The Sages made a remarkable claim regarding dreams and their interpretation:
“Dreams are fulfilled according to the interpretation” (Berachot 55b).
The interpreter has a key function in the realization of a dream: his analysis can determine how the dream will come to pass.
The Talmud substantiated this statement with the words of the chief wine-butler:
“Just as he interpreted, so [my dream] came to be” (Gen. 41:13).
Do dreams foretell the future? Does the interpreter really have the power to determine the meaning of a dream and alter the future accordingly?
The Purpose of Dreams
Clearly, not all of our dreams are prophetic. Originally, in humanity’s pristine state, every dream was a true dream. But with the fall of Adam, mankind left the path of integrity. Our minds became filled with wanton desires and pointless thoughts, and our dreams became more chaff than truth.
Why did God give us the ability to dream? A true dream is a wake- up call, warning us to correct our life’s direction. Our eyes are opened to a vivid vision of our future, should we not take heed to mend our ways.
To properly understand the function of dreams, we must first delve into the inner workings of divine providence in the world. How are we punished or rewarded in accordance to our actions?
The Zohar (Bo 33a) gives the following explanation for the mechanics of providence. The soul has an inner quality that naturally brings about those situations and events that correspond to our moral level. Should we change our ways, this inner quality will reflect that change, and will lead us towards a different set of circumstances.
Dreams are part of this system of providence. They are one of the methods utilized by the soul’s inner quality to bring about the appropriate outcome.
The Function of the Intepreter
But the true power of a dream is only realized once it has been interpreted. The interpretation intensifies the dream’s impact. As the Sages taught, “A dream not interpreted is like a letter left unread” (Berachot 55b). When a dream is explained, its images become more intense and vivid. The impact on the soul is stronger, and the dreamer is more primed for the consequential outcome.
Of course, the interpreter must be insightful and perceptive. He needs to penetrate the inner message of the dream and detect the potential influences of the soul’s inner qualities that are reflected in the dream.
All souls contain a mixture of good and bad traits. A dream is the nascent development of the soul’s hidden traits, as they are beginning to be realized. A single dream may contain multiple meanings, since it reflects contradictory qualities within the soul.
When the interpreter gives a positive interpretation to a dream, he helps develop and realize positive traits hidden in the soul of the dreamer. A negative interpretation, on the other hand, will promote negative traits. As the Zohar (Mikeitz 199b) admonishes:
“A good dream should be kept in mind and not forgotten, so that it will be fulfilled.... Therefore Joseph mentioned his dream [to his family], so that it would come to pass. He would always anticipate its fulfillment.”
It is even possible to interpret multiple aspects of a dream, all of which are potentially true. Even if they are contradictory, all may still be realized. Rabbi Bena’a related that, in his days, there were 24 dream-interpreters in Jerusalem. “Once I had a dream,” he said, “and I went to all of them. No two interpretations were the same, but they all came to pass” (Berachot 55b).
Dreams of the Nation
These concepts are also valid on the national level. Deliverance of the Jewish people often takes place through the medium of dreams. Both Joseph and Daniel achieved power and influence through the dreams of gentile rulers. The Jewish people have a hidden inner potential for greatness and leadership. As long as this quality is unrealized, it naturally tries to bring about its own fulfillment - sometimes, by way of dreams.
When a person is brought before the Heavenly court, he is questioned, “Did you yearn for redemption?” (Shabbat 31a). Why is this important?
By anticipating and praying for the redemption, we help develop the inner quality of the nation’s soul, thus furthering its advance and the actualization of its destined mission.