According to the Jewish mystical tradition, every month is associated with a Hebrew letter, a part of the body, a constellation and an activity. In the recent Kislev Mini-Retreat, R. Daniel Silverstein taught us that the activity of this month is sleep and dreams. From the Torah, he led us to a study of Jacob’s dream: “…a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky and angels of G-d were going up and down it.” This parasha had been very familiar and dear to me for many years. I’d often repeat Jacob’s exclamation— “how awesome is this place!"— especially when seeing something beautiful in nature.
As we studied and meditated I remembered an awesome dream of my own. I’d been going through a difficult time in my life, feeling frustrated and depressed because the book I was determined to write was just not happening. No matter how much time and energy I invested, how many writing courses I took, the book never came into being. This was all the more distressing because my sister was a very successful writer and my parents z”l had been so proud of her.
One night I had a dream that turned my life around. In it came the image of a set of railroad tracks laid out far into the horizon across a desert landscape that, even in the dream, I knew was the Negev. At some point in the dream, these tracks up-ended and became a ladder leading up toward the heavens. The night dream-sky was soft and dark, the ladder itself aglow. “Jacob’s ladder,” I thought as I awoke with a feeling of gentle ecstasy.
In the months that followed, I recognized more and more clearly the guidance the dream had offered me. The course I’d been determined to follow was revealed as an endless and monotonous trip through an arid landscape leading nowhere. The dream ladder was my instruction to move from the aridity of ego impulses— pleasing my dead parents, out-doing my sister— to the spacious, soft and glowing sky of connection with God.
Finally I stopped trying to write. Instead, I followed an impulse which put me outside the family culture of worshipping the written word. I started to take jewelry-making workshops, learning to form metals, set stones, create wearable art. This practice felt rich and productive, unlike the tracks through the Negev. Once I had the skills, I made a silver version of Jacob’s ladder with crystals symbolizing the angels. This a piece still helps me stay connected with ha-Shem and maintain the correct course.
Ma norah ha-makom ha-zeh! How awesome is this place!
Susan Kaplow is a visual artist in NYC. Jewish sources and tradition are a major source of inspiration for her. You can see her work at: susankaplow.com.