I was helping my daughter study for her test on the Book of Joshua, and also studying the Parsha this week. It struck me that there was a common theme between Joshua Chapter 3, and Parshat VaYetze: piles of stones.
In our Parsha, Yaacov marks the place of his dream as he leaves his homeland with a stone monument. At the end of the Parsha, when leaving Padam Aram to return home, he marks the place of his parting from Lavan, and the truce they strike there, with a pile of stones, and calls it the “Pile of Witness.”
In Joshua, the tribes take stones from the Jordan river and erect a monument to the day of their crossing at Gilgal. Joshua erects a second monument at the place of their crossing, and the miraculous halting of the river, in the middle of the Jordan.
The marking of special locations with monuments is an understandable human need. We want the memories of key events and of loved ones to less ephemeral, to have a concrete representation to reinforce the collective and generational memory. Joshua states this explicitly:
Pass on before the ark of the LORD your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take you up every man of you a stone upon his shoulder, according unto the number of the tribes of the children of Israel; that this may be a sign among you, that when your children ask in time to come, saying: What mean ye by these stones? then ye shall say unto them: Because the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off; and these stones shall be for a memorial unto the children of Israel for ever. (Joshua 4:5-7).
In leaving Egypt, the people could not leave monuments, because their children would never see them. Instead,.God gave us ritualistic monuments – a Passover ritual which has proven more durable than the stones which Joshua lay down.
Yaacov’s monuments were more personal: a stone to mark the place the angels’ ladder met the earth, to give concrete expression of his vow of loyalty to God and his promise to return; a pile of stones to witness the truce with Lavan – whose promises have disappointed in the past.
Lavan has a record of years of broken promises. The Passover Haggada describes him as the implacable enemy who sought to uproot all. He promised to give Rachel and gave Leah instead. He committed to spotted sheep, and switched to striped, to splotched, and back again, trying to prevent Yaacov’s ascension to wealth. He is a thief, and Yaacov repays him by stealing away in the night.
Yet, when confronted, Yaacov does not say there is no partner to talk to, no way to agree on anything. He strikes an agreement with Lavan that will allow them to move forward from that spot. He doesn’t trust blindly but seeks guarantees, witnesses divine, human and stone, to make sure the deal is kept. He probably is not optimistic that it will be, but he makes his best effort.
I heard a lot of people describe this week’s truce with today’s implacable enemy as written on sand (one said it was written in ice, but as a Canadian, that seems like too permanent an image.) I fear they are right.
But I can still hope they are wrong…