Vayeitzei – The Battle of the Stones
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 Torah 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 profound 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 God 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 obvious 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 would 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 with moving simplicity and eloquence:
The fighting between the stones was not caused because each one wanted the tzaddik’s (the righteous man’s) head; it was because they were separate stones. When the stones become one, the fighting ceases, because when you feel one with the other, you don’t mind if the head of the righteous one rests upon him. His victory is your victory; his loss is your loss. because you are 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 at 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 more profound 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 others don’t succeed. They feel that their success necessitates the failure of others.
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. Instead of thinking how can I cut you down I ought to think: How can I help you reach your ultimate success? 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. For me to win, I need you also to win. If you lose, I truly also lost.
A Tale of Three Matzahs
A story (related to me by my friend Dr. Yisroel Suskind):
Rabbi Eliezer Zusha Portugal (1896-1982), the Skulener Rebbe, was a Chassidic master from a small town, Sculeni, in northeastern Romania. Toward the end of the Second World War, in March of 1945, he found himself along with other holocaust survivors and displaced persons, in the Russian-governed town of Czernovitz, Bukovina. (The Russian army liberated Bukovina in April 1944 and completed the expulsion of the Nazi’s from most of Eastern Europe by January 1945, at which time the Russians entered Budapest, Hungary.)
Passover, beginning March 29th, would soon be upon them. Some Passover foodstuffs might well be provided by charitable organizations. Nonetheless, the Skulener Rebbe sought to obtain wheat that he could bake into properly-guarded and traditionally baked matzah. Despite the oppressive economic situation of the Jews, he was able to bake a limited number of these matzahs. He sent word to other Chassidic leaders in the area who would conduct larger Passover seders, offering each of them no more than three matzahs.
One week before Passover, Rabbi Moshe Hager, the son of the Seret-Vizhnitzer Rebbe, came for the matzahs that had been offered to his father, Rabbi Boruch Hager. After being handed the allotted 3 matzahs, he said to the Skulener Rebbe: “I know that you sent word that you could give only three matzahs, but nonetheless my father, the Seret-Vizhnitzer Rebbe, told me to tell you that he must have six matzahs”. The Skulener Rebbe was unhappy to part with this precious food that was so scarce and was in high demand by so many other Jews. But he felt that he had no choice but to honor the request, albeit reluctantly.
On the day before Passover, Rabbi Moshe Hager returned to the Skulener Rebbe. “What can I do for you?” asked the Skulener Rebbe. Rabbi Moshe answered, “I want to return three of the matzah’s to you”.
“I don’t understand”, replied the Skulener, “I thought your father absolutely had to have six matzahs?”
“My father said to ask whether you had saved any of the matzah for yourself?”
Embarrassed, the Skulener Rebbe replied, “How could I, when so many others needed matza for Passover?”
“My father assumed that this would happen”, explained Rabbi Moshe. “That is why he requested an extra three matzahs to hold them for you.”
This is how you behave when you are “one stone.” This is what we call living a life of dignity, where you are really able to be there for another human being.