If one were to search for a subtle underlying theme in Parashat Vayeitzei and its interpretive trajectory, it might be found in the way that Jacob takes the ordinary stones he finds around him during his travels, and uses them to create lasting meaning. As the parashah opens, Jacob is fleeing his brother Esau after stealing his birthright and blessing. Haran, a place where he might establish a family and live among his kinspeople. And on his journey, he chances upon three stones that will change his life.
Alone in the wilderness, in a place near the town of Luz (known thereafter Beth El), Jacob faces the onrushing night with action worthy of a well-prepared boy scout: "taking one of the stones of the place, he made it his headrest as he lay down in that place" (Genesis 28:11). But just before the miraculous revelation of the angels on their ladder that will come to him in his sleep that evening, our interpretive tradition adds another sort of miracle that reveals important information to our patriarch.
B'reishit Rabbah, the classic midrash on Genesis, adds the following layer of meaning to this simple act of Jacob selecting a headrest for his sleeping place that night:
Rabbi Judah said: He took twelve stones, saying: "The Holy and Blessed One has decreed that twelve tribes should spring forth. Now, neither Abraham nor Isaac has produced them. If these twelve stones cleave to one another, then I know that I will produce the twelve tribes." When, therefore the twelve stones united, he knew that he was to produce the twelve tribes.
Rabbi Nehemiah said: He took three stones, saying: "The Holy and Blessed One united the Divine name with Abraham and with Isaac too. If these three stones become joined, then I am assured that God's name will be united with me, too." And when they did join together, he knew that God would unite the Divine name with him, too.
The Rabbis said: He took the smallest number that "stones" could mean, that is, two, saying: "From Abraham came Ishmael and the children of Keturah; from Isaac came forth Esau. If these two stones join together, then I will be assured that nothing worthless will come forth from me." ( B'reishit Rabbah 68:11, translation adapted from the Soncino Edition, vol. 2, p. 625)
Such rocky wordplay derives from a comparison of Genesis 28:11, where Jacob takes from "the stones of the place," before he goes to bed, and Genesis 28:18, where, after he awakens, he "took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a monument." Such playful Rabbinic interpretation resolves the inherent conflict between these two verses and allows the Rabbis to reinforce Jacob's import to God, among the patriarchs and to the entirety of his progeny-the Jewish people. They even manage to slip in a slap against other nations in the process, bolstering Jacob (whose offspring are all acceptable) while noting how worthless particular children of Abraham and Isaac are. But they also note that this stone became the place where God's house (the Temple) would eventually stand (B'reishit Rabbah 70:7).
The next chapter (Genesis 29) contains the story of Jacob meeting the great love of his life, Rachel. Continuing on his journey to Haran, he comes upon a well in a field, with three flocks of sheep and their shepherds near it. It is covered with a heavy rock, allowing access to water only when enough shepherds have gathered their collective strength together to roll it away. Along comes Rachel, and Jacob is inspired to roll the rock off by himself, opening the spring to the gathered community.
Continuing its trend of finding meaning in the rocks, the midrash explains:
Rabbi Yohanan interpreted it with reference to Sinai. "He looked and lo-a well in the field"-this symbolizes Sinai, "with three flocks of sheep"-Priests, Levites, and Israelites. "This was the well from which they watered the flocks"-from here they heard the Ten Commandments. "A good-sized rock"-this alludes to the Shekhinah. "When all the flocks were gathered here"-Rabbi Shimeon ben Judah of Kefar Akko said in the name of Rabbi Shimeon: had Israel been short by one only, they would not have been worthy of receiving the Torah. "They would roll the stone off the well's mouth"-from there they heard the Ten Commandments. "They would put the stone back"-thus it is written, "You yourselves saw that I [God] spoke to you from the very heavens" (Exodus 20:19). (B'reishit Rabbah 70:9)
The well with its heavy stone on top, then, becomes a geologic signifier for communal revelation. Water, which often represents Torah in the form of the Ten Commandments, is only released into the world when the entire community assembles. Its source, a well in the field, is really a stand-in for Sinai, and flocks remind us of the overall structure of the people Israel-Priests, Levites, and Israelites. And this is merely one of six lengthy possibilities offered in the midrash on this scene.
The third and final stone arrives at the end of our parashah, where Jacob makes an agreement with Laban after serving him for many years, marrying two of his daughters, and leaving with much of his wealth. Genesis 31:46 shows Jacob and Laban erecting a mound of rocks that shall serve as a witness between them-a point of demarcation between their respective territories, somewhat similar to a cease-fire line. Both parties agree that they will not pass this monument intending the other harm. In this respect, this pile of rocks comes to indicate a resolution to decades of tensions between these two parties-a kind of familial agreement that will ensure a peaceful future. The midrash, of course, has something to say about this rock, too:
Rabbi Yochanan said: It was as large as the peak of Tiberias. Such an impromptu peak is highly unlikely, naturally. But perhaps the midrash speaks figuratively: their agreement to cease hostilities was surely hugely meaningful, and though the rocks may have been minute, what they meant to this tangled family system was surely enormous.
Sometimes the smallest piles of stones assume the greatest meaning in our lives. To understand their significance, one need only be lost in a wilderness hoping to spot the next cairn and regain the trail. One need only see the small pile of stones that tells us that a grave has been visited and our relatives remembered. Or, one need only look upon an archaeological site with stones that tell stories of the thousands of people who lived before us. Stones, then, have a way of sending messages that travel handily through the centuries. And while humans may pass on and fade, the little pebbles we leave behind continue to roll on and on.
Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., teaches Rabbinic and Second Temple literature at Hebrew Union College?Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.