Modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn once spoke these words: “I believe that dance communicates [our] deepest, highest and most truly spiritual thoughts and emotions far better than words, spoken or written.” Shawn would go on to found America’s premier dance festival in Becket, Massachusetts, nestled in the foothills of the Berkshires. The festival’s name? Jacob’s Pillow.
Coming as it does from Torah, let’s consider the source.
Jacob has cut loose from his family so that he might be spared his older twin Esau’s murderous rage, in the aftermath of Jacob’s stealing Isaac’s blessing, one always meant for the oldest child. Exiled from his family, Jacob is cast into a decidedly uncertain future. On the first evening of his journey, as the sun sets, he takes a stone, places it under his head as a pillow and lies down for the night.
With his head on the pillow, Jacob dreams of a ladder from earth to heaven with angels going up and down… and of God at his side, speaking to him, giving him the message of comfort and assurance he so needs at this moment, when he has left all that is familiar, and all that lies ahead is unknown. Jacob awakens and says, “Surely God was in this place and I … I did not know!” (Genesis 28:16)
It’s such a stunning moment, and a gorgeous dream. Over the years I have had people confess to me that they had dreamed of a loved one they lost, and something about the dream told them the person was OK … somewhere. Or that the dream opened the doorway into a realm where they could talk to their loved one in real time again. Or that the dream simply illuminated their own feelings of loss and hope for working it out over time. “Rabbi, does this sound crazy?” they would inevitably ask.
Absolutely not. What are dreams, if not mysterious meeting points of fear and aspiration and love? We are, after all, the descendants of Jacob, who traveled from a place of deceit and a measure of self-centeredness toward an honest-to-goodness spiritual epiphany, and who needed a dream to help him get there. Like the angels ascending and descending, Jacob woke to the understanding that he, too, could now strive for better, and could walk into his future aiming to become more than he had been.
In all of God’s promises to Jacob as he dreamed, we don’t read that God assured Jacob an easy road ahead. Only that God would remain with him through all of it.
Perhaps that’s why the angels Jacob dreams of start on the ground and ascend to the sky. These angels represent our most shining selves; the best of which we are capable. And they start here. Through our actions, through our choices, through the community we build, we might bolster each other to move forward — to reach upward, to move that arc of the universe in our own small way toward, in the words of Rabbi Jack Riemer, “a vision of the world as it ought to be.”
Some of us ascend from there through activism, some through the families we raise, the work we do, and even a handful through dance. How we get there may be less important than making the dream of getting there real, each and every day.
That’s partly why it’s so significant that in the morning, still shaken from his dream, Jacob built an altar out of the stone he had slept upon and anointed it as a marker of the place that would be holy for all time. He took the materials he had — not the ones he might have wished he had — and created something better, something imbued with a sense of the sacred.
Sometimes those materials are hard or unyielding like stone, but with each other’s help, they begin to feel less so. And with the awareness that God is indeed in this place — in any place we are striving, any place we stand together to affirm the best values that Jewish tradition teaches — we, too, can begin from exactly where we are, and find a way to ascend from there.