Sermon: Vayetze – The stories in the stones
Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 24 December 2018
After almost a decade of arguments, construction on the HS2 high speed railway between London and Birmingham began this year. But Londoners plans to get to the North of England in record speed by 2026 have once again been put on hold. In the attempt to begin digging tunnels along the 150 mile route, experts uncovered an unprecedented amount of history.
Archaeologists have found artefacts spanning 10,000 years of Britain’s past as they conduct what is thought to be Europe’s largest dig. Spanning between London and the West Midlands heritage specialists have already discovered Neolithic tools, medieval pottery and Victorian time capsules. Now, the building of HS2 offers the opportunity to improve our understanding of the historical landscape of England. We have the chance to learn how people have shaped our country from the prehistoric farmers through Roman, Saxon and Viking times and into the more recent past.
For those concerned about the project’s delay, a question arises. What is our obsession with stones and digging up memories of the past? Can we discover meaning in the ordinary rocks we find around us?
Stones have significance from our earliest records of Judaism right through to this modern day. Our most holy site, the Western Wall is in reality just a pile of stones, carrying with them great significance. When we visit a grave we place a stone on it, a marker that we have been. Stones in Judaism represent the permanence of memory. Unlike life, which withers and dies, stones remain a marker of the places we have been and the stories we have told.
Which is perhaps why, this week in Torah we read the story of three stones that change Jacob’s life. As Jacob embarks on his travels, he has three encounters with inanimate rocks that bring lasting meaning to his journey.
It all begins when Jacob sets out on his journey to Haran. Exhausted he takes some stones, midrash states 12 stones to represent the 12 tribes, which he uses as a pillow and falls asleep giving way to his infamous dream. When he wakes, the multiple stones have become a single stone, that he then uses as a pillar of God’s house.
Jacob continues on his journey and ventures to the well where he meets one of his future wives, Rachel. On top of the well there is a large stone. In order to drink from the well, enough shepherds need to gather by the well for their collective strength to be able to move the stone. But Rachel’s arrival at the well inspires enough strength in Jacob for him to be able to move the stone of his own accord, impressing Rachel and all who witness this mighty act.
Two marriages and many years of work later, Jacob encounters his final stone at the end of this week’s Parasha. Jacob and Laban have had their fair share of disagreements, following Laban’s deceit and Jacob’s unexplained departure from his camp. However, they decide to make a pact and mark it with a stone monument by which they shared food. They state that the stone serves as a witness between their respective territories.
Three stones in one Torah portion could be mere coincidence. But not to the rabbis. They decide that these stones are not three individual stones, but rather one stone that follows our patriarch to help him find meaning in his interactions. Each time the stone appears it is there to teach our patriarch a lesson.
The rabbis puzzle over the stones that made up Jacobs pillow. How can 12 stones become one? We all know that stones do not fuse, they stubbornly preserve their separateness. The fusion of the stones is a moment where wholeness is created out of difference. It represents that the 12 tribes of the future, who may seem incapable of living together in unity and harmony, will be able to find structures in life that help them to coexist in their diversity. Their differences will ultimately form a well-rounded and balanced Israelite nation.
The rabbis continue to search for meaning. Why was there such a heavy stone placed on top of the well? The stone stands for communal revelation. It is so heavy that it cannot be moved unless the entire community assembles. In the same way, Torah can only be received when all the community is together and ready to learn from it. So, how did Jacob conjure the strength to move a stone that needed the masses? The stone becomes a symbol of Jacob’s strength to sustain the future of the Israelites. It yields to him, a future leader in the community.
The final stone, to the rabbis, has a simple meaning, its sole function is to resolve a situation. Years of tension are put to rest as the stone bears witness to a mutual agreement. The rabbis argue as to the size of the stone, or whether it joins a pile as high as the peak of Tiberias. They conclude in all honesty that it does not matter, because the agreement to cease hostilities was of great importance to this family. The stone may have been tiny, but the creation of a peaceful future was massive.
This stone goes on quite a journey in just one parasha, marking three significant moments in Jacob’s life – his interaction with God, meeting his future family and putting to rest the hostilities between him and his father in law. And for the rabbis of Midrash and Talmud that is not all this stone has done, for they trace it even further. We read that this stone came from the altar on which Isaac was bound, continues to become the rock which Moses hits to produce water before it settles in its final place as the foundation stone for the Temple.
The stone becomes a connection to the past and a lesson from those who came before. And just as we tell stories about the stones, the stones tell stories about us. The people may change, but it remains, and it carries with it the memory of the people it has interacted with.
Every vessel, every house ruin, every churchyard uncovered along the HS2 route helps to build a picture of how people lived, worked and moved around the country. Through uncovered stones we bring our ancestors to life, we begin to know who they were, how they lived and even how they cooked their food.
So for us when we die what will we leave behind to tell our story? When trying to uncover our history, what will they find? The material we interact with lives on when we go and the buildings we build hold our stories in their walls. May we leave behind a legacy that truly represents who we are, as individuals and as a community. May our buildings be equipped to show the breadth and diversity within their walls. And may we always look to the stones of our past to learn, whilst still thinking about what the stones of the future could be.