Dreams of Art and Angels

Carolina A. Miranda reports on the Rubin Museum of Art’s “Dream Over” event:

On Saturday night, more than 80 artsy types in pajamas filed into the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea for its first ever adults-only sleepover. The purpose: to see what sorts of dreams the museum’s priceless collection of Himalayan art might inspire. I’m not generally the type to spend a lot of time parsing my dreams, which generally involve me showing up somewhere without any pants. But the opportunity to spend the night in a museum—à la Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler—was something I couldn’t resist.

Things got cooking on Saturday at about 9 P.M., when a gaggle of pajama-clad New Yorkers—and their copious luggage (and AeroBeds!)—arrived in the museum’s lobby to check-in and be led to their assigned painting. As part of the registration process, we all had submitted forms outlining key episodes in our lives, along with a list of colors to which we felt a resonance. Museum staff selected works of art based on that information. I was placed under the stoic gaze of a 15th century Tibetan Medicine Buddha on the sixth floor—a selection that was intended to throw a little healing my way. (Freelance writers are pretty wounded people.)

The rest of the evening was designed to get us ready for dreaming. We carefully arranged our bedding. We attended a short lecture on memories and dreams led by clinical psychiatrist Dr. Edward Nersessian and Mt. Sinai neuroscientist Cristina Alberini. There was a group discussion on dreaming. We nibbled on tea and cookies and listened to super groovy sitar music. At around midnight, the museum’s docents came to our bedsides to tell us a “bedtime story” related to the work of art that we’d been assigned. My story was actually more of a guided meditation, intended to get me relaxed. (It worked.) By 1 A.M., all was quiet—except for the industrial plastic moans let out anytime someone rolled over on their AeroBed.

Naturally, the big questions were: would we dream? And, if so, what? The fact is that scientists know very little about dreaming. Nersessian explained that there are any number of theories as to what dreams could be—from the brain organizing new memories to our consciousness modulating its emotions to prophetic visions of the future. Whether any of us staring at a work of art would be able to internalize its meaning, have it manifest itself in a dream and then be able to remember it all the next day was anyone’s guess. To be sure that we didn’t forget anything, a group of “dream gatherers” came around to talk to us first thing in the morning (before we’d even gotten out of bed) to get everything down while it was still fresh.

As one could expect with a subject as personal as dreaming, the results—at least anecdotally—were mixed. There were a number of folks who didn’t dream, or couldn’t remember their dreams. Several others had so-called anxiety dreams, during which they dreamed about trying to dream in the museum. (So meta!) There were dreams that involved Natalie Portman, hair dye and pancakes. Interestingly, a number of folks reported visual elements in their dreams that recalled the paintings they had been looking at. Juan Carlos Andrews had a vision of four Asian, sage-like men all wearing beige. “It was so vivid,” he recalled. “And highly unusual. I’ve never dreamt anything like that.”

And me? I dreamt I was floating, pleasantly carried away by a current—the type of restful dream I haven’t had in eons. It’s hard to say whether this was because of the Medicine Buddha’s tranquilizing effects or because I’d been lulled to sleep in a serene spot to the tune of a sitar. What I do know is that it was a rare luxury to spend so much time before a single work of art. Over the course of an evening and a morning, I’d been able to study the myriad deities, the details of the Buddha’s geometric cloak and the throbbing palette of crimson that held the work together. And for that alone, the night on a museum floor was worth it.

Ralbag on the mysterious Biblical episode of the wrestling between Ya’akov and the “Man”:

והנה קם יעקב בלילה ההוא, ויעבר נשיו ושפחותיו וילדיו וכל קניניו את מעבר יבוק, אחר שעבר הוא בראשונה לראות עומק המים ולנסותו, ומאיזה מקום יכשר יותר שיעבור. ונשאר יעקב לבדו להעביר קצת קניניו שנשארו שם, וישן שם, ונראה לו מלאך השם בנבואה כאלו הוא איש; ולעוצם דבקותו בו וקורבת מדרגתו ממנו נדמה לו שהוא נאבק עימו. עם שכבר ראה יעקב זה ההתאבקות מפני טרדת דמיונו בענין עשו וחושבו להמציא תחבולות להפילו אם יקום עליו להכותו, כי אין מראין לאדם אלא מהרהורי לבו. והנה ארך זמן זה ההתאבקות עד עלות השחר, כי אז הגיע העת שהיה מקיץ יעקב לפי מנהגו. והנה נדמה לו שנגע בכף ירכו, ותקע כף ירך יעקב בהאבקו עימו. ואמר ליעקב שישלחהו כי עלה השחר והגיע העת שראוי ליעקב שיפנה לעסקיו, ולא הסכים יעקב להתיר הקשר אשר ביניהם אם לא יברכהו. ואמר אליו המלאך שלא יקרא עוד “יעקב” כי אם “ישראל”, כי הוא שרר עם מלאכי השם יתעלה עד שמדרגתו קרובה למדרגתם ולא נלאה כוחו בזה, ויהיה שר גם כן עם האנשים ולא ינוצח. ובזה היה ליעקב עוד ייעוד-מה, שלא ינצחהו עשו. …

והנה כאשר הקיץ קרא יעקב שם המקום ההוא “פנואל”, כי ראיתי אלקים פנים אל פנים ותנצל נפשי. והנה זרח לו השמש כאשר עבר את פנואל, והיה צולע על ירכו מפני מה שקרהו. על כן צוו בני ישראל על הר סיני שלא יאכלו החלק מגיד הנשה שהוא על כף הירך; אבל מה שהיה ממנו בזולת המקום הזה – לא נאסר להם לאוכלו. וזה הציווי היה לפרסם זאת הנבואה הנפלאה שהגיעה ליעקב, אשר מרוב הדבקות שהיה לו במלאך קרה לו זה המקרה; וזה, כי ההאמנה בנבואה הוא מפינות התורה. …1

והנה הסכמנו שיהיה זה ההתאבקות בעת השינה, לפי שהוא בלתי אפשר שיראה לאדם מלאך השם בזה האופן בהשתמשו בכוחותיו הגופיות. וכבר הודיענו הרב המורה שכבר נשמט במקומות רבים זכר היות הנבואה בחלום או במראה, להשענו שכל נבואה היא בזה התואר. ולזה לא זכר בזה המקום שתהיה זאת הנבואה בחלום או במראה.

ואם יספק מספק ויאמר: איך יתכן שישאר לו מזה זה-הרושם, בזה שהיה צולע על ירכו כאשר הקיץ? נאמר לו שזה אפשר אצלנו לאחת משתי סיבות: הסיבה האחת היא שאנחנו נראה התפעל כלי הנפש מהדמיונים שיהיו לאדם בעת השינה, לפי שהדמיונים ההם יניעו כלי הנפש הנעה-מה. וזה, שכבר תראה שיחלום האדם ששוכב עם אשה ויראה קרי, כאלו היה הפועל שלם בהקיץ; וכן תמצא שיחלום האדם שהוא נופל ממקום גבוה, ויתנועעו מפני זה איבריו בעת השינה תנועה חזקה נפלאה, וזה מבואר מאוד מן החוש. ולזאת הסיבה אפשר שיקרה לו כשראה שנקעה כף ירכו בחלום, שישאר מזה רושם במקום ההוא מצד התנועה תקרה לו, ולזה אפשר שקרה שמצא עצמו צולע על ירכו כאשר הקיץ.

והסיבה השנית היא שכבר יתעורר הדמיון לפעמים מהדברים שיתפעל האדם מהם בעת השינה. ולזה יקחו הרופאים ראיה חזקה על ענין החולי מחלומות החולה. והמשל, שאם יגע הישן בדבר קר – יחלום שהוא במים קרים, או שכבר ירד עליו השלג והכפור ומה שידמה לזה; ואם יגע הישן בדבר חם – יחלום שהוא באש, או שהשמש מכה עליו ומה שידמה לזה. וזה דבר אין ספק בו, כי החוש יעיד על זה. ולזאת הסיבה תמצא שכאשר יגבר המותר הזרעי באדם ויתעורר לצאת – יחלום שהוא שוכב עם אשה. ולזאת הסיבה בעינה הנה כשיתחדש לאדם כאב בעת השינה – יחלום שכבר הוכה במקום ההוא בסיבת ריב היה לו עם איש-מה בחלומו, וזה ממה שיקרה הרבה גם כן לפי מה שהושג לנו בחוש. ובהיות הענין כן, הנה היה אפשר שקרה ליעקב בסיבת העמל שעמל בהעברת הנחל לכל אשר לו, שיתחדש לו כאב בכף הירך בעת השינה, ונדמה לו מפני זה בחלומו-של-נבואה שיתאבק עם זה האיש ושתקע כף ירכו בהאבקו.

ולפי מה שזכרנו היו להתאבקות שנראה לו בעת השינה שלוש סיבות: הסיבה האחת היא חוזק הדבקות שהיה לו עם זה המלאך; והשנית – מה ששוטטה מחשבתו בהקיץ להמציא תחבולות להפיל עשו אם יקום עשו להכותו; והשלישית – הכאב שנתחדש לו בעת השינה בכף הירך.2

I cite the above passages in an essay on Ralbag to be published in Hakirah; here is my translation:

And Ya’akov arose on that night and transported his wives and children and maidservants and all his possessions across the ford of the Yabok, after he first crossed himself to see the depth of the water and to test it, and [to ascertain] the point best suited for crossing, and Ya’akov remained alone to transport some of his possessions which had remained there, and he slept there, and an angel of God appeared to him in a prophecy as though he were a man, and due to his great attachment to him and the closeness of his [spiritual] level to him, it seemed to him that he wrestled with him, and Ya’akov also saw this wrestling because of the preoccupation of his imagination with the matter of Esav and his planning to devise stratagems to defeat him, were he to arise against him to smite him, for they only show a man the thoughts of his heart.

And the duration of the wrestling extended until daybreak, for the time had then arrived that Ya’akov would awaken, according to his custom, and it seemed to him that he wrenched his hip at its socket in the course of wrestling with him, and he said to Ya’akov that he should send him [on his way], for the day had broken and the time had arrived that it was appropriate for Ya’akov to turn to his affairs, but Ya’akov did not agree to release the tie between them unless he would bless him, and the angel then said to him that he would no longer be called Ya’akov but rather Yisrael, for he had striven with angels of God, may He be elevated, to the extent that his level was close to theirs, and his strength was not wearied in this, and he would also strive with men and not be defeated, and this was an additional promise to Ya’akov, that Esav would not defeat him …

And when he awoke, Ya’akov called the name of that place Penuel, [for] I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved, and the sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip, because of what had befallen him, and the Sons of Israel were therefore commanded at Mount Sinai that they should not eat the portion of the thigh muscle which is on the socket of the hip, but that of it which is elsewhere was not prohibited to them to eat, and this commandment was to publicize this wondrous prophecy that Ya’akov experienced, that from his great cleaving which he had to the angel, this event befell him, for the belief in prophecy is among the cornerstones of the Torah …

And we have decided that this wrestling was during [Ya’akov’s] sleep, for it is impossible for an angel of God to appear to a man in this manner when he is utilizing his corporeal faculties, and the Rav Ha’Moreh has already informed us that in many places, the mention of the prophecy occurring in a dream or vision has been omitted, in reliance on the fact that every prophecy is of this character, and it therefore does not mention in this place that this prophecy was in a dream or vision.

And if a doubter shall raise a doubt against us and say, how is it possible that this effect upon him should remain from this, that he was limping on his thigh when he awoke? We say to him that we consider this possible for one of two causes: The first cause is that we see the influence on the faculties of the soul of the imagined [notions] that a man has during sleep, for these imagined ideas activate the faculties of the soul some activation, and so you will see that a man will dream that he is sleeping with a woman and he will see semen, as if this activity actually occurred while awake, and so will you find that a person will dream that he is falling from a high place and because of this his limbs will move during his sleep a strong and wondrous movement, and this is very clear from the senses, and for this cause it is possible that when he saw in his dream that the socket of his hip was wrenched, [a corresponding physical motion] befell him so that there remained an effect in that place from the movement that had then befallen him, and it is therefore possible that it occurred that he found himself limping on his thigh when he awoke.

And the second cause is that the imagination is sometimes aroused from events that affect a man during sleep, and the physicians therefore draw strong inferences on the nature of a sickness from the dreams of the sick one. For example, if the sleeper touches something cold, he will dream that he is in cold water, or that snow or frost or that which is similar to this has descended upon him, and if the sleeper shall touch something hot, he will dream that he is in fire or that the sun is beating upon him, and that which is similar to this, and this is something about which there is no doubt, for the senses testify to this. And for this cause you will find, that when the excess of seed shall become strong in a man, and become aroused to leave, he will dream that he is sleeping with a woman, and from this exact cause, when a person develops some pain during sleep, he will dream that he has been struck in that place due to a quarrel that he had with another man in his dream, and this type of phenomenon occurs frequently, according to the perception of our senses. And this being the case, it is possible that it befell Ya’akov, due to the labor that he had labored in the transportation of all that was his across the river, that he had developed a pain in the socket of his hip during his sleep, and because of this, it appeared to him in his prophetic dream that he wrestled with the man and that he wrenched the socket of his hip when he wrestled with him.

And according to what we have mentioned, there were three causes for the wrestling that appeared to him during sleep: the first is the strength of the cleaving that he had with this angel, the second is the occupation of his thought while awake to devise stratagems to defeat Esav if he arose against him to smite him, and the third is the pain that he developed during sleep in the socket of his hip.

  1. פירוש רלב”ג על התורה (מהדורת ברכת משה / מעליות – מעלה אדומים) בראשית לב:כג-לג, עמודים תיא-ב []
  2. שם, סוף פרק לב, עמודים תיד-טו []
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