At Purim, Unmasking God by Way of Dreams

Purim is one of my favorite holidays. Living in New Orleans, where Mardi Gras takes over the city for two weeks every year, we know how to do Purim right. Masking is a fun part of Purim, but the fun also masks a serious point: The book of Esther, the last of the five scrolls, never mentions God by name. "Esther" alludes to "nistar," the hiddenness of the divine.

God ultimately has no "face" in human terms — our Jewish theology tells us that. Yet images are how we feel relationships. It is difficult to pray to an abstract God, which is why our prayer books give us "masks" of God, when we use names such as "father" "king" or "Shekhinah."

We can contrast how God appears to human beings in Genesis with the more hidden quality in Esther. While Esther seems closer to our more abstract concept of a world where God seems remote, Genesis represents the dreamland of Jewish consciousness. In its stories, men and women see angels, hear voices, find a personal name of God. Some even see God's face, as Jacob does in his dream of the ladder.

The dream is how we give face to God, through images. In Genesis, the dream works to communicate between the divine realm and ours. The dream is itself a ladder between heaven and earth.

Yet, after Genesis, the dream disappears from the Torah, the five books of Moses. When we lose the dream, we lose a direct revelation, a felt personal connection, between the individual and God.

Several years ago, I set out to find out what this meant. I knew that dreams still have the power to move us emotionally and spiritually. By neglecting our dreams, we throw away great gifts. As our rabbis said: A dream not interpreted is like a letter unopened.

One gift in Genesis provides a warning about our destructive behavior. I see this in the story of Avimelech, a king who takes Sarai to him and is warned in a dream that he will die for it. He heeds the warning and gives her back to Avram. But do we heed the warnings in our dreams, which often display our pathological behavior? Or do we just say, "It's only a dream"?

A second gift comes with two dreams of Joseph, who sees sheaves of wheat bowing down to his sheaf, and the moon, sun and stars bowing down to his star. His brothers interpret these dreams as pure arrogance, but Joseph comes to understand that the dream describes his true essence as a leader, who he is in God's eyes. I call this the "essential image" dream — and when such dreams show us who we are — despite what others think of us — they can be a powerful source of strength.

The third gift of the dream, as I mentioned, is the gift of Jacob's dream of the ladder. Such dreams confirm, often in a very mysterious way, that there is much more to life than the rough ground of the material world where we live. There is another dimension that Jacob's ladder reaches into. Through our dreams, we can climb into that dimension; this is a tremendous gift.

At Purim, we can masquerade however we want — as beautiful Esther, wicked Haman, pious Mordechai and the proto-feminist Vashti. The masks are fun, but the masquerades in our dreams go deeper.

We can learn how to receive their gifts. There is a ladder between our deepest feelings and our theology. So often a rung of that ladder is completely broken for us — the rung between our feelings and our abstractions. Our dreams can restore that broken rung. Ignoring them is wasting their gifts.

Rodger Kamenetz, author most recently of The History of Last Night's Dream, will keynote a conference on dreams at the Germantown Jewish Centre on March 15.


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