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Parashat Hashavua Vayetze 2003 / 5764 - Rocks: The Individual and the Collective

05.12.2003 by
This week's parsha, Vayetse, begins with Yaakov leaving the home of his parents, in order to escape the murderous wrath of his brother Esav, who was angered at Yaakov's theft of their father's blessings. After Yaakov leaves Beersheva, his first night away from home, during which he has the well-known dream of a ladder ascending to heaven, is described to us in some detail:"He arrived at the place, and spent the night there, as the sun had set. He took from the stones of the place, and placed them around his head, and he lay down in that place."I have translated the Biblical the text as Rashi, the eleventh century commentator understands it, that Yaakov took stones, in the plural, and put them around his head. It is possible to read it differently, that Yaakov took a single stone from the place and placed it at his head. Rashi, however, going along with an earlier Rabbinic reading, reads it in the plural - he took stones and arranged them, as a protection from wild animals, around his head. This reading, however, creates a problem. In the morning, after dreaming the ladder dream, Yaakov awakes, the Torah tells us that he "took the stone which he had placed at his head and made it a ritual pillar". Apparently, the many stones which Rashi told us were around his head have somehow turned into a single stone. Rashi solves the problem with this Rabbinic Midrash, which has become a favorite among Jewish children: The stones which Yaakov had placed around his head for protection began to argue with one another. One said - 'this righteous man shall place his head on me', and another said, 'no, he shall place his head on me'. Immediately, God turned them all into one stone, which explains why Yaakov went to sleep surrounded by many stones, and woke up with only one. As a kid, and in subsequent conversations with my kids when they were little and learned this story at school, I always assumed that turning the argumentative stones into one big stone was a reward. Their concern for the welfare of Yaakov, and their desire to serve him, was rewarded by God's turning them into one big stone, so that each of the little stones gets his wish, and is able, as part of the larger whole, to serve the righteous Yaakov, and thereby serve the ideal of righteousness. After Yaakov awakes from the ladder dream, the many small rocks, now turned into one large one, are now suitable to be a religious object, a ritual pillar, a monolith, which Yaakov erects and anoints with oil in response to God's communication with him in the dream of the ladder and the angels. This understanding of the events presents us with an interesting psychological insight: the desire to serve an ideal can begin as a selfish, divisive one, in which each of us is mostly concerned with our individual success or failure in our attempt to be the one to do right thing, to be the man or woman of the hour. Only by leaving behind the ego aspect of this drive to do good can we actually succeed, and do the most good. By transcending an ego-driven desire to do the right thing ('he'll rest his head on me','no, on me') and transforming it into an ego-free experience (the stones merging into one), in a way that downplays our individualism in order to serve the greater good, we can accomplish the greatest good, and in fact do much more than any one individual ever could. However, it now occurs to me that this might not be the whole story. Is there not a down-side to this dynamic? The price paid by the stones is, in many way, an awful one - they lose their very identities, their individual existences. This is a high price to pay, indeed, to end the argument about who will be Yaakov's pillow. There may even be an element of punishment here, a loss of patience on God's part with the bickering of the rocks, ended by turning them into one, a fitting punishment for the jealousy, selfishness, and lack of solidarity shown by the stones. Seen this way, the story is a warning as well as an inspiration. The price paid when we make the necessary and positive transition from a (not very useful) ego-driven desire to do good to becoming an ego-free part of a collective, in which the most good can be accomplished, can be high. The loss of individuality, the need to sacrifice one's very identity in order to serve the greater good, while perhaps necessary to get the job done, is frightening. Perhaps some sort of middle ground, in which our personal need to be the hero, the chosen one, is balanced with a healthy ability to work with a collective, is the solution, one which the stones were unable to arrive at, but which might be available to us. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Shimon Felix

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