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Deep Dreams and Sacred Teachers

by Rabbi Gray Myrseth

As I write this, we stand at the beginning of the Jewish month of Kislev. Etymologies of the month’s name vary, but the word Kislev seems to have to do with rain or hope or constellations. In this time of drought in our state and turbulence in our nation, I’m confident we could all use both rain and hope. And as nights continue to lengthen in our approach to winter solstice, perhaps the array of stars in the sky can be something by which we navigate.

Kislev, our winteriest of winter months—in the Jewish calendar if not in the Bay Area landscape— is a time for dreaming. The long nights can give us time to build up our strength, get clear about our goals, and make plans we’ll carry out once the daylight returns.

This is also the time for dreaming in our Torah cycle. In Parshat Vayeitzei (one of my personal favorites), our mythic ancestor Jacob has set out from his familial home. As he walks, it seems likely that he’s filled with trepidation. Will he be able to find his way through the world that’s beyond everything he’s known until now? Will he be able to heal the broken relationships in his life and forge new ones?

The text doesn’t tell us outright, but when I imagine Jacob, I imagine him sad and scared and uncertain of what’s to come. He walks and walks—and then he can’t walk any longer, because the sun has set. The world is telling him to stop plunging onwards. To lay down and rest.

So he lays down and falls asleep and dreams. In his dream, flocks of angels ascend and descend a ladder spanning the vast space between heaven and earth. And behold, the Torah tells us, God was standing over him, saying “Jacob, I am the God of your ancestors, of Abraham and Isaac…I am with you wherever you go. I will not leave you until all that I have promised you has come to be.”

Our tradition teaches us that dreams are not just recycling systems for our unconscious thoughts, but are in fact one sixtieth of prophecy. Now, given that my own dreams tend to land somewhere between the strange and the nonsensical, I’d never been sure what to make of that teaching. But when I look at the way dreams work in this parsha, I started to understand.

God is assessing what Jacob needs and what he can handle, then figures out the right way to deliver the information. God offers just a taste of prophetic truth—enough that Jacob is pushed to the outer edge of his comfort zone, but not so much that he gets overwhelmed and can’t process the material. In other words, the Divine is acting like a teacher.

Now, the reason I could recognize this is that I have been blessed to have some truly exceptional teachers in my life. Both within the structure of formal education and beyond it, I have had teachers who loved and challenged me, who told me I could do better and then showed me how.

Now more than ever, we need our teachers.

We need history teachers, who show us how people have shown resilience and resistance during difficult times, who show us where we’ve come from and where we may want to go. We need ethics teachers, who offer us ways to think both critically and compassionately, who urge us not to be closed-minded or rigid. We need literature teachers, who help us make friends with books, who allow us to step into lives and perspectives other than our own. We need science teachers, whose measurements and theories and experiments render our universe of miracles in a clearer, more vivid light. We need math teachers, whose equations and functions can become tools for innovation and discovery. We need language teachers, who connect us to the wider world. We need movement teachers, who connect us with our embodied selves. We need art teachers, who tap into our boundless creativity, who remind us that art can make ourselves and our communities stronger. We need music teachers, who give us access to a language that reaches beyond words.

In this month of Kislev, I hope that each of us will be able to identify a teacher—or multiple teachers—from whom we need to learn. Some teachers are physically present in our lives, while others teach us through their words which come down to us across time and space. I hope that those teachers will be able to instruct us as patiently and creatively as God instructs Jacob. And I hope that we will emerge from this teaching energized and awake, ready to take on what’s to come.

Because after Jacob’s dream—after God lovingly teaches him this critical lesson, our mythic ancestor, awakens with a start. He sits up, breathless. He says aloud, “God was in this place and I did not know it!” He lays down lost and wakes up changed. He lays down wrapped up in his own story, his own worries, and wakes up to an essential truth that he could not see before.

That he could not have recognized on his own.

Looking around the desert landscape, Jacob says, “This is a house of God. This is the gate of heaven.” Through God’s teaching, he is able to see that the whole world is imbued with God’s love and magic. That he must behave in all moments as if he is in the presence of the divine.

He says, “If God will be with me and guard me on the way, giving me bread to eat and a garment to wear, I will return in peace to my father’s house and God will be my God. I will surely tithe to God.” He trusts that his teacher will meet his basic needs, will protect and provide for him. And in return, he can access his own capacity for peaceful action and deliberate generosity.

As we move through winter’s sheltering, sacred darkness, may we draw on the glimpses of prophetic truth we’re granted, however fleeting. May we see ourselves as students, eager to learn from the wisdom of our teachers past and present. May we see ourselves as teachers, sharing freely from our experience and understanding. And may we all be patient, persistent, and steadfast as we use these winter days and nights to study, to imagine, to dream.

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