“The Philosopher’s Stone” Parashat Vayetze 5781

Jacob is on the run from his brother, Esau. His parents have sent him to hide out with his uncle, Lavan, in Paddan-Aram and to take from there a wife. Jacob arrives in Paddan-Aram and finds himself near a well [Bereishit 29:2-3]: “He saw and there was a well in the field. Three flocks of sheep were lying there beside it, for the flocks were watered from that well. The stone on the mouth of the well was large.

When all the flocks were gathered there, the stone would be rolled from the mouth of the well and the sheep watered; then the stone would be put back in its place on the mouth of the well.” Jacob asks the shepherds if they know Lavan and they answer in the affirmative, adding that his daughter, Rachel, has just arrived at the well. Jacob, noting that the day is not nearly over, asks the shepherds why they are wasting their time lazing  near the well and not tending their sheep. They answer [Bereishit 29:8] “We cannot, until all the flocks are rounded up; then the stone is rolled off the mouth of the well and we water the sheep.” Jacob turns and sees Rachel. Overcome with emotion, he single-handedly removes the stone from the well and he waters his uncle’s flock.

There are many anomalies in this story but three of them stand out in particular. First, when did Jacob become such a bodybuilder? The Torah describes him as a [Bereishit 25:27] “mild man who stayed in camp”. How was this “mild man” suddenly able to lift a stone that was usually lifted only by a large group of shepherds? Did he experience a rush of adrenaline when he saw the beautiful Rachel? Second, why does Jacob feel that he can chastise the local shepherds for not tending their sheep? Perhaps there is some local custom, maybe a mandatory afternoon siesta, that he does not know about? Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, who lived in Italy in the sixteenth century, explains that Jacob felt that the shepherds were shirking their duties. As a righteous person, he was so disturbed by the injustice even though he, himself, was not a victim, that he just had to lash out at the shepherds. A third question is asked by Rabbi Asher Wassertil, who lived in Israel in the last century. Writing in “Birkat Asher”, Rabbi Wassertil asks, “It is understandable that the Torah should mention that Jacob saw a well in the field. But why does it mention [in verses 2 and 3] the stone on the well and how the shepherds would roll the stone off the well? The shepherds tell this to Jacob [in verse 8]. Why does the Torah mention this fact only to have it repeated?” The Torah could have just told us that Jacob saw a well. Afterwards, he spoke to the shepherds who told him about the heavy stone and how they have to get together to remove it. Rabbi Wassertil answers “V’tzarich iyun”, literally, “It requires further investigation”, or, better, “I don’t know”. In this lesson, we will try to answer Rabbi Wassertil’s question.

Let us take a closer look at the stone that covered the well. The Torah describes it using the “heh ha’yedi’a” – “definite article” – calling it “the large stone (ha’even gedola)”, instead of simply “a large stone (even gedola)”. Typically, the definite article is used when describing an already-known commodity. In the episode at hand, however, the stone covering the well has not been previously introduced. Why, then, does the Torah call it “the large stone”? Rabbi Chaim ben Atar, known as the “Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh”, who lived in Morocco in eighteenth century, suggests that this stone was exceptionally large. It was so exceptional that it had its own name, similar to the Hope Diamond or the Liberty Bell Ruby.

Why was the well covered with such a large stone? While the commentators suggest a variety of reasons, one reason is mentioned more often than others. Rabbi Samuel David Luzzato, also known as “Shadal”, who lived in Italy in the nineteenth century, suggests that the well was covered by a large stone in order to prevent any one shepherd from watering his flocks by himself. Were a smaller rock to be used, then individual shepherds could clandestinely steal water that belonged to the entire town. Shadal suggests that the rock that covered the well did not require the muscle power of every single shepherd in order to remove it, but because one shepherd could not remove it by himself, all the shepherds understood that it was not to be removed until every one of the shepherds had gathered around the well.

Shadal’s explanation fits in very nicely with the location of the well. Paddan-Aram was well-known for the suspect ethics of its inhabitants. They were world renowned cheaters and the biggest cheater of them all was Lavan[1]. And so it was completely unsurprising that the Paddan-Aram watering hole would be covered by a stone whose raison d’être was to prevent water theft. Jacob sees the well and the rock and he knows exactly what it is there for. When the Torah tells us in verse 3 that “the shepherds would roll the stone off the well”, this is just a continuation of the description in verse 2 of what Jacob saw and what he understood[2].

And yet, Jacob was unsure. The fact that the shepherds would wait until all of them were assembled before removing the stone from well could be the result of two causes: Perhaps the reason they waited was utilitarian – if a subset of shepherds were to remove the stone, they could be accused of wrongdoing. To maintain everyone’s presumption of innocence, all of the shepherds had to be present when the rock was removed. Or, perhaps the reason they waited was because cheating was so firmly ingrained in their behaviour that waiting for a quorum had become a ritual. We don’t remove the stone before all of the shepherds have assembled because that is the way things are done around here. Jacob was unsure whether the stone on the well was a Philosopher’s Stone or a Theologian’s Stone. He needed to understand the environment in which he would be spending the next part of his life and so he asks the shepherds: For which reason are you waiting to remove the rock?

A slip of tongue in the response of the shepherds answers Jacob’s question. They tell Jacob, “We cannot (lo nuchal), until all the flocks are rounded up”. The phrase “we cannot” does not mean that “we are not able” to remove the rock, but, rather, “we are not permitted” to remove the rock. This can be illustrated by two examples in scripture. When Joseph, still known to his brothers only as the Grand Vizier of Egypt, invites them to dine with him, he seats his brothers at one end of the room and his Egyptian guests on the other side. The Torah explains the reasoning [Bereishit 43:32]: “For the Egyptians could not (lo yuchlun) dine with the Hebrews since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians.” The Egyptians considered the Jews subhuman and so they were not permitted to eat with them. Another example: The Torah commands us to take one tenth of our produce to Jerusalem and to eat it there. This tithe is known as “Ma’aser Sheni”. The commandment begins with the following words [Devarim 12:17] “You may not (lo tuchal) partake in your settlements of the tithes of your new grain or wine or oil…” Rashi, who lived in France in the eleventh century, explains that the term “you may not” does not mean that the Levites are physically unable to eat the tithes in their homes or towns, but that they are forbidden to do so. And so when the shepherds tell Jacob that they “cannot” remove the stone by themselves, Jacob understands that their evil has become so ingrained in their psyche that they have begun to worship it. Jacob’s response is clear: Yes you can. Jacob removes the rock by himself, not as a feat of superhuman strength, but as a feat of human morality.

The stone that Jacob encounters by the well is actually the second stone that Jacob encounters on his way to Paddan-Aram. Soon after he leaves home, he falls asleep and experiences a revelation. G-d tells him not to fear and that He will watch over him until he returns to the Land of Israel. Jacob awakens and he [Bereishit 28:18] “took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a monument”, promising that it will one day  become [Bereishit 28:22] “a house of G-d”. This stone is also referred to as “the stone”. This stone was also a Theologian’s stone. This stone became a monument, commemorating and eternalizing a Divine promise. Eventually, this stone became integrated into the Beit HaMikdash, an edifice whose sole purpose was to teach mankind that he can and must live his life guided only by the eternal ethics of the Divine.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, David ben Chaya, and Iris bat Chana.

[1] See Rashi’s commentary on Bereishit [25:20].

[2] See our lesson from Vayera 5781 where we show that “seeing” can also mean “understanding”.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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