Parashat Vayetzei

Parashat Vayetzei: Standing Stones and Moving Stones

by Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD

I have been thinking about something my doctor said to me a few weeks ago. He advised me to study a page of Gemara a day. That’s usually what you hear from your rabbi, not your doctor, but my doctor wasn’t speaking theologically. He was advising me to get mental exercise. He reminded me that even when we have engaging and challenging work, it becomes easier for us to do it over time. It’s important for us to face ourselves with new challenges in order for our minds to remain sharp and flexible. To continue to grow, we must be willing to try the new, and not only stay with what is familiar, easy, and safe.

There is actually a hint of my doctor’s wisdom in this week’s parashah. When Jacob leaves his family in Haran, he has the vision of his life. He lies down to sleep while on his solitary journey, using a stone as a pillow. He dreams of a ladder stretching between sky and earth, with angels climbing up and down on it: “And behold (vehineh), a ladder was grounded on the earth, and its top reached heaven, and behold (vehineh), angels were going up and down on it.” Jacob dreams that God visits him and promises him a great posterity, as well as personal protection while Jacob is on his travels. When he awakens, he is convinced that God has been in that very place, and he sets up his pillow-stone to mark the place as sacred. He promises to build an altar in that place when he returns from Haran, and he in fact does so later on in the narrative. The place becomes known as Beit El, the house of God. Beit El is the place where Jacob discovers that he, like his forebears, is a visionary.

After this powerful and life-changing incident, Jacob journeys onward and eventually reaches Haran. Here, he encounters another stone. Shepherds have set this stone up over a well, in order to block the well from use until all of the local flocks have gathered. The shepherds explain that Rachel, daughter of Jacob’s cousin Laban, is coming with her sheep. Jacob, apparently impatient to impress his cousin by watering her sheep, asks why the shepherds don’t roll away the stone, but they say it is too early to do so. When Rachel arrives with her flock, Jacob rolls away the stone and waters her flock for her—an impressive act of kindness that parallels Rebekah’s act of kindness in drawing water for Abraham’s servant a generation before. This act cements Jacob’s connection to Rachel: he kisses her, and asks to marry her not long afterward.

What’s interesting about the language in the “stone on the well” story is that just as the passage about the ladder has the word hineh twice in rapid succession, so too does the passage about the well: “He looked, and behold (vehineh) there was a well in the field, and behold (vehineh) there were three folks of sheep reclining nearby…” To me, this linguistic similarity implies that the biblical narrator wants us to pay attention to the similarities in these two passages. Both passages describe important moments in Jacob’s life, moments of dedication that will define his future.

And there is a similarity: Jacob encounters a stone. In the first passage, Jacob sets up the stone as a pillow and then as a pillar: he anoints it with oil and dedicates it as sacred. Jacob specifically promises: “This stone that I have made a pillar shall be God’s house.” This means the stone must not be moved. Its permanence as a pillar is a sign of Jacob’s dedication to God. Yet upon encountering the second stone, Jacob moves it immediately, even though the people around him tell him not to do so, even though he is violating the local norms of a place he’s just arrived in. It is his moving of the stone to expose the well beneath that represents his dedication to Rachel. Jacob’s twin devotions to God and to Rachel will motivate many of his actions over the course of his life.

Jacob’s first spiritual task is to set a stone in place, and his second spiritual task is to move a stone out of place. As I ponder this, I wonder whether the Torah is subtly offering us a similar wisdom to the advice of my doctor. Jacob does not simply repeat the same action again and again as he continues on his journey. Rather, he has to change his way of thinking and doing as the circumstances change. Perhaps this is why he can be both Jacob and Israel. To be a spiritual leader, it is necessary to be able to do a thing and its opposite: to change one’s actions and thought patterns as new situations present themselves. In this way, we keep our wisdom current and allow ourselves to grow.

May we all find the ability within ourselves to set stones in place, and also to move them when necessary.


Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at AJR. She is the author of several books, including The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, and The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons.