The Stone upon the Well

  • Rav Michael Hattin

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


PARASHAT VAYETZE

 

The Stone upon the Well

By Rav Michael Hattin

 

INTRODUCTION

 

            "Yaakov went forth from Be'er Sheva and traveled towards Charan."  So begins the account of our parasha, with the story of Yaakov's flight from Canaan.  Having secured in his youth the coveted birthright that his impetuous brother Esav willingly surrendered for a heaping bowl of pottage, having later boldly taken possession of the associated patriarchal blessings through the machinations of his doting mother Rivka, Yaakov must now bear the brunt of his destiny.  Fearing for his life – incensed Esav biding his time until revenge will be his – Yaakov escapes eastwards ostensibly in search of a wife from among his Mesopotamian cousins, the daughters of Lavan his maternal uncle. 

 

            Alone and destitute, unsure of ever seeing his ailing and aged parents again, exiled far from the promised land that was to be his and his descendents forever, Yaakov treads wearily onwards, his mind filled with a thousand uncertainties.  The sun sinks ever lower in the west, the gloomy shadows begin to lengthen, and then dusk falls and a chill is felt as the darkened landscape, unfamiliar and threatening, takes on ominous form.  The heavens begin to glimmer with a myriad of tiny points of light, the cloudy band of the Milky Way clearly visible across the expanse, but the tired traveler finds no comfort in their cold and detached remoteness.  Setting down his miserable pack, he prepares a protective barrier of stones to keep the night demons at bay and then lies down for a fitful night of sleep.  But in his slumber, Yaakov is unexpectedly visited with soothing visions:

 

He dreamt, and behold a ladder stood on the ground but its top reached unto the heavens, and behold angels of the Lord ascended and descended upon it.  Behold, God stood by him and said: I am God, the Lord of Avraham your ancestor and the Lord of Yitzchak, and I will give to you and to your descendents the earth that you lie upon.  Your descendents shall be as numerous as the dust of the earth and you shall break forth to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south, and all of the families of the earth shall be blessed on your account.  Behold, I am with you and I shall guard over everywhere that you go, and I shall return you to this earth, for I will never abandon you until I have fulfilled all that I have spoken concerning you…(28:12-15).

 

In this concise but remarkably reassuring passage, God dispels all of Yaakov's deepest existential dreads.  Without stating so explicitly, God nevertheless informs him in no uncertain terms that his brother will not harm him, that his wily uncle will not hurt him, and that he will merit to have descendents just as He vouchsafed to his grandfather and to his father before him.  Most importantly, God tells Yaakov that Canaan will be his and that his enforced exile from it will not continue indefinitely. 

 

THE JOURNEY TOWARDS CHARAN

 

            The next morning, Yaakov rises at dawn, his fears allayed and his uncertainties assuaged.  Though an immense and unknown journey lays before him, fraught with perils and as-of-yet nameless challenges, he no longer feels alone, for God has pledged that He will protect him and that He will return him in safety to the land.  Buoyed by the Divine vision, he dons his onerous rucksack again, but this time it seems immeasurably lighter.  Setting his sights towards the east and the rising sun, he sets out.  As the ancient Rabbis so perceptively remark, when the text states that "Yaakov lifted his legs and journeyed towards the land of the east" (29:1) it means to suggest that "his heart was encouraged and therefore it states that he lifted his legs, for it now became effortless for him to walk…" (quoted by Rashi).

 

            Nothing else is related of Yaakov's journey from Beit El, the locus of the inspiring vision of the ladder, to the town of Charan more than 600 kilometers (!) to the northeast.  When next we hear of Yaakov he is close to his destination, and it is then that he abruptly encounters the three flocks and their shepherds, all of them gathered around a "well in the field" (29:2).  Tentatively, Yaakov approaches them, enquires after their welfare, and asks them if they might know Lavan son of Nachor:

 

They said: we know him…he is well, and behold his daughter Rachel is now approaching with the sheep…(29:6).

 

THE REMOVAL OF THE STONE AND THE BAFFLING NATURE OF THE NARRATIVE

 

            Puzzled by their seeming lethargy so early in the day, Yaakov asks them why they do not provide the sheep with water from the well and then return to the fields to graze:

 

But they said: we cannot, until all of the flocks gather and together roll off the stone from the mouth of the well, for only then can we water the sheep…(29:8).

 

A huge stone, unnoticed by Yaakov when he first made their acquaintance, covers the well and only all of the shepherds together are capable of removing it!  Thus it is that the three flocks patiently wait, for only with the arrival of the other shepherds will it be possible to roll off the cover.  Now, however, something wondrous happens, for as soon as Yaakov sees Rachel with the sheep, he is filled with a superhuman burst of vigor:

 

Yaakov approached, and rolled off the stone from upon the mouth of the well, and watered the sheep of Lavan…(29:10).

 

The romantics among us may be tempted to ascribe Yaakov's heroic deed to "love at first sight," and such a reading is seemingly reinforced by what follows:

 

Yaakov kissed Rachel and he then lifted up his voice and cried…(29:11).

 

But strangely enough, most of the commentaries refrain from making the connection.  While they marvel over Yaakov's show of strength, they fail to specifically link it to the arrival of Rachel.  In fact, for most of the commentaries (as well as the readers) the entire episode is largely inexplicable.  Why all of the attention upon the shepherds and upon the well?  Why all of the details about the number of flocks and about the heavy stone?  Why all of the conversation between Yaakov and the men when the only pertinent fact is the arrival of Yaakov at his destination?  Would it not have been sufficient to state that upon Yaakov's arrival near Charan he enquired about his long-lost uncle and then chanced upon Rachel his cousin?  While we can readily appreciate the cathartic quality of the encounter with Rachel – symbol of his family and of his future – all of the other particulars seem extraneous.

 

THE READING OF THE RAMBAN

 

            The Ramban no doubt was also troubled by the seeming superfluousness of the account and its details, and he begins by offering a general comment on the significance of the passage:

 

The text recounts this matter at length in order to indicate to us that "those that trust in God will have renewed vigor" (Yeshayahu 40:31), and that the reverence of Him confers strength, for though Yaakov traveled from afar and was weary, nevertheless he was able to single-handedly remove a stone from the well that generally required the concerted efforts of all of the shepherds.  The three flocks with their many shepherds and guardians all were stationed around the well, but were not able to move it at all… (commentary to 29:2-3).

 

For the Ramban, the removal of the stone by Yaakov, coming on the heels of his dream of the ladder and in its aftermath of Divine assurances, was a sure sign that the man was inspired by his faith in God's promises to perform even the superhuman.  And though that vision had taken place quite some time earlier (for Yaakov had journeyed to Charan from afar), the lack of any other narrative to otherwise introduce Yaakov's arrival at the well on the outskirts of Charan indicates that the two disparate events are to be linked.  Trust in God confers great strength of spirit, and those that are sensitive to His presence and embrace His immediacy can be moved to accomplish the seemingly impossible!

 

THE RAMBAN'S SECOND READING

 

            But now the Ramban introduces an additional reading that is much more symbolic in tone:

 

Our Rabbis in the Midrash of Bereishit Rabba adduced an allegorical meaning that associates the thing with future events.  It so happened that he (Yaakov) took the path leading to the well and that not all the flocks were gathered there but only three.  He arrived at a time that the stone was upon the well and all of the flocks were waiting for it to be removed.  This entire matter was to inform him that he would succeed upon this path and that he would have descendents that would merit the fulfillment of this sign.  This well alludes to the Holy Temple, and the three flocks symbolize the pilgrims who will visit it on the three festivals.  From that well the flocks are given water, for from there the holy spirit would be drawn.  Perhaps it alludes to the verse: "From out of Zion shall the Torah go forth" – for it is otherwise compared to water – "and the word of God from Jerusalem" (Yeshayahu 2:3).  All of the flocks would gather to there, from "the approach to Chamat all the way to the brook of Egypt" (Kings 1:8:65).  "They would remove the stone and water the flocks" – this refers to the drawing of the holy spirit, and afterwards the stone would be replaced until the next festival.

 

Here, the Ramban relates to the specifics of the episode – the well of water, the three flocks patiently waiting, the removal of the stone at certain intervals to provide water and then its replacement until the next time.  For the Midrash, the life-giving well is a metaphor for the Holy Temple at Jerusalem and the flocks are the people of Israel who faithfully gather to it at the time of the three pilgrim festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.  It is then that they encounter God's presence and are filled with an inspiration that is drawn from the sanctity of the place, the holiness of the season and the special power that the unity of Israel bestows. 

 

            But that inspiration is not for every day, for there is a proverbial stone that sits atop the well.  The encounter with God and the renewal of the soul – the "holy spirit" that is its hallmark – are special moments, and cannot be cavalierly experienced at the drop of a hat.  To stand in His presence and to be moved are events that are not the product of casual commitment but rather the consequence of extreme and concerted effort.  And that effort is most abundantly rewarded when it is carried out by all of Israel as one.  The three pilgrim festivals are seasons most propitious to this end for they are all about preparation and forethought, charged ceremonial and sacred convocation.  And the precincts of the Holy Temple, where no careless feet may tread, where one's every step is measured and prescribed, this place is indeed the most favorable location for the accomplishment of this aim.

 

            While this second reading of the Ramban is Midrashic and non-contextual, fanciful and arcane, and it is by no means simplistic.  The message that it communicates is insightful and pertinent and it admirably accounts for most of the narrative details of our passage.  But apart from the always-provocative symbol of water and the prominence of the number three, what else might have inspired the Rabbis' reading?

 

CONSIDERING THE MIDRASHIC READING

 

            As pointed out above, there is no other passage that separates the account of Yaakov's arrival at the well from the episode of his vision of the ladder and the Divine reassurance that was its climactic moment.  Recall that on the morrow of that inspiring vision, Yaakov arose early in the morning and made an oath to God:

 

Yaakov made a pledge to God and he said: If the Lord will be with me and will guard me upon this path that I am taking and will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and if I will return in peace to my father's house and God will be my Lord, then this stone that I have raised as a pillar shall be the house of the Lord, and from all that You will give me I will separate a tithe to You from it! (Bereishit 28:20-22).

 

The text then continues without interruption to briefly describe Yaakov's journey before announcing to the reader that he safely arrived at the well on the outskirts of Charan.  In other words, when Yaakov encounters the shepherds at the well with their three flocks gathered round its base and the great stone upon its opening, we may in fact surmise that the memory of his heartfelt prayer and oath still hang in the air.  The commitment to build a house to God and the pledge to separate a tithe – both expressions of Yaakov's trust and faith in God's protection – evoke potent images of a future Temple and of a service, of an encounter that will one day unfold between Yaakov's descendents and God.  And as Yaakov journeys forth into the unknown, he bears that oath with him, confident that God will respond in kind.  The Rabbis of the Midrash, then, were able to see intimations of a future Temple in our passage because the future "House of God" that is the core of our patriarch Yaakov's pledge jumps off of the page.

 

            The message then is not merely symbolic, as if Yaakov's journey was only about providing us with an indication of future events.  Rather, the intent of the Midrash is to emphasize to us that arriving safely at the well and experiencing supernatural success at the drawing of the water – the holy inspiration of the pilgrim festivals – is a direct function of undertaking the proverbial journey with the right attitude, of remaining cognizant of the spiritual goal and preparing for it even while it is far, far off over the horizon.  Yaakov's ability to remove the stone was directly inspired by the memory of his earlier oath to God to serve Him sincerely and to build a house to His name, a memory that he faithfully carried with him for the duration of the arduous journey.  And when, at the end of our parasha twenty years later, that journey had to be recommenced, Yaakov's pledge still sustained him, so that he could fearlessly encounter Esav and then finally fulfill his word by serving God at Beit El (Bereishit 35:1-15).  The secret, then, to achieving inspiration at the season of the festivals is to carry a potent memory of that inspiration with us for the rest of the year.  And though it may seem that we drink from the well infrequently, we may yet succeed at quenching our spiritual thirst.

 

Shabbat Shalom