Turning Our Dreams Upside Down

by Elaina Marshalek, SVARA Fellow

A SVARA-nik stands in front of a dark background. In the foreground at the top of the image, a series of colorful, neon lines are visible.

We have entered Adar, a month about which the Talmud teaches, “When Adar enters, joy increases” (Taanit 29a). The peak of this month is Purim, a holiday that’s coming up in 11 days (14th of Adar)! On Purim, we read Megilat Esther (the Scroll of Esther), and we commemorate the overturning of Ahasuerus and Haman’s royal decree and the survival of Jews in the Persian Empire. We’re happy that we survived – so happy, in fact, that the whole month becomes about joy.

I have never really identified as a Purim Jew. At times it can feel odd (and sometimes even frustrating) that there are holidays that prescribe specific emotions to emerge at specific times. Purim takes the cake. The costumes, the wackiness, the happiness of it all. What if you wake up that day and just don’t feel up to the task? What if the goofy bug isn’t quite hitting that morning? Am I supposed to literally grin and bear it? While I am admittedly pretty easy to convince to come to a party or run to the dance floor, the mandate of it all can feel tricky. I respect the folks who wait all year long for the opportunity to turn on their silly and let loose, but it’s just not something that my kishkes are yearning for.

In my waking life, I try to push back against binaries wherever they emerge. With dreams, though, I can sometimes fall into the habit of categorizing them as “good or bad”, “happy or sad.” I recently woke up feeling that the dream I’d just had was a “bad” one so, nerd alert, I went to see what the Talmud had to say about it. Here’s what I found:

Berakhot 55b

רב הונא בר אמי אמר ר׳ פדת א״ר יוחנן הרואה חלום ונפשו עגומה ילך ויפתרנו בפני שלשה

Rav Huna bar Ammi said in the name of Rav Pedas who received from Rabbi Yochanan: If one has a dream and their soul is bent down in grief, they should go and have it interpreted in the presence of three.

The Rabbis set up the case where someone has a distressing dream. The word עגומה (agumah) comes from the root ע-ג-מ, which means to be bent down, to be weighed down, or to be grieving. We are talking about a heavy situation that is reckoning with someone’s core being, their soul.

Rav Huna shares that this person should get their dream interpreted in the presence of three. Perhaps this is about bringing your issues to the community. Perhaps this is about finding experts, or even a critical mass of people to give you some perspective. That’s a simple enough concept, right? When something unsettling happens you go find some pals to talk it out with. But does the Talmud ever keep it simple? No way. The editors of the Talmud butt in to add their challenge here:

יפתרנו והאמר רב חסדא חלמא דלא מפשר כאגרתא דלא מקריא יטיבנו בפני שלשה

Have it interpreted?! Has not Rav Chisda said: A dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read? [If one is concerned about a dream, why would he actively promote its fulfillment?] Rather say, they should make it good in the presence of three.

The stamma (the editors of the Talmud) perform a major edit and transform the teaching of Rav Huna. They say when someone is distraught about their dream, they shouldn’t approach others to interpret it, but instead, they should find three people to help make it good. Here are the instructions:

ליתי תלתא ולימא להו חלמא טבא חזאי ולימרו ליה הנך טבא הוא וטבא ליהוי רחמנא לשוייה לטב שבע זימנין לגזרו עלך מן שמיא דלהוי טבא ויהוי טבא

Let them bring three and say to them: I have seen a good dream. And they should say to them: It is good, and let it be good, and may the Merciful One make it good. May they repeat this seven times from heaven that it will be good, and it will be good.

Ok, these instructions are wild. How do they make their dream good? They declare that they saw a good dream. The council of three responds with a few more layers of goodness: (1) they declare the dream to be good, (2) they say ‘let it be good,’ perhaps acknowledging and hoping that it will indeed turn out okay, and then (3) they ask G!d to make it good, specifically in the role as a merciful presence. Then they repeat it seven (!) times – what an evocative and witchy set up.

There’s something vulnerable and transparent about the Rabbis fussing over how to interpret a dream. They are, as we know, spending a lot of their time in dreamland. Huddled up in an attic or other fringey spaces, the Rabbis are dreaming up a new world that doesn’t exist yet. We know that the Rabbis don’t live in “good” times per se, and we know that imagining a liberatory future of Judaism requires opening themselves up to new possibilities of “goodness” as well as having a sharp analysis of what the “bad” is and how to get rid of it.

I see both the power and danger in this kind of declaration. What realities might be denied by saying that the visions we say are “good” or “for the better?” And, at the same time, what power is there to simply declare a future of goodness?

And, of course, the Rabbis complicate it just one more smidge. When some later Rabbis–Ameimar, Mar Zutra, and Rav Ashi–pick up this topic, they change the nature of how they categorize dreams. So far in the conversation, there are “good dreams” and “bad dreams,” and we’ve been preoccupied with making “bad” dreams “good” ones. These guys tweak the categories: dreams are either good, or צריכים רפואה, ones that “need healing.”

The Rabbis are not saying that all dreams are good, nor that you should just ignore the writing on the wall. Instead, we are tasked to heal what might feel upside-down. Moving through our messed up visions to find justice is the name of the game.

Purim times are also topsy-turvy times. Some call this holiday Yom Hafuch, or the Day of Upside Down. This word הפך (hapuch) comes from the root that means to turn, to change, to reverse, and to subvert. We read in the ninth chapter of the Megillah, “when the king’s command and decree were to be executed, the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened [ve-nahafoch hu, that same root of הפך], and the Jews got their enemies in their power.” On Purim, we read aloud a story where the fate of Israel is reversed, and we use this story about the day everything turned upside down as an opportunity to flip ourselves over as well. While I can be angsty about being told to be happy, I can also wonder about what it looks like to empower myself to flip, change, subvert my experience.

So too, the Rabbis turn their dreams upside down. In our council of three dream-healers, the last step is for the team to share nine verses of transformation, redemption, and peace. The first three verses of transformation are named as הפוכות – that same word of topsy-turvy transformation. I wish for us to feel emboldened to spend this Adar turning things upside down for the sake of goodness, and will leave you with these gorgeous verses as a blessing and inspiration:

שלש הפוכות — הפכת מספדי למחול לי פתחת שקי ותאזרני שמחה, אז תשמח בתולה במחול ובחרים וזקנים יחדו והפכתי אבלם לששון וגו׳, ולא אבה ה׳ אלהיך לשמע אל בלעם ויהפך וגו׳

Three [verses of] hafuchot (upside-down-things, flipped things, transformations):
“You transformed my mourning into dancing; You loosed my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness” (Psalms 30:12);
“Then shall the virgin rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old together;
for I will transform their mourning into joy, and will comfort them, and make them rejoice from their sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:12);
and: “Nevertheless the Lord your God would not hearken unto Balaam;
but the Lord your God transformed the curse into a blessing unto you” (Deuteronomy 23:6).

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