The sun is setting, and Jacob rests his head after a harrowing day. He is fleeing from his brother Esau. In an open field, Jacob gathers stones and makes a pillow of sorts so he can sleep before moving on in the morning.
Amazingly, the Midrash describes a “fight” that breaks out between the stones Jacob has gathered. The medieval commentator Rashi (Genesis 28:11) says the following:
“The stones began to quarrel with each other, one saying, ‘Upon me shall the righteous Jacob place his head’, and the other said, ‘Let him lay upon me’. Immediately the Holy One Blessed Be He made them into one stone.”
This teaching is quite fanciful. What did the Sages intend to convey in presenting this dramatic ‘dialogue’ between the stones?
The CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, describes a meeting he had with one of the outstanding and noble sages of Jerusalem, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, dean of the Mirrer Yeshiva. Together with a group of leading American businessmen, they took the time to learn from one of the exceptional Torah leaders.
Rabbi Finkel first brought up the topic of the Holocaust, and he asked: “Who can tell me the lesson of the Holocaust?’ One fellow said that the lesson is – “Never to forget,” another called out “Never again be a bystander to evil.” The saintly Rabbi looked at the group and said, “What you have said is true – but we learned something far more important – we learned something about the human spirit.
“As you know, during the Holocaust, Jews were transported in the worst possible, inhumane way by railcar to the death camps. After hours and hours in the inhumane corral with no light, no bathrooms and extreme cold, they arrived at the death camps. The doors swung wide open and those exiting the cattle cars were now blinded by the light.
“Men were separated from women, mothers from their daughters, fathers from their sons. They went off to the bunkers to sleep. As they went into the bunker to sleep, only one person was given a blanket for every six. The person who received the blanket had to decide, ‘Am I going to push the blanket to the five other people who did not get one, or am I going to pull it toward myself and stay warm?’”
Rabbi Finkel turned to us and said: “It was during this defining moment that we learned the power of the human spirit, because we pushed the blanket to the others.” The saintly rabbi then said to us: “Take your blanket – push it to five others who need it.”
When the Sages pictured Jacob’s cold and fearful night and his lying down to find some rest, they imagined the stones “quarreling with each other”, each one wanting to be the first to give of himself and provide comfort for a lonely and frightened soul. This evocative image suggests how we need to respond to those who may be frightened, alone, or are just in need of a friend. The Midrash teaches us to say: “You can lean on me”, “I am here for you.”
Jacob gathered exactly twelve stones – a symbol of the twelve tribes of Israel (Nachmanides, Genesis 28:19). When every sector of the Jewish people deeply cares for one another, we become a cohesive and unified entity; we become “one stone.” Bound as one, we then have an extraordinary ability to bring warmth, comfort and blessing to the world around us.
With the same stone our father Jacob rested on that fateful night, he builds an altar to offer gratitude to God.
This very spot is deemed holy for all time: “This is the entrance to heaven”(Genesis 28:17). On these hallowed grounds – this place fertile with kindness, concern and gratitude – the great Temple in Jerusalem is later built.
Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider served as rabbi of the Mount Kisco Hebrew Congregation and is the author of the popular Passover Haggadah, “The Night that Unites”.