream is the fulfillment of a wish. Imagine, for example, one who is sleeping, but who becomes thirsty. The sleep pattern will be disturbed by thirst. A subsequent dream will likely involve liquids in an attempt to get rid of the disturbance. Only when the dream fails, will you wake and visit the kitchen.

This was Freud’s philosophy until the First World War. Suddenly, large numbers of traumatized men returned from the front. The reports of their sleep states were enough to undo his entire theory. Many of them would wake, night after night, trembling and bathed in sweat as a result of dreams in which they saw explosions and shredded corpses. This led Freud to emerge with a daring conclusion in his more mature work, Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

Now, he recognized that dreams that repeatedly hallucinate a traumatic experience, are an expression of the wish to be preserved from fright. His thesis has not been undone! Our sleeping self knows how to process wish fulfillment. When a victim dreams of their trauma and pain, the crippling effects of the event should eventually be neutralized.

Christoph Turcke (1948–2014) was an acclaimed professor of philosophy and religion at the Academy of Fine Arts in Leipzig and he built on Freud’s understanding of dreams. In his work, Philosophy of Dreams, he argues that the dream, as “wish fulfilment,” explains how society, religion and culture have all developed. Our dreams express our deepest urges and our wakeful moments see us responding to these feelings in an attempt to normalize or diminish the painful stimuli.

Turcke argues that ritual slaughter was developed as an exchange for our wish to make the pain felt after death and killing of innocents, more manageable. This interpretation when applied to korbanos, would not be heretical in light of the position of the Rambam. The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:46) posited that sacrifices were introduced to wean our people away from pagan practice and culture. (Note: the Ramban to Vayikra 1:9 argued vehemently against this theory.)

What is immensely troubling about the position of the Rambam is that if Korbanos is pagan in origin, why did it ever become part of our tradition? Furthermore, the Rambam, in his Mishneh Torah, does not seem to reiterate his theory behind animal sacrifice. Did the Rambam change his mind? This takes us back to Turcke whose philosophy might be correct.

If sacrifice emerged as we attempt toward wish fulfillment, we used the event to sublimate our killing urge and it allows us to deal with the pain of primitive trauma. So successful is the sacrificial event in performing this task, that it was also a pagan cult. The Rambam understood that Jewish practice doesn’t need to act pagan, but we are wise enough to adopt a practice that helps us evolve into better people. The korbanos may have started as wish fulfilment, but ultimately, once channeled to the realm of kedusha and the Temple, we found a way to move to a place that is world’s away from pagan rite.

Now let’s turn to one of the most famous dreams in history. Jacob lays his head down and has a dream of a tall ladder and there are magical angels descending and ascending. Rambam understands the dream of Jacob’s ladder as a form of prophecy. It is an allegory that needs to be interpreted. Rambam, in his Mishnah Torah (Yesodei HaTorah 3:7) explains that the prophecy is a reference to the various nations that will oppress the Jewish people. The rungs of the ladder represent the passage of time.

Why do we need to know what our future will hold? How differently will we live with this information? Perhaps, the knowledge will neutralize impending pain. If we know what is coming, if I can begin to wrap my mind around the process, control is possible. Once I understand that our struggles are part of an impressive destiny, I will see the particulars are less painful.

The Talmud, in Brachos 55b, records a prayer: “Master of the World! My dreams belong to You. If the dreams are good – solidify them like the dreams of Yosef. And if they need to be remedied – fix them like the bitter waters that Moshe sweetened. Just as you transformed wicked Balaam’s curses into blessings, so too, make all of my dreams for the best.”

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook explains that sometimes the particulars of a dream or a piece of terrible news is indeed bad and yet events can still transfigure themselves to create a good result. Just think back to Yosef’s dreams.

And then there is a higher level of miracle, when the bad tidings themselves are turned into something positive and here, Balaam is the perfect example. This is our request in Gemara Brachos. In this prayer, we ask G-d to make the darker parts of the journey brighter moments. What we really want is the wonders of reversal, as explained by Freud. Dreams attempt to process difficult moments in our lives, thus aiding in wish fulfillment.
This entire discussion necessitates that we ask ourselves whether dreams have credibility. According to the Talmud in Brachos 57b, a dream is 1/60th of prophecy. According to the Talmud in Nedarim 8a, we are told that one who dreams he has been excommunicated requires a minyan to release him. These two sources along with many others would seem to imply that dreams certainly have an element of realism.

On the other hand, the Talmud in Brachos 55b says that dreams speak falsehood. The Talmud in Sanhedrin30a reports that the contents of dreams do not add or subtract. How do we partner these two sets of sources?

There are several approaches:
1. The Spanish 15th century posek and philosopher known as the Tashbeitz (II, 125) answers that it depends if the subject of the dream is the dreamer himself or somebody else. If one is dreaming about themselves, then that particular dream is significant.
2. Rav Yitzchak ben Avraham Latif, 13th Century student of the Rambam, (Rov Poalim II, 32) pragmatically suggests that the sources may resonate with each other if we assume that dreams are partially true and partially false.
3. The Klausenberger Rebbe (Resp. Divrei Yatziv, Y.D. 121) hypothesizes that the accuracy of a dream is based on the righteousness of the dreamer.
4. Others have suggested that references to the future should be taken seriously while the past not so much.

Based upon the idea we have been developing, a fifth approach may be proffered. Dreams are real and they are not real. They are visionary and they are madness. They represent a deeper need to fulfill our wishes, calm our stimuli and enable our bodies to deal with the world. Does every component of a dream speak of a deeper message? Not necessarily. It’s simply our inner world trying its best to cope, to process, to move forward.

The portion of Balaam is replete with an endless array of textual problems and challenges. It’s an extremely mystical Torah portion. From the encounter with the donkey all the way to Balaam’s attempt at cursing the Jewish people and instead blessing them, we witness the story of a man gifted with magnificent capabilities, yet at the same time suffering under the weight of endless inner demons and loneliness. The Talmud in Sanhedrin 105a says that the etymology of his name is B’lo Am which means, “without a people.” His dreams reflect reversal, an attempt at wish fulfillment, and stimuli uncomforted.