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(Jacob) took from the stones of the place and he put them around his head, and lay down in that place… (28:11)
This Parasha is unusual in that it is written in the Sefer Torah in a continuous narrative form, without any breaks – except before the initial word and after the final one. Like Parashat Miketz (the only other Parasha with this characteristic) it presents an ongoing, deepening presentation of the formative events in the life of a key personality - in our case the Patriarch Jacob - who shaped the future of generations of Israelites after them. It thus has a unified structure.
In addition, stones appear in three incidents in the stories of Parashat Vayeitze – but nowhere else in the narratives of the Book of Genesis, as listed below:
Before Jacob slept, he placed stones (plural) around his head, but when he woke up after his dream he took ‘the stone that he put around his head’ (28:18) – stone – in the singular, and built it into an altar. The Talmud (Hullin 91b) brings the tradition that G-d had joined the stones together, making them one.
Jacob arrived in Haran through a field, with a well covered by a large stone (29:2) – in the singular. The Torah describes the size of this stone by saying that the shepherds who came to draw the water had to wait until enough of them had arrived in order to roll the stone off the well. When Jacob first saw the shepherdess Rachel - his future wife, he single-handedly removed that huge stone and gave her sheep water to drink…
After twenty years with Laban – where he had been tricked in working fourteen years for his daughters and six years for his sheep, he fled with his family and possessions towards the Holy Land. At the end of the angry exchange between Jacob and Laban they made a treaty, which was given substance by Jacob’s first putting up a single stone (31:45), and afterwards ordering his men to gather stones (plural) to make a mound.
What may be learnt from stones featuring in the above three incidents? And why, in the first story, do many stones become one large stone; in the second, the large stone remains a large stone, and in the third, the structure starts as a single stone and the Jacob orders it to be made into many stones?
The individual small stones represent hardness, cruelty, and troubles – if fact stoning to death is one of the Biblical methods of execution (e.g. Lev. 24:23). By contrast, the large stone suggests firmness, security, and strong foundation.
So the stones that Jacob gathered ‘from…the place and put them around his head’ denoted the elements of his own very troubled life. Those included his fleeing from Esau to save his own life, his parting with the security of his family, his being robbed of all his possession en route by Esau’s son Elifaz (Midrash: Shemot Rabbah 31:17; see Rashi to 50:5), and his having to sever his roots with his sheltered background in travelling some five hundred kilometers to a destination virtually unknown to him.
In the dream, however, G-d showed that all that happened to Jacob was to direct him towards his final goal. That was “Your children shall be as many as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out westwards, eastwards, northwards, and southwards; and the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your children.” In other word, he was to become the father of the ultimate pinnacle of the Creation – the Chosen Nation. Following the Talmudic tradition above, those stones all became one. Jacob recognized the symbolism – namely, that all his individual troubles would come together in a positive way into a common purpose – in being part of the positive spiritual makeup of the Patriarch Jacob and thus becoming the large foundation stone of the Israelite nation. That is explained below.
The process of Jacob’s troubles led him to the second large stone – on his arrival at Haran, that large stone blocked the well. When he saw Rachel from a distance moving towards the well he put the two things together: Rachel was the essential part of the ‘big plan’ that G-d had for him. To Jacob the big stone was not merely a big stone. It was a link with the first big stone – which symbolized G-d’s turning his troubles into something great and positive – His plans to bring him to father the Kingdom of Priests and Holy Nation (Ex. 19:6). Thus the coming together of Rachel and the big stone told him that he had met the person who was to join him to form together the foundation of the Torah Nation. (This can also explain the kiss that Jacob gave to Rachel.)
When Jacob made his treaty with Laban some twenty years later, he demonstrated that symbolism in reverse. He first put up a single stone – to represent his own progress towards having become a foundation stone of the Israelites. But then Jacob demonstrated to Laban that G-d had enabled him to achieve this despite Laban’s attempts to bully and cheat him. He did this by ordering his men to pile up many stones in a heap… and in doing so, showed that the troubles Laban caused for him were ‘small stones’ – painful, hard, cruel - but in being detached from the big stone, no longer relevant to Jacob’s own purpose in life.
Many people go through very difficult times in life. They find themselves hit by problems and unpleasantness from several directions at the same time, and they can find no way out. For example a forty year-old man may simultaneously be made redundant in his job, lose a close relative, worry over a sick child, and through no fault of his own, face a breakdown in his marriage. At the time he may be tempted to ‘give up’ on life, become heavily depressed or even, G-d forbid, contemplate suicide. However when he looks back over that period, he sees himself the greater person for what happened to him – even though he would not wish to go through the pain a second time. Specifically his job did end in dismissal, but he found more productive and enjoyable work; the child recovered and he managed to build a good relationship with him despite his not having access to him all the time, and in the meantime he married a much more suitable lady, building up a new family in a warm positive atmosphere. His ex-wife may still press legal action – unreasonably – for extra maintenance payments, but he has the confidence to see those ‘small stones’ as background noise – no longer part of his life – and he can deal with them with confidence, having found stability and a true sense of his purpose in the Creation.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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