“I am a Dreamer” - Marc Chagall, 1912
In the classical Kabbalah text of Sefer ha-Zohar, sleep is a perilous journey into the realms of death and destruction; the soul leaves the body and ascends into the upper world of the Sefirot, leaving only a fraction of itself to sustain physical existence. The night is ruled by Shekhinah (the feminine presence of God), and the darkness is the realm of the sitra achra – the “Other Side” of the destructive forces of evil and death (Lyla, "night" in Hebrew, comes from the same root as the name Lilith, the female arch-devil.)
The soul becomes hostage of the Shekhinah that keeps it in the Tree of Death and may or may not release it to its body in the morning.
While the body remains behind, subject to detrimental forces, the soul goes through defiled realms and confronts harmful angels and wicked spirits that try to capture her. Finally, the soul faces a trial and has to account not only for its actions on that day but also for every word that she has uttered.
Sleep is not a time of rest, to say the least, and dreams, too, have an ambivalent status.
On the one hand, only the pious and righteous souls can escape and reach the Azilut (eternal divine realm). There, those souls learn the secrets of the Torah and are rewarded with mystical insights that later on reappear in their wakeful state as prophecies or premonitions. On the other hand, the wicked souls receive demonic messages that will haunt them in their wakeful state.
Here Sefer ha-Zohar introduces an ontological dilemma; since malevolent spirits try to trick righteous souls (as part of the soul’s initiation into the divine), they feed them with lies and false prophecies. At the same time, every dream, even the most absurd one, may contain a grain of truth. How can we tell “real” dreams from “false” ones, authentic visions from fake?
Every dream needs a good interpreter that will be able to separate truth from falsehood. Sefer ha-Zohar adopts the Talmudic dictum that dreams “follow the mouth,” namely that they depend on their interpretation, but more importantly, that an un-deciphered dream is like an unread letter; to a large extent, our world rests on the construct of our words.
I just returned from the Chagall exhibition at the AGO in Toronto. Gazing at the flying figures that hover between heaven and earth, or the light that shines from his work, I felt as if I entered the mysterious fusion of dream and reality, as if the Zohar suddenly came to life in Chagall’s world.