Vayetze 5781

By: Elisa Miller

What dreams may come

Have your dreams gotten stranger since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic? According to Dr. Deirdre Barrett, psychologist and dream researcher at Harvard, “any crisis tends to stir up our dream lives.”

In her interview on Science Friday on NPR, Dr. Barrett “That’s been ongoing since the start of the pandemic. But most crises make us lose sleep, if anything. And especially at the start of the pandemic, when so many people were furloughed or sent home from school, people were actually catching up on sleep somewhat. So at the very start of the pandemic I heard lots of people saying that they just had lots more dream recall than usual. And more bizarre dreams and more vivid dreams. Dream life just blipped way up at the very start.”

She explained that: “I look at dreams as basically just thinking in a different brain state. Different electrical activity, different biochemicals. But we’re still concerned with all of our usual fears, hopes, dreams, work stuff, personal stuff. But our brain is in a state where our visual areas are much more active than even when we’re awake.

Our emotional areas are a little more active. And areas that are associated with logical linear reasoning are damped down a lot. So we’re thinking in this very imagery laden emotional state with less verbal thought, but we’re still focused on the same things that we are by day.”

So why is this relevant to today’s parasha? Vaytze tells the events in the life of Jacob who runs away to his uncle in Haran, encounters angels and God in a dream, falls in love with Rachel, works for 20 years for his uncle, marries Rachel and Leah, fathers the children who will become the leaders of the 12 tribes, and grows his sheep flocks by the hundreds before returning to the land of Canaan.

Imagine the fear that gripped Jacob’s heart as he began his lonely flight from his family and from his home to far-away Haran.  Running away from the wrath of his brother, Esau, and from his native environment, Jacob suddenly runs out of strength. He arrives by nightfall.  Lying down on the ground, using a stone for a pillow, Jacob falls asleep and, while he was asleep, he has an amazing dream.

Given that Jacob was terrified of his brother’s wrath, what kind of dream do you think he would dream? One of revenge? One of monsters chasing him in the night?

Dr. Barrett, who has authored a book called Pandemic Dreams, talks about the differences in the dreams of the frontline doctors and nurses in Italy working in the early days of the pandemic. They were having horrible traumatic dreams about trying to get a tube down someone’s throat whose breathing was so constricted that they couldn’t get the tube in place. As the pandemic really started hitting the US, she started seeing more trauma dreams, which tend to be more realistic with a bit of dreamlike distortion.

In her interview with Kathleen Davis on Science Friday, Dr. Barrett provided some examples of dreams people have reported to her via an ongoing survey of pandemic dreams. An example from one person: I have had a number of dreams where I am in a social setting or someone’s home, or something like that, and suddenly realize that no one is wearing masks and they’re not maintaining social distance. I wake up feeling very anxious and unsettled after that.

Jacob, on the other hand, does not have a trauma dream. He dreams of a ladder planted firmly on the ground with the rungs stretching all the way to the heavens. The odd thing about this is that the angels are seen to be olim v’yordim (ascending and descending) the rungs of the ladder. According to Rabbi Gilah Dror of Rodef Shalom Temple, the Sages note that angels seem to ascend first…don’t heavenly angels come from heaven? What kind of angels are these that seem to originate from Earth?

Rabbi Dror explains:

“Perhaps, the answer to this question lies in Jacob’s state of mind as he falls asleep.

Remember that Jacob is running for his life. He is isolated and alone and living in fear. He is exhausted. His strength is sapped not only by the journey, but also by his extremely strong emotions. And, in that state of mind, Jacob lies down to sleep and has this amazing dream. And, in his dream, Jacob uncovers an important message.

The message is that there are different kinds of angels. There are heavenly angels and there are earthly angels. And, when we are confronting our fears, the first thing we must do is to muster our earthly angels, our own spiritual strength, our own human determination, to meet the fears that afflict us. Only then, will the heavenly angels be revealed to us. Only then will we be able to see the heavenly angels that descend to strengthen our efforts as we strive to overcome our fears and to meet our challenges.”

Dreams can serve as a source of direction in our lives providing a bigger picture which keeps us steady and tells us the meaning of our lives, according to Rabbi Stacey Blank (World Union for Progressive Judaism).  G-d spoke to the prophets oftentimes in a dream. And we hear the voices that give us inspiration to do great things, to do impossible things – to make the desert bloom, to send men and women to the moon, to continue to be engaged in the seemingly endless struggle for righteousness and loving-kindness in the world.

Jacob’s amazing dream didn’t change his life situation. It did, however, give him renewed energy and courage and set him on the course to be the Father of Israel.

If you are having exceptionally strange or vivid dreams influenced by the pandemic, perhaps you can look for  inspiration to get through these traumatic times. For those who just feel like they’re having more anxiety dreams and those are making their daytime anxiety worse, the best technique is simply to think of what you would like to dream about.

Maybe there’s a person you’re not getting to be with. Maybe there’s a favorite place that you’d like to visit in your dream tonight. So you want to fall asleep saying, tonight I want to dream about x, tonight I want to dream about x. And form a simple visual image in your mind’s eye of the person’s face or the place or something about the dream you want to have. Dr. Barrett says that it doesn’t work all the time, but it does frequently.

As you go to sleep tonight think of all the things you are grateful for this Thanksgiving weekend. While you may not dream of an amazing ladder to heaven, perhaps your dreams will give you renewed energy and inspire you to do some good in the world. Tikun Olam

Shabbat Shalom.



Transcript of Science Friday: https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/covid-dreams/

Rabbi Gilah Dror https://www.rodefsholomtemple.org/shabbat-parashat-vayetze-earthly-angels/

Rabbi Stacey Blank https://wupj.org/library/uncategorized/17028/dreaming-in-the-state-of-israel-parashat-vayetze/


Joseph Frankel (4-1-20) on Medium: https://gen.medium.com/this-is-your-brain-on-coronavirus-dreams-356ff36c01b7

Deidre Barrett (2020) Pandemic Dreams https://www.amazon.com/Pandemic-Dreams-Deirdre-Barrett/dp/0982869533/ref=sr_1_2crid=1VDFX9NGMXHQ2&dchild=1&keywords=pandemic+dreams&qid=1606510533&sprefix=pandemic+dreams%2Caps%2C188&sr=8-2