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November 27, 2009 5:50 pm

Vayeitzei: The Battle of the Stones

avatar by Yosef Y. Jacobson

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The Shouters

The Yeshiva decided to field a rowing team. Unfortunately, they lost race after race. They practiced for hours every day but never managed to come in any better than dead last.

The Rosh Yeshiva (the Yeshiva head) finally decided to send Yankel to spy on the Harvard team. So Yankel schlepped off to Cambridge and hid in the bulrushes of the Charles River, from where he carefully watched the Harvard team as they practiced.

Yankel returned to Yeshiva, and announced: “I have figured out their secret.”
“What? Tell us,” they all wanted to know.
“We should have eight guys rowing and only one guy shouting.”

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The Quarrel

The rabbis in the Talmud focus on an apparent grammatical inconsistency in the portion of Vayeitzei.
When Jacob journeys from Beer Sheba to Haran, stopping on the way to rest for the night, the Bible tells us, “He took from the stones of the place, arranged them around his head, and lay down to rest.”

But in the morning when he awakes, we read a slightly different story: “Jacob arose early in the morning, and took the stone he placed around his head and set it up as a pillar.” First we read of “stones,” in the plural; then we read of “the stone,” in the singular. Which one was it? Did Jacob use a single stone or did he employ many stones?

A lovely Talmudic tradition, laden with symbolism, answers the question thus: Jacob indeed took several stones. The stones began quarreling, each one saying, “Upon me shall this righteous person rest his head.” So G-d combined them all into one stone, and the quarreling ceased. Hence, when Jacob awoke, we read, he “took the stone” in the singular, since all the stones became one.

What is the symbolism behind this imagery? What is the meaning of stones quarreling with each other and then reaching a state of peace by congealing into one?

One more question: How did the merging of diverse stones into a single entity satisfy their complaint, “Upon me shall this righteous person rest his head?” Even after the stones congealed into a single large stone, the head of Jacob still lie only on one part of the stone. (Your mattress is made of one piece, yet your head can only lie on one particular space on your mattress). So why didn’t the other parts of the stone (Jacob’s “mattress”) still lament that Jacob’s head is not lying on them?

We Are One

The Lubavitcher Rebbe once explained it thus:

When you feel one with the other, you don’t mind if the head of the righteous one rests upon him. When the stones are separated from each other, the question becomes, “Who gets the head”? “Why should you get the head, not I”? But when they become one, they do not care who gets the head, because they experience themselves as one.

The episode with the stones, then, reflects a profound spiritual truth about human relationships. Much conflict — in families, communities, synagogues, organizations, corporations, and movements — stem from everyone’s fear that someone else will end up with the “head,” and you will be “thrown under the bus.” But we can view each other in two distinct ways: as “diverse stones” and as a “single stone.” Both are valid perspectives, fair interpretations of reality. The first is superficial; the second demands profounder reflection and sensitivity. Superficially, we are indeed separate. You are you; I am I. We are strangers. I want the head; you want the head. So we quarrel.

On a deeper level, though, we are one. The universe, humanity, the Jewish people — constitute a single organism. On this level, we are truly part of one essence. Then, I do not mind if you get the head, because you and I are one.

It is hard for many people to create room for another, and let them shine brightly. We are scared that they might “get the head” and we will end up with the leg. Some of us spend years to ensure that nobody besides ourselves gets the head.

What is needed is a broadening of consciousness; a cleansing of perception, a gaze into the mystical interrelatedness of all of us. Then I will not only allow, but will celebrate, your emergence in full splendor. Your success will not hinder mine, because we are one. Different “stones” may need to have different positions, yet here is no room for abuse, manipulation, back-stabbing, mistreatment and exploitation, because we are one.

Jacob, the father of all Israel, who encompassed within himself the souls of all of his children, inspired this unity within the “stones” around him. Initially, the stones operated on a superficial level of consciousness, thus quarreling who will get to lie under Jacob’s head. But Jacob inspired in them a deeper consciousness, allowing them for that night to see themselves as a single stone, even while they were in different positions.

In our night of nights, we need Jacobs who know how to inspire the stones around them with this state of consciousness.

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