And the Angels Danced?

Sometime over 3500 years ago, the biblical Jacob started out on a journey north. The Book of Genesis is firm on the endpoints – Be’ersheva, about at the center of the land of Canaan (later Israel) and Haran in the land of Aram (presumably present-day Turkey).

We don’t really know his itinerary but we can estimate a distance travelled of about 450 miles.

One evening, so tired he was able to use stone for a head pillow, he stopped at a particular place somewhere en route and fell asleep.

He dreamt a powerful dream: He saw a ladder (Hebrew: sulam) whose base rested on the ground and whose top reached towards the heavens, with God’s messengers ascending and descending upon it. Medieval biblical commentator Rashi, among others, explains that these heavenly beings (we now call “angels”) were arriving from the heights of heaven to accompany Jacob on his journey on the ground. And what else can one do on a ladder but climb up and down?

Jacob subsequently named this place “Bet El” (House of God) and built an alter there for animal sacrifice.

In August, 2012, my wife and I visited our son in Rehovot, just south of Tel Aviv. The three of us traveled north to Haifa to visit Israeli cousins. We were invited to attend the “Festival ha’Rikud” (Dance Festival) which was to be held in the town of Carmiel later that week. Carmiel is a former development town in the Galil, northeast of Haifa, one of Israel’s success stories and a lovely setting for any enterprise. The air is clear and the environment green.

We had known of the Festival ha’Zemer (Song Festival) for many years but had never heard of the Festival ha’Rikud. This latter event, then about 25 years old, turns out to be a three-day, 24×7, activity-laden explosion of anything and everything relating to Dance – from high-school performances to lectures, workshops and professional performances. It brings participants from all over Israel and indeed internationally.

For the lead-off night, we sat outside, open-air, on a large bulbous hill together with, by my estimate, about 3,000 other people watching superlative performances by various troupes of dancers. The event was hosted by Israeli star Yehoram Gaon and attracted attendance from members of Knesset and even his Honor, then-President Navon. And it was truly beautiful, culminated by a huge fireworks display which lit up the night sky just before midnight.

But this was not all! After the performance, the town sponsored a gala of open-circle dancing, Israeli style, public and under the lights . A compound was appropriated to accommodate hundreds of dancers in about a dozen large circles, spinning to the music of different songs in different styles. Each song had its own unique choreography and steps. Amazingly, every dancer knew them all, changing effortlessly from one set of steps to another every few minutes with the change in music. The dancers were typical Israelis, all ages and genders, every ethnic group, every shape and shade. The only requirement for admission was that they dance the correct steps in a circle as the music played.

For me, it was not simply memorable watching people celebrate Israeli Dance, but something even unbelievable, visionary, mystical. The range of steps and movement was astounding: jumps and skips; twirls; dips and bends. And one move especially impressed me — a slow two-handed bowing towards the earth with arms outstretched, sometimes shaking, then a slow reaching up towards the sky, often with snapping fingers. The multiple circles, large and small, filled the compound with sinuous beauty under the dark night and bright lights. A night none of us would ever forget – Israelis celebrating their land physically with every rhythmic stamp of the earth.

Prodded by this vision that I was actually seeing with my physical eyes, my mind somehow flipped to Jacob’s experience. Jacob had also traveled as we did from the middle of the land northward and sometime in the middle of a dark night had seen a vision of angels “climbing a ladder.” But were they really climbing a ladder? Here are my hints and proofs:

  • The Hebrew word halom means “dream”. But it is also an anagram for the word mahol which means “dance.” The Bible uses mahol for dance many times, including Miriam’s dance at the Sea of Reeds.

  • Olim v’yordim bo (“ascending and descending on it”), presumably the angels were climbing up and down the ladder. Why? Many commentators have to grasp for reasons. But who indeed knows why?

What if they were dancing on the ladder? What if these angels were not climbing the ladder but were instead performing their own unique choreography while standing on the ladder – bending and reaching down towards the earth (yordim), then reaching up towards the sky (olim), perhaps even snapping their fingers, all while standing on (bo) the ladder?

And what if it was not a “ladder” as we understand the word sulam today — that is, a 180-degree, one-dimensional vertical construct? Instead, suppose it was a spiral ladder.

Someone sleeping on the ground, freshly awakened from a deep sleep, might perceive this spiral as a series of circles where angels were not actually climbing, but instead, stretching in up-and-down movements (olim v’yordim) as they circle-danced around the sky.

  • But you don’t believe the ladder was a spiral? Look closely at the word sulam “MLS”. It is a strange Hebrew word with the interloping initial letter Sameh (S). Now, please imagine the Sameh as a large circle, as it is written; then please imagine the final Mem (M) as another large circle, also as written – you can see for yourself. Now look at the connecting Lamed (L), with its diagonal bar , linking the two circles. If you had to choose a Hebrew word specifically constructed to designate a spiral, with two circles connected by a crossbar, what better word could you find?

  • Finally, we have God’s prophecy in the text: “…Your seed will be as the dust of the land and you will burst west and east and north and south; and through you will be blessed all the families of the earth…” What better description of dancing can one find – stomping the dust with fluid steps in each of four directions?

In my mind, this solves the mystery of the biblical dream. The “dream” (halom) was a Dance (anagram mahol) of Angels (anagram/homonym “mal’ahim”), who were performing on a “Spiral Ladder” (sulam) for Jacob — not on a vertical painter’s ladder but on a spiral ladder — whose base was entrenched in the earth and which spiraled endlessly heavenwards.

The Angels danced with up-and-down movements. Why? Like contemporary Israelis, they were celebrating in their own Festival of Dance somewhere in Israel’s north. I would like to imagine these Angels as having returned to the Land of Israel from their own far-flung travels and were now celebrating their possession of, and presence in, the Land with every rhythmic stamp to the sky.

Jacob/Ya’akov, whose name may have originally been interpreted as “the Supplanter,” now became “Up on his Heels” – in other words – “the Dancer”. It would only be after he was crippled in a subsequent meeting with another Angel, that he would give up dancing and be called Israel/Yisrael (“Striver”) thereafter. However the celebratory angelic circle dance with its characteristic up-and-down motions to welcome/send-off (Hebrew “bless”) a traveler to or from the Land would remain in Jacob’s descendants’ collective imagination forever. Jews would revive this same dance in our own time and in our own land.

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