Considering Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17
In which the dangers of dream divination are discussed
This week I volunteered to be the darshan at the meditation group I attend at my synagogue, where each week one of us takes a turn talking about the assigned torah portion. That means it was my job explain and interpret the week’s Bible passage. Within our tradition it is a mitzvah (not merely a good deed, but a commandment) to do so.
Unlike some religious traditions, in Judaism laypeople are encouraged to study and interpret sacred texts. This is not only a privilege, but a responsibility that has its risks, as we can come to “wrong” conclusions, meaning we can be drawn away from the good/godly intent of the passage and instead buttress our own self-serving, or “other”-serving beliefs. Jewish tradition also promotes discipline, diligence, and guidance for those, like myself, who delve into the texts, which is why I believe our tradition has stayed alive, relevant, and flexible through thousands of years.
To spend this time discussing interpretation here is not a tangent, but inherent to this week’s text, which includes strong warnings about the dangers of false interpretations and false presentations of the word of God. A repeating theme throughout is that anyone (or ones) who seduce others into idolatry and false belief, should be put to death—namely: individuals, family members, entire cities, and, of particular interest to me: prophets and dream diviners.
It was an interesting coincidence, to say the least, that I, a professional dreamworker, would have randomly chosen to study this portion, in which dream diviners are mentioned on more than one occasion. Making the synchronicity even stronger, my name, which means deer, is repeated three times in this portion as well.
Clearly I had something unique to learn and to teach on the subject. But on first reading, things didn’t look good: Any dream diviner or prophet who interprets a dream so it encourages worship of a false god or idol, the text makes perfectly clear, should be put to death.
Needless to say, this assignment had my full attention.
But first, since it was my job that day (and in my work in general) to interpret, I thought I should look at what our tradition tells us about that activity.
I immediately noticed the similarities between Torah stories and dreams. Both lend themselves to interpretation and analysis, as both are layered with meaning, symbolism, and deep spiritual truth. Also, both can be understood on several levels at once. Judaism even provides a breakdown of the four ways Torah can be interpreted:
· Pshat: Simple translation
· Remez: Hints and hidden meanings
· Drash: Interpretation or exegesis of the text
· Sod: Secret meaning, and the highest level for inner growth.
Both Torah and dreams can be viewed at these four levels, from the literal to the divine.
Interestingly, the acronym for these four words together is PaRDeS (in Hebrew the vowels are omitted), meaning orchard paradise. This too seemed fitting, as this week’s portion opens as the Israelites are about to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land.
The Israelites are told, as they approach this new territory that happiness and joy will come with strict adherence to God’s commandments and curses, including death, will befall those who stray.
Reading all of this, and seeing that dream diviners were specifically named and warned against in the chapters I was assigned, sent felt a chill of fear through me. Was it possible that my very occupation, helping people understand their dreams, might put me in some type of spiritual danger?
As one who is experienced in the art of interpretation, I knew I’d have to dig through all four layers of PaRDes to understand what this meant.
I also knew that in addition to the warnings against dream diviners, there are many examples of dreams being celebrated as bringing God’s word in the Bible, too. Plus, the rabbis through the ages have spoken of the importance of dream interpretation, including the famous quote, “A dream that has not been interpreted is like an unread letter from God.” But I also know that when warnings are stated so severely in the Torah, there is a reason for it—if not literally, then certainly on some other level.
Context is key
So, I began by putting the passage in context, looking at the literal and historical context: The Israelites are journeying from slavery, through the desert wilderness, to the Promised Land. And Moses, who leads his people on this journey, is understandably leery of their chances of making this transition successfully. After all, when he left the Israelites alone without him for a brief period while he went to the mountain fetch the Ten Commandments in a previous chapter, his followers had built and worshipped a golden calf before he could even return with the Commandments.
So, now, as they approach the Promised Land, and prepare to enter without him, he must get their attention with memorable words and warnings, to up the chances that they will comply with the Law of God. But why all the emphasis on idol worship in particular?
In the 21st century these severe injunctions against praying to stone statues may seem extreme, but consider that in this historical period, idol worship went along with rituals replete with child sacrifice, offering up virgins, and other ritual practices that we would agree are atrocities, but which were routinely practiced at the time.
Moses needed to use these strong threats to keep his people in line, because residents of the nations they’d be traveling through or among would be trying to convince them that to win favor with their gods, they must partake in such practices.
A message for today
But what does this mean to us today? As a dreamworker I have never even been tempted to advise someone to pray to an idol or indulge in any related practices. But I understand that when I work with people and their dreams I am taking on a big responsibility. For one, I need to be careful not to claim that the wisdom of a dream comes from me, but to remember that it comes from the depths of their subconscious or from the Divine, depending on the dreamer’s belief system. That is why in my practice and teachings I always take a firm ethical stance, including abiding by the International Association for the Study of Dreams’ guidelines. In addition, I set my intention to do our work in the name of, and in the service of what I call good, godly or just plain ethical principles. I also counsel others to do the same.
Even today, we see instances of dreams fueling the delusions of people with unbalanced minds, or more prosaically, leading people to take questionable or unwise actions in waking life. That’s w hy anytime we venture into the wilderness of our subconscious, be it through dreamwork, meditation, spiritual or mystical experience, it is important to do so from a solid base of psychological fitness and ethical integrity. Likewise, it helps to have the guidance of wise and experienced teachers.
Just as we enter meditation and dreamwork in search of a better and richer life, so too the Israelites in this story, are approaching this promised land in hopes of the same. But the blessings will only be available if they are skillful at choosing them. Otherwise, they will be cursed. This is, in essence, the project of humanity, and as I see it the intention of biblical law: To guide us as we grapple with the challenges of living with free will.
The trouble with freedom
Freedom, as we who live in a democracy know, requires skill and strength to navigate successfully. Without strong ethical laws and humane guidance, disciplined thought and action, it can be a dangerous proposition. We are seeing this in current events today. When set loose from an ethical framework and exercised without moral integrity, freedom of speech can cause great harm.
Throughout the Torah we see that the Israelites struggle with the gift of free will. The laws we are given are meant to help us grapple with competing urges, and to offer us a compass to steer toward becoming the best versions of ourselves individually, and as a human community, that we can be.
We are also given the commandment to practice, and thus learn the skill of interpretation, which helps us take the laws in context, considering their literal meaning, their historical roots, and their relevance for our lives and the health of our society today.
If we are to delve deeply into the subconscious and spiritual realms, be it through study of Scripture, meditation, or dreamwork, it is important to learn discernment, and skillful interpretation, lest we mistakenly follow false and dangerous gods, in the form of harmful belief, speech, and action or misguided leadership.
So, as you enter meditation, and each night when you enter sleep and dreams, I encourage you to set an intention to connect with and align with what is godly (divine, loving, and good):
· Set an intention: When you sit for meditation, or settle in for sleep and dreams, align yourself with God, Good, or Love.
· Check your sources: If in mediation or a dream you encounter thoughts or visions that don’t support you on your path of a good and loving life, then that’s a clear indication that you’ve encountered a “false idol” of some sort. Return to the scriptural texts and teachings, or a trusted, wise teacher, friend or family member, to help you interpret the experience and choose your actions wisely and well.
· Become educated and skillful: Study sacred texts, practice meditation and mindfulness, or explore your dreams with a trusted teacher, and learn from enlightened leaders.
Interpreting this portion by considering various levels of meaning can aid us as we journey from the slavery of fear, greed, and misguided action and into the promised land of a joyful life led by an ever-growing capacity for empathy, compassion, goodness, and love.
For another take on my spiritual roots and my spiritual path read these posts.