Wednesday, April 22, 2009

You Are What You Dream

“You are what you eat” is a well traveled but powerful cliché. We construct our identities out of the littlest bits of quotidian life; from our culinary style, fashion sense, and literary interests, and from the company we keep and neighborhoods we choose. In a sense, we are what we eat, wear, befriend and read.

We pay less attention to our dreams. Dreams and visions are considered too ephemeral, too intangible to warrant serious thought. Indeed, the word “daydream” connotes an entertaining but meaningless diversion. But in actuality, dreams are the single largest force in determining our identities.

You are what you dream. This may seem trite, but it’s true. Our dreams shape our identities in subtle ways. High school students with dreams of playing basketball or starring in movies will concentrate less on their grades, comparatively, than students dreaming of careers in astrophysics. While there are always exceptions, in all likelihood the aspiring athlete will focus on sports, the aspiring actress will focus on drama, and the aspiring scientist on academics. Dreams may be about the future, but they can affect the here and now.

That is why the power of dreams is the basis of repentance. One of the key elements of repentance is to resolve to improve one’s behavior in the future. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik notes that several philosophers have questioned the value of resolutions. They argue that either the person will improve in the future, or they will not; what difference does making a resolution make?

Soloveitchik explains that our vision of the future is critical to our present. A sincere resolution changes our attitude immediately; a powerful dream can transform immediately.

Dreams have transformed individual lives, and have transformed Jewish history. In exile, the Jews were a stranger in a strange land, a people despised and oppressed. Despite being second class citizens, Jews dreamt of redemption and return to the land of Israel. Jews wherever they were exiled prayed facing Jerusalem, and during each prayer service, large sections of the service were devoted to praying for the return to Israel.

One would imagine that it would be ridiculous for a member of an abject minority to have any sense of optimism. However, to the poor Jew living in a hovel inside a ghetto, the dreams of redemption offered a lifeline. Even if everyone treated him as a cursed subhuman and a landless alien, the poor Jew could straighten his back and dream that he was only a few short steps from returning to his beloved land of milk and honey. And these dreams not only maintained the Jewish connection to Israel; the dreams of redemption transformed the lives of every Jew. By looking forward to the redemption, the Jew could maintain his dignity in the face of discrimination and hatred.

Throughout history, it was a challenge for Jews to hold on to their dreams, and at times, it was downright dangerous. In 1968, Boris Kochubievsky wrote an open letter to the leadership of the Soviet Union stating:

"I want to live in Israel.

This is my dream. This is the goal not only of my life, but also of the lives of hundreds of generations preceding me that were expelled from the land of their ancestors.As long as I live, as long as I am capable of feeling, I will do all I can to be able to leave for Israel……..I will be prepared to go to the homeland of my ancestors, even if it means going by foot."

Kochubievsky was immediately thrown in jail. But Kochubievsky went to jail with his dreams intact and his head held high. Today, forty years later, the situation has changed. The Soviet Union can only be found in history books, but Boris Kochubievsky can be found in Israel.

Boris’ dreams changed world history. We all need to learn how to dream like Boris, because in the end, you are what you dream.

1 comment:

philtheauthor said...

Rabbi Steinmetz,

I was delighted to see your reference to Boris Kochubievsky. I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing him in Jerusalem in 2006. He has changed his name to Baruch Ashi. He said that when he first decided to go to Israel his friends and relatives thought he was a complete idiot and that he was doing them wrong, Now they are all here.

This quote is in my book, TRIUMPH OVER TYRANNY: The Heroic Campaigns that Saved 2,000,000 Soviet Jews. Please visit

Philip Spiegel