To Dream The Possible Dream: Don Quixote and the Jewish People

One of the great Broadway musicals is Man of La Mancha, which concerns, if you’ll pardon my lack of a Spanish accent, Miguel de Cervantes and perhaps the greatest novel of all time, Don Quixote. In this play within a play, we see how the Spanish Inquisition persecutes Cervantes and we also see his character Don Quixote, the man who has read so many books about chivalry that he thinks he’s a knight, roaming the countryside with his squire Sancho Panza, tilting at windmills because he thinks they are giants, calling a serving girl the great lady Dulcinea.i

Many scholars believe that Miguel de Cervantes belonged to a family of “conversos”, the Jewish people who were forced to convert to Christianity or face expulsion from Spain in 1492. Many of these families continued to observe some Jewish practices secretly, which might explain Cervantes’s knowledge of them a century later, when Don Quixote was written. The men in the family were able to practice certain professions but were always marginalized. The women in the family could not find suitable mates. In the late 1570’s, when Miguel was over thirty years old, nearly a century after they had converted, the Cervantes family was still forced to secure a certificate of the so-called purity of their blood. Cervantes gives us Don Quixote, a man who lives his life by the code he finds in books, like the Jewish people, the people of the Book who try to live their lives according to THE Book, the Bible. Cervantes mentions the festival of Sukkot.ii  Don Quixote even relates a story from the Talmudiii and contains numerous references to the Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, and other Jewish traditions. The explanation may be that Cervantes came from a family that had been Jewish. Cervantes lived in a Spain ruled by people who burned books, who sought to control minds. Like Don Quixote, Cervantes lived in exile in his own land, like the Jewish people living in exile in their own country.

Why are we so enamored with Don Quixote? He’s a madman, refusing to see life for what it really is. Yet at the end of Man of La Mancha, the other characters are grateful that Don Quixote lost his wits so that they could have an example of idealism, unselfishness and generosity.

We, too, are grateful that somebody has idealism. And we envy Don Quixote his imagination. He imagines not only how bad the world can be, but also how good the world can be.

Whether Cervantes was Jewish or not, Don Quixote represents the Jewish sense of the world, that we live on a cosmic stage where there are giants and nobles and valiant deeds. Jewish people dream of a better world and we think we can do something to make it that way.

We love Don Quixote but we couldn’t be much more different from him. We live drab, small lives. We don’t go on adventures and we laugh at people who do.
As the long-forgotten 9/11 Commission told us, we suffer from a failure of imagination.
We fail to imagine how bad evil can be.
We fail to imagine how much better life can be.
We fail to believe that we can overcome opposition. Sometimes we dream things that we should not dream, unnecessary dreams, frivolous things that are not worthy of us.
We should measure people by their dreams; often, what is wanting in us is not what we accomplish but what we were hoping for in the first place.

In Man of La Mancha, there is the famous song “The Impossible Dream”iv We love the song because it advocates dreaming the impossible, reaching for the unreachable star. And if you’re battered and covered with scars, that’s all right, as long as you tried.

The Jewish dream, however, is more sensible than this. I’ve studied Jewish dream interpretation and I’ve learned that long before Freud, we interpreted dreams in fascinating ways. In the Talmud, in Massechet Berachot 55a and b, there is a wonderful discussion of dreams. The ancient rabbis take the most famous dreamer of them all, Joseph in the Book of Genesis, and point to Joseph’s dreams, dreams that come from G-d. Joseph dreamed that the sun, representing his father, and the moon, representing his mother, and eleven stars, symbolizing his brothers, all bowed down to him. But when Joseph dreamed this, his mother Rachel had already passed away, so the dream could never be fulfilled. Part of this dream was fulfilled but not until twenty-two years later, after Joseph had gone through slavery and imprisonment, and had risen to become the Vizier of Egypt, and his brothers came down to look for food, and bowed down to him. Still, even these dreams that were gifts from G-d Himself, which were direct prophecies from G-d, did not come true as they were designed.

That’s how life really works. We dream, and if we’re blessed and/or lucky, maybe, eventually, after a long, painful ride, we’ll see parts of our dreams come true.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the real world of Judaism, not the world of imagination that Don Quixote lived inside, but the real world, where you hope and pray and work and suffer and you get some of what you hoped and prayed and worked and suffered for.
Still, it is your dreams that formed and informed your life.      
What is the Jewish dream? The Messiah. And how is the dream of the Messiah described? “Every man shall sit under his own vine and his own fig tree and none shall make him afraid.” Think about how simple this is. But think about how hard this has proved to be in history.
And so we Jewish people work for that simple program, to create a society where every person has the right to freedom and security and peace.

The whole idea of dreaming, as Don Quixote taught us, as the Jewish people tries to teach the world, is to imagine how things can be. Our dreams are arrows pointing in the direction of hope. Dreaming makes us people who are outside the mainstream, people who can think for themselves and create new ways of doing things and are the real forces for change.
That’s where we Jewish people have always been in this world, on the outside, though it has never been where we wanted to be. We wanted to be insiders but the world kept throwing us out and, ironically, our outsidedness had made us who we are.
And we realized, as outsiders, that if we are to survive in a society, outsiders must have the same rights as insiders. And so there must be laws to protect the outsiders. Jewish people have always believed that the law, in creating a good and just society, is a context for working out possible dreams.
And so it is no accident that there are so many Jewish attorneys and it’s not a coincidence that there have been so many Jewish judges. We are very proud of the fact that there have been seven Supreme Court justices; Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, Felix Frankfurter, Arthur Goldberg, Abe Fortas, and today there are two, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.v

In a wonderful book, Two Jewish Justices: Outcasts in the Promised Land, Alexander Burt of Yale discusses how the Jewishness of Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter informed their opinions and affected the growth of America. Frankfurter fought against his outcast status as a Jewish person, denying that he was an outsider. But Brandeis was the true hero, the man who was willing to not only accept that he was on the outside but also to make his outsider status motivate him to seek justice for others who were also outsiders in the society. He helped change America so that the rich lost their control over the working people. Brandeis embraced the fact that, like Cervantes and Don Quixote, he was homeless in his own home, and he embraced his heritage as a Jewish outsider and drew strength from it.

Burt talks about how Moses could imagine freedom; the Israelite slaves could not. Moses brought the Israelites what seemed to be an impossible dream, escape to freedom. But Moses was never really one of them. They never really liked him, though he led them out of Egypt, and was the agent of miracle after miracle. They liked Aaron, who built them a golden calf. They liked priests but they hated prophets. Justice Frankfurter was an Aaron, a priest; Brandeis was a Moses, a prophet. Every week we read a haftorah to remind us to be prophets.

Like Brandeis, we cannot bear it if anyone is an outsider; we can’t stand discrimination or persecution. And even when we have to overcome our own prejudices, as many of us, including me, have needed to do in recent years, we have to enable all human beings to attain their rights as human beings. The role of the Jewish people is to be the advocates for the poor and the disadvantaged.

So these are our three choices:
We can be DON QUIXOTE, seeing a different world but chasing impossible dreams;
We can be FELIX FRANKFURTER, the person who seeks to be part of the establishment and move people to the good from the inside, an Aaron who says, “Okay we’ll be practical and do the popular thing and build a golden calf while we’re waiting for Moses to come down the mountain.”
Or we can be
LOUIS BRANDEIS, the Moses, not striving to be inside or popular but using our difference to literally change the world.
Like Moses, like Brandeis, we need to work on possible dreams. That’s the Jewish way.

Everybody quotes the late Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and it is one of the great orations in America history. And it was on all of our minds when Barack Obama was elected President. King’s dream, at the time, seemed impossible. When America elected President Obama, the wonderful message was, “Anything is possible.”
But many in this fickle place we call America are already disillusioned with our President. Their hopes were unrealistic to begin with. They were simplistic and naïve. Did they think that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan would disappear because we said we were pulling out of one country and were more determined to win the war in the other?

A candidate says that he’s for universal health care. That’s easy. If 47 million people in America live without health insurance, that’s a terrible crisis. There is no debate in my mind that something must be done. That’s the easy part. What’s difficult is to come up with a system for providing health care that will work without putting pressure on an economy that is fragile at best. What’s difficult is to create a system that will incorporate the best of medical care as it has been while providing health care for all those who do not have access to it.
The role of Jewish people in this debate is to hold on to the dream but to state that this will be a long process that may take many years to get right and that it will always need to be changed as medical services and hardware and medications change.
We can’t let the forces that say, “You see it was impossible” win.
But we also can’t let those who would risk everything to fix the world today prevail either.

If we Jewish people are going to continue to make a difference, we have to use our outsidedness, of feeling like Brandeis that we’re not exactly in step with society, to motivate us to help our society change.

The weird thing is that the danger for the Jewish people today is not feeling insecure in America; the danger is feeling too secure in America. The danger is that we may lose our edge that comes from being on the edge. We are the outsiders of human history. The danger of assimilation is not only losing our Jewish identity, but also losing our outsidedness.
To be Jewish is always to be on the outside, though you might not admit this to yourself.
This isn’t bad (as bad as it feels); it’s good.
We’re so afraid of difference
We long to blend in, to be the same
It’s no fun being a prophet
And yet, it’s being on the outside that leads to contribution.
We shouldn’t worry about failing to fulfill the impossible dream.
We have to be outsiders who use outsidedness to energize ourselves to fulfill every possible dream.

I’m thinking of a woman whose life was changed because she had a child with special needs. For a few years, while she raced around to doctors to learn her child’s possibilities and limitations, she felt different from every other parent who had children without these needs.
One day, after she had her child set in his course in life, she decided that she had to take that bad feeling of being different and channel it. And this became her career, fighting for the rights and needs of people with special needs like her child.
This to me is a tremendously important story. She didn’t try to suppress or deny her feelings of outsidedness. She used these feelings to motivate her for the rest of her life. She has done great things.  
To be Jewish is to take the feelings of outsidedness and work for the benefit of all outsiders.

We Jewish people have two jobs:
To be the dreamers and outsiders who question and challenge but also to actually do things.
Not just to worry about politics but government
Not just to go to an election rally wearing a t-shirt and a campaign button but also to work over the years in rallying support for legislation that will step by step improve the situation.
We’re not just tilting at windmills but attacking real forces of greed and stagnation
And if that means making ourselves unpopular, if it’s the right fight, so be it.  

Why have I brought Don Quixote into this High Holiday service? To tell you that Cervantes has given us a model for what the Jewish people has always been and I pray always will be. Don Quixote represents the Jewish people, the outsider who dreams of a better world. But we can do better than Don Quixote did, not only pointing the way to a better world but also actually helping to make that world.

The challenge of being Jewish today is to feel like an outsider but work on the inside for real change.
Jewish dream interpretation is right; we can’t get the impossible dream, the whole dream, not, at least, until the Messiah comes. But by dreaming right, and being willing to stand on the outside and work, we may fulfill the partial and possible dreams that will make life worthwhile.


[i] In a movie he never finished, Orson Welles has Don Quixote as a knight in armor on horseback in modern Spain, riding his horse down a highway past moving automobiles. Don Quixote, the idea is, lifts himself into an ideal place and time.

[ii] The “Festival of Tents” is described; families from the town build a cabin and young women come out of the woods and invite the protagonists to join them as guests, what we would call “ushpizin”, a wonderful Sukkot tradition.

[iii] The book contains the almost literal translation of an entire page of the Talmud. This occurs when Sancho Panza, as Governor of the Island of Barataria, passes judgment in the case of a dispute between two men over the payment of a debt. The town’s people are so impressed with Sancho’s wisdom that they hail him as “a new Solomon.”

[iv]The Impossible Dream (The Quest)” composed by Mitch Leigh, with lyrics written by Joe Darion.

[v] By the way, today there are six Catholic judges, two Jewish ones, and only one Protestant on the highest bench today.