To Drash is to Dream by Dr. Shaul Magid

“What language do you dream in?” This was the question posed to me by Professor Marcel Dubois of The Hebrew University when we began to discuss a paper I had written on Thomas Aquinas and couldn’t decide whether to speak in Hebrew or English. Reflecting on this story I thought perhaps he had said, “What language do you drash in?” It was then that I realized the phenomenological, much less phonetic, connection between drash and dream.

Normally we think of drash as a form of rabbinic homiletic exegesis that corresponds with allegory, the second level of rabbinical interpretation after peshat which translates as “plain-sense” meaning, but I think is better understood as “contextual meaning.” That is, what does a verse mean within the context of the narrative into which it is embedded. Allegory is a literary act of disembedding a word or sentence and reconfiguring it to serve a purpose other than understanding the flow of a narrative. Michael Fishbane offers the following felicitous rendering of allegory.

Allegory is never self-evident but presupposes an act of concealment whereby the author uses a series of literary figures to hide something else. Discerning the correspondence between the outer expression and the inner sense of a passage requires prior knowledge of its thematic template. Only on this basis can the various figures and personalities of a text make intellectual sense; otherwise the meaning is utterly fanciful and cannot be sustained over the long haul. (Fishbane, The JPS Bible Commentary: Song of Songs, 271).

To drash is then to conceal something by combining the “outer expression” of the text or perhaps elements of the real world, with the “inner sense” of the imagination. In some way this is what we do when we dream; we use real figures or events and disembed them from their context and then reconfigure them in new constellations according to how the subconscious seeks to express itself; its anxieties, its fantasies, its “interpretation” of how it envisions the real. It is the subconscious attempt to control reality by using elements of the real against themselves.

To drash is then in some way an act of dreaming out loud, dreaming with language, lifting words out of context to make them tell a different story, a story that is also a concealment. The dream has a story to tell but needs images to tell it. The dream is a thief, it robs figures and images from the outside, rips them from their context and then uses them as props to tell a story different than the one witnessed or told in a conscious state.

Drash too is an act of thievery, it wants to tell a different story but needs words to tell it; it pillages the peshat (contextual meaning) for its own purposes. In drash, as in dreams, words become masks, disguising, concealing, (and also sometimes revealing) the place where they came from in order to transmit its subliminal message.

Darshanut is thus an act of imaginative theft whereby familiar words and phrases enter into unfamiliar territory as a way to chart that territory anew. But the darshanic thief never loses respect for the object she appropriates. In some way, then, this thievery is also a form of borrowing. The words are returned, the verses can still be read in context. But now they can never be limited to their context alone. Peshat itself has been transformed. Contextual reading has lost its innocence. Thus while the darshan, like the dreamer, uses words and images to tell us something about the subconscious, she also transforms our conscious lives as well as the text in front of us. We all know how a dream can alter our view and our memory of the real. Drash too can change the peshat; good drash always does.

The dream has an imaginal agenda that it portrays by stealing or borrowing from the real. The darshan has a story to tell but wants the words of scripture to tell it. The darshan wants to be a part of the scriptural drama while re-writing it to serve other ends. Thus she excavates scripture like a miner in search of a treasure. If lucky, she finds it in words transposed and transformed by the vicissitudes of the imagination, like a raven taking flight at dusk with words in its beak. By morning the words are back in place but everything has changed in the dark night of the darshanic soul.

Shaul Magid, Indiana University/Bloomington