“I can’t teach this stuff—it doesn’t make sense!”

A friend of mine was supposed to present a Jewish studies class that day, and he wasn’t having it. He’d done something the day before that, in his mind, clashed with the values he was scheduled to teach, and he was distraught at his own hypocrisy. “I can’t preach it if I don’t live it!” he cried.

Tough call.

It’s something many of us bump into every now and then. We believe that 10 is the ideal, we have an image of ourselves as an 8 or 9, but when we take an honest look at ourselves, we realize we’re much closer to a 1 or 2.

It’s extremely disturbing. “What am I really? Am I what I preach and think, or what I do and speak? Am I living a lie?”

It would seem at times as if we’re living an impossible contradiction. Like a character in a fantasy film, we attempt to straddle dichotomies left and right as if it made sense.

It doesn’t!

So who do we think we are?

Joseph the Dreamer

Well, we might not be fantasy characters, but we’re pretty close—we’re living a dream.

Let the story of history’s most heralded dreamer—Joseph—serve as a guide. Beginning with the Torah portion of Vayeshev1and subsequently throughout his life, Joseph is constantly dealing with dreams. First, the two dreams he recounts to his brothers that land him in hot water, and later he turns into a master interpreter of dreams,2 using this unique skill (and Divine help) to work his way out of jail and all the way up to second-in-command to Pharaoh himself.3

Apparently, dreams were a prominent feature in Joseph’s life story. But why?

Moreover, the entire Jewish people is considered Joseph’s flock, “He leads the flock of Joseph.”4 So, if we’re going to follow his lead, what about all the dreams? Are we all supposed to lead our life by the dreams we have? That sounds highly unrealistic!

To top it off, King David speaks of how prior to our return to Zion, “we were like dreamers,”5 meaning quite literally: in current times, our lives are, indeed, like a dream.

So what does that mean?

What Is a Dream?

Let’s think about dreams for a moment.

In dreams, the impossible happens. In real life, however, there are rules and regulations, and we’re pretty much stuck with them. And I’m not talking about fantasizing of being superman scaling buildings and saving Gotham. I’m talking about real-life contradictions that in the back of your mind you wish could be true, but alas, your rational mind splashes you with cold water and tells you, “Nope. Impossible. Doesn’t make sense. Forget it.”

Like your drive to be a loving, emotionally connected parent … and the reality that you too often lose patience and end up yelling at your child instead. Or your wish to be in bed every night at 10 p.m. … and the nightly disappointment of seeing the north side of 12 a.m. Or your deep desire to keep Shabbat each week … and the frustrating reality that your fingers are itching to check your emails on Shabbat afternoon.

If life were a dream, the clashing realities and competing narratives could both be true, and it would make perfect sense. After all, in a dream, cars fly, elephants are purple, and your great-grandmother still talks to you. If that can happen, certainly some dichotomy in life is also possible.

You could be the loving parent… who also screams at his kid. You could be both deeply religious and frequently sacrilegious at the same time. You could really go to bed on time every night, but it could also be true that your mattress barely remembers who you are.

But your rational mind crashes the party, wagging that logical finger and telling you, “Stop the nonsense. Who are you fooling? Are you some small child living a fantasy? Recognize your faults and give up nursing absurd, unrealistic notions of who you are.”


Of Circles and Lines

And here’s where Joseph’s dreams and King David’s observation that “We were like dreamers” becomes a veritable elixir of life. Guess what? In the crazy, inverse world we live in, life is a dream so we may as well relish it!

According to the Kabbalah,6 prior to the current world which we inhabit, dubbed the “World of Lines,” there existed another world, called the “World of Circles.”

In a linear world, things must align perfectly and make sense. If you stretch one line into the distance, it will never bump into another line running on a different track from the same starting point. Such a world flows from a G‑dly energy that is contained, systematic, and disciplined to the contours of Creation. It is the world of hierarchies, systems, and rules: an elephant is grey, your great-grandmother doesn’t talk to you at night, and cars don’t actually fly.

But in a circular world, there’s no alignment, no order or rules. There’s no beginning or end to a circle, and all the items inside jostle around without placement or regiment. After all, it’s a circle, and anything can swirl and twirl around. It’s a disjointed and chaotic world; the world of dreams. A world that is the byproduct of a G‑dly energy that is free of constraint, unmoored to the rules and regulations of a linear reality.

In a surprising twist, we are told that the world we live in comes from that circular, dreamy world. Of course, an average day sure looks ramrod straight, but the true source of energy from which we feed is that magical, circular swirl.

Why is this important?

Well, it’s important because if you were thinking that you’re living a lie, and that what you’re doing today doesn’t quite match up with what you did last night so you may as well throw in the towel—stop, take a deep breath, and remember that it’s a crazy world we live in (literally!), and in some wild way, it is a dream.

Your life is full of contradictions?

Welcome to the world. It’s full of them, and from Joseph to David, you should know that if it doesn’t make sense to you and feels like a lie, that’s OK. Know that there is some truth to it, and for now, just focus on the good things, and ignore the bad.

Of course, don’t get lazy and give yourself carte blanche to give up trying because, “I’m living the dream!” I’m not here to tell you to stop trying. I’m here to tell you that if the dichotomy is driving you crazy and compelling you to give up everything—don’t. It’s frustrating, there is room for improvement of course, but it’s not untrue or dishonest. So pick up the pieces, keep on growing in your Judaism, telling yourself that this dream-like state is actually a real thing, and that’s OK, as long as we don’t fall asleep on the job.

You may just bump into a purple elephant.