Rachel Sharansky Danziger

A story told in stones

Image by GidonPico from Pixabay

We are the Children of Israel.

But before there was a man named Israel, there was a man named Jacob.

And Jacob’s story is told to us in stones.

* * *

Stones didn’t come into Jacob’s life until he left his father’s house. Did you ever notice that the Hebrew word for stone, evven, merges the Hebrew words for father (av) and son (ben)? Perhaps, as Jacob opened up the space between him and Isaac, stones started appearing as a way to merge the son back with his father – if not in actuality, then through letters in a word.

* * *

The first stones were the ones Jacob slept on, immediately after his father sent him out and away. An odd choice of bedding, perhaps — stones are hard. And yet, not inappropriate; there was hardness in the home Jacob left, in the hearts of its dwellers. A hardness in his brother’s heart – and one that was deserved.

But the stones taught him, that night, that it was time to look forward; that yes — he left his home, but there was promise in what lay ahead. They did so by merging while he lay upon them, making tangible the lesson of his dream.

Here I am, the dream whispered, as Jacob watched angels walking up and down a ladder. Here I am, I am God, I am here with you tonight and always. You may feel as though your life is fractured into disconnected fragments — first at home, now in exile, and who knows what will come next? But while the way up and the way down may seem different to those walking, the ladder is the same, and I am the same, and I am always here with you, in all the different broken fragments of your life.

The stones merged, as Jacob’s life did through this one unifying constant of God’s presence. And Jacob took the stone that represented this new unity, and said — “This stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode” when I return. (Genesis 28:22). Jacob’s childhood home may be in ruins, and his private future home and family are not yet formed. But there was another home for him to build — a home that goes beyond the physical; Jacob saw that all his life will be a dwelling place for God.

* * *

And so, by the time Jacob saw a stone upon a well in the land of the easterners, he was no longer a novice in the way of stones.

But what he knew was that different stones can merge to one. He didn’t know yet that one stone can sometimes lead the way to fragmentation. The stone on the well heralded a union — Jacob’s union with his beloved Rachel, who inspired him to remove the stone all on his own. But it also launched Jacob on his path to matrimony in general, a path that left him with no fewer than four wives.

Four wives, and a household filled with entanglements and misalignments — this is what lies beyond this stone, Jacob. Be advised. Your barren-yet-beloved wife will want your children, your fecund wife will want your love, and you will disappoint them both. Your children will go to war along the old lines of their mothers’ envies. And they will bring about another separation, a wall of loss between you and your most beloved son.

Jacob removed the stone, and set this future path in motion. And he kissed Rachel, and shed tears — so maybe he knew the truth, deep down. Or maybe, as the midrash says, he saw that he and Rachel would not be together in death — unlike the other patriarchs and matriarchs, they don’t share a grave. And even had they been able to do so, death is always a form of separation, isn’t it? So maybe Jacob didn’t see the fragmentation of his household, the war between his children. Perhaps he cried over a more universal separation, the one that lies in wait for every union, every two people who become one flesh.

* * *

Stones came back to Jacob’s story when he decided to go back to Isaac’s land. Jacob left Lavan’s house heavy in people, in possessions, in his father-in-law’s enmity. He piled heavy stones to mark the boundary between himself and the dangerous man he wished to leave behind. This is your side, Lavan — the side where I had to toil and plot and struggle for everything and everyone I now have with me. And this is my side, to which me and mine are going, and where you must promise not to come in chase.

The stones piled high to witness this agreement, to form the kind of peace that rests on separation — the kind of peace that stems from keeping well apart.

* * *

Stones stopped appearing in Jacob’s story when he became Israel, and resettled in his father’s land. Perhaps then, with the undoing of the distance between father and son, “av” and “ben,” the stones that merge these words in Hebrew became redundant and unnecessary. One way or another, the stones were gone.

* * *

We are the Children of Israel.

And this means that we are Jacob’s children, too.

We are the children of his sons, the literal sons of Israel, who stood around his deathbed, united yet apart. They were destined to become the seeds of one nation, yes — but also of 12 tribes. And to this day we still fight despite all that unites us, and forever teeter on the edge of parting ways.

Will we be like Lavan and Jacob, piling stones and building walls to keep ourselves apart?

Or will we be the stones that Jacob slept on, finding unity in our shared history, in the shared promises that whisper in our dreams?

I pray that we will know to choose the latter. For when we allow our hearts to welcome one another, we set up the stones that form a dwelling place for God.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and educator who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, history, and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and other online venues, and explores storytelling in the Hebrew bible as a teacher in Matan, Maayan, Torah in Motion, and Pardes.
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