Psalm 126 — Shir HaMa’alot — offers a jubilant vision of Israel’s redemption as the Jewish nation returns to its homeland:
בְּשׁוּב ה’ אֶת-שִׁיבַת צִיּוֹן, הָיִינוּ כְּחֹלְמִים.
אָז יִמָּלֵא שְׂחוֹק פִּינוּ, וּלְשׁוֹנֵנוּ רִנָּה.
“A Song of Ascents. When God brings about the return to Zion, we were like dreamers. Then our mouths will be filled with laughter, and our tongues with joyous song.” (126:1-2)
The verb tense, however, is confusing. Presumably, the psalmist is describing the future redemption, when “our mouths will be filled with laughter.” Yet the psalm also speaks of the past. It doesn’t say “we will be like dreamers,” but rather הָיִינוּ כְּחֹלְמִים — “we were like dreamers.”
Is this taking place in the past or the future?
We need to understand the importance of our dreams, and how they are connected to our national redemption.
We know of historical incidents when dreams served as a vehicle to redemption. Joseph became the viceroy of Egypt and rescued his family from famine through Pharaoh’s dreams. Daniel attained his position of importance through the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar. What is the function of dreams in the world?
Every soul has certain segulot — hidden talents or qualities. The greater the trait, the more it will struggle to be realized. One way in which these inner qualities express themselves is through the medium of dreams.
The nation of Israel also has special segulot — a unique potential for spiritual greatness. As the Torah promises, “You will be a segulah among the nations” (Ex. 19:5). When the Jewish people are exiled and downtrodden, this special quality seeks ways to be expressed. This drive for national self-fulfillment — that is the source of our dreams of redemption.
After death, the Sages taught, the soul is questioned by the heavenly tribunal: “Did you anticipate the redemption?” (Shabbat 31a). The fact that we are judged on this matter indicates that it is important to anticipate redemption. The Rabbis also noted the obligation for every Jew to pray for our national return to the Land of Israel.
The logic of this approach, however, is not obvious. Why yearn for that which is beyond our control? The redemption either depends on the actions of the entire Jewish people, or will take place at some time that God ordained. What will our prayers help?
To understand the significance of our dreams and prayers, it is instructive to recall the Talmudic saying, “Do not belittle any blessing, even that of an ordinary person” (Megillah 15a). Why should we take note of the simple wishes of a neighbor or friend? The Sages, however, imparted an important lesson: do not underestimate the power of a few words of encouragement. They may awaken and help realize our hidden potential.
This is true for the individual — and the entire nation as well. Secreted in the national soul of Israel is a potential for greatness. By remembering and anticipating this national destiny, we strengthen it and prime it to be realized. The value of anticipating redemption lies in its power to help bring it to fruition.
This is not a mystical belief, but a simple historical fact. Without a doubt, the unprecedented return of the Jewish people to their homeland after centuries of stateless exile could not have occurred without their constant yearnings and prayers. The Zionist movement could not have convinced millions of Jews to uproot themselves if not for the people’s deep-rooted longings for the Land of Israel. It is our faith and anticipation of redemption that enables the realization of Israel’s national segulah.
Now we can understand why the psalm says that “we were like dreamers,” in the past tense. The psalmist is referring to our dreams of redemption during the long years of exile. He is not describing a state of euphoria during the hour of redemption, but the means which enabled this redemption to take place.
בְּשׁוּב ה’ אֶת-שִׁיבַת צִיּוֹן — “God will bring about the return to Zion” — because, throughout the ages, הָיִינוּ כְּחֹלְמִים — “we were like dreamers.” Our dreams and faith in God’s promised redemption enabled our return to the Land of Israel.
Just as our personal dreams are an expression of our inner talents, inspiring us to develop them, so, too, our national dreams, even in the darkest hours, facilitate the return to the Land of Israel and enable the future completion of our national redemption.
(Adapted from Midbar Shur, pp. 226-227)