“There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality; and then there are those who turn one into the other.”– Douglas H. Everett
This week’s parsha opens with Yaakov Avinu’s dramatic dream—a grand vision of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, angels, and of course the vision of God Himself promising to take care of Yaakov on his journey. This dream is the first in a continuing litany of dreams that play a prominent role in the narratives of the next few parshiyot, culminating with the various dreams in the Yosef story. These dreams occur in different contexts and play varied roles, but their prominence in the storylines is always clear.
In Jewish tradition, dreams are considered a powerful tool. The Gemara Brachot 57b says that “a dream is 1/60th of the level of prophecy,” and many sources in Chazal reinforce the connection between dreams and prophecy, a connection underscored by the fact that most prophetic visions in Jewish history occur during a dream-like state. The concept of having a great vision of what could be, both on a personal and national level, is part and parcel of our national consciousness and aspirations.
The phenomenon of “dreaming,” however, transcends the dreams and visions that occur during our nighttime sleep. We often speak of the “dreams,” hopes, aspirations and visions that we have throughout life. Which raises the question of the role of dreams in childhood and parenting. Should a parent encourage their children to dream and “shoot for the stars,” or is it better to encourage a more accurate sense of reality and expectations? If the answer depends on the age of the child, at what age do things shift? Should our children (and we) ever really stop dreaming? Are we supportive enough of our children’s dreams?
It is no secret that young children, with their abundant naivete, love to dream, and to dream big. Most of us have memories of wanting to grow up to be Mickey Mouse, a fireman, a professional baseball player or an astronaut. Those dreams result from a combination of naivete and the remarkable imagination that children are blessed with. And during those early childhood years, we as parents are meant to help our kids develop their imagination and their capacity to dream. At that crucial stage in the children’s social, cognitive and psychological development, our job is to encourage our kids and nurture their thoughts/feelings in the most accepting way possible: to help each child build a healthy sense of self, and to help him feel supported. If a young child tells us of his future aspirations for when he grows up, and our well-intentioned response is, “Oh, honey, that’s not possible,” that sense of disappointment (even though it’s true) could impact his desire to continue dreaming, or to share with us his future dreams. Our role instead is to foster and encourage their capacity to dream.
And then our children get older and reality begins to set in. They age and become more aware of the limitations set for them by the world, and they often begin to lose their capacity to dream. What role should a parent play in all of this? Should we continue to encourage our kids to dream? Until what age?
It would seem that on the one hand, part of parenting requires us to prepare our children for real life, to help them form realistic expectations and accept certain realities. On the other hand, the ability to continue to dream and hope enables a person to step out of his/her immediate realities and to “think big” about what could be—an important and valuable exercise regardless of the results. It seems, therefore, that our job as parents is to find the right balance between the two poles of aspiration and reality, with the imagery of Yaakov’s ladder as our guide. We must raise our children to have their feet firmly planted in the ground, even as their eyes reach heavenward. Our children should feel rooted in the realities of the practical world, and be realistic in their expectations, while never ceasing to have their heads in the clouds, thinking big and dreaming big. How we manage that balance might depend on each child, their age, and their individual personalities and needs, but striking that balance is key.
Of course, even as we get older, we, ourselves, should never lose the ability to dream, to hope. That part of us that fuels ambition and fantasy should always exist in our hearts and minds—both on a personal and national level—“היינו כחולמים.” We must make sure that our dreams are tempered with realism and pragmatism—the ladder reaching up to the heavens must be firmly planted on the ground—but we should never stop reaching for the heavens. Even as we teach our children, we can learn from them as well. They can teach us to continue to dream.
Rav Yossi Goldin is the menahel tichon at Yeshivas Pe’er HaTorah, rebbe at Midreshet Tehilla, and placement advisor/internship coordinator for the YU/RIETS Kollel. He lives with his family in Shaalvim and can be reached at [email protected]