Ya'akov and the Stone Atop the Well

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Ya'akov and the Stone Atop the Well


By Rav Michael Hattin




            Parashat Vayetze opens with Ya'akov in flight from his brother Esav.  Recall that towards the end of last week's reading, Ya'akov had donned the garments of his older sibling, assumed Esav's coarse identity, and prepared the delicious victuals that his aged and blind father Yitzchak loved.  All of this he had hesitantly done at the behest of his mother Rivka, in order to secure the coveted blessings that would designate their recipient as the sole successor to Avraham's proud legacy and as the possessor of the Divinely-pledged deed to Canaan.  Though the ruse succeeded, Ya'akov's relationship with his brother Esav, tenuous in the best of times, was irreparably torn asunder.  In fact, Esav was so full of wrath that plans of fratricide began to take shape in his feverish mind: "When the days of mourning for my father draw near (i.e. when he dies) then I will kill my brother Ya'akov" (27:41).


            Rivka, who loved her son Ya'akov more than anything (25:28), then advised him to flee northeastwards to the land of Charan, there to find refuge with her brother Lavan until Esav's enmity would subside: "She said to him 'behold, Esav your brother takes comfort with thoughts of killing you.  Now therefore my son, listen to me, arise and escape to Charan, to Lavan my brother.  You shall dwell with him for a short time until your brother's rage subsides.  (You shall dwell with him) Until such a time as your brother's anger in no longer directed towards you and he has forgotten what you have done to him, and then I shall send and fetch you from there.  Why should I become bereft of both of you in a single day?!'" (27:42-45).




            Following his mother's advice and securing his father's belated but now willfully proffered blessings, Ya'akov journeyed forth from Be'er Sheva, full of misgivings and dread, banished like a fugitive from before Esav's fury.  Slowly, tentatively, his feet plodded onwards, the heavy pack containing all of his earthly possessions weighing heavily upon his stooped shoulders.  But the questions that burdened his mind were even weightier: would he ever see his aged father again?  Would his doting mother live long enough to bring him back from Charan?  Would his feet ever tread again upon Canaan's hallowed earth?  And would he in the end merit to see the fulfillment of God's promises of offspring, land and nation, the very promises that had impelled Rivka's perilous plan in the first place?


            As the dying red rays cast their last long ominous shadows, the enormity of Ya'akov's predicament suddenly came into painful focus, and the lone and tired traveler set his possessions down.  Gathering the scattered stones about him for protection from the night's demons, his mind still racing with the images of the events, he fell into a restless sleep.  But now, other visions filled his head, for in his dream he saw a stout ladder standing tall, its feet firmly planted upon the cool, black earth while its top reached to the cobalt-blue sky.  Upon it, awesome angels silently and serenely ascended and descended, and then he heard the reassuring voice of God Himself:


            I am God the Lord of Avraham your father and the Lord of Yitzchak, and I shall give the land upon which you sleep to you and to your descendents.  Your descendents shall be as numerous as the dust of the earth and you shall burst forth to the west, the east, the north and the south, and all of the nations of the earth shall be blessed on your account and on account of your descendents.  Behold, I shall be with you, and I shall guard over you wherever you go, and I shall return you to this land, for I will never abandon you until I have fulfilled that which I have spoken concerning you! (28:13-15).




            The next morning, Ya'akov arose at dawn, his fears allayed and his uncertainties assuaged.  Though an immense and unknown journey lay before him, fraught with perils and as-of-yet nameless challenges, he no longer felt alone, for God had pledged that He would protect him and that He would return him in safety to the land.  Buoyed by the Divine vision, he donned his onerous rucksack again, but this time it seemed immeasurably lighter.  Setting his sights towards the east and the rising sun, he set out.  As the ancient Rabbis so perceptively remark, when the text states that "Ya'akov lifted his legs and journeyed towards the land of the east" (29:1) it means to suggest that "his heart was encouraged and therefore it states that he lifted his legs, for it now became effortless for him to walk…" (quoted by Rashi, 11th century, France).


            Nothing else is related of Ya'akov's journey from Beit El, the locus of the inspiring vision of the ladder, to the town of Charan more than 600 kilometers (!) to the northeast.  When next we hear of Ya'akov he is close to his destination, and it is then that he abruptly encounters the three flocks and their shepherds, all of them gathered around a "well in the field" (29:2).  Tentatively, Ya'akov approaches them, enquires after their welfare, and asks them if they might know Lavan son of Nachor:


They said: we know him…he is well, and behold his daughter Rachel is now approaching with the sheep…(29:6).




            Puzzled by their seeming lethargy so early in the day, Ya'akov asks them why they do not provide the sheep with water from the well and then return to the fields to graze:


But they said: we cannot, until all of the flocks gather and together roll off the stone from the mouth of the well, for only then can we water the sheep…(29:8).


A huge stone, unnoticed by Ya'akov when he first made their acquaintance, covered the well and only all of the shepherds together are capable of removing it!  Thus it is that the three flocks patiently wait, for only with the arrival of the other shepherds will it be possible to roll off the cover.  Now, however, something wondrous happens, for as soon as Ya'akov sees Rachel with the sheep, he is filled with a superhuman burst of vigor:


Ya'akov approached, and rolled off the stone from upon the mouth of the well, and watered the sheep of Lavan…(29:10).


The romantics among us may be tempted to ascribe Ya'akov's heroic deed to "love at first sight," and such a reading is seemingly reinforced by what follows:


Ya'akov kissed Rachel and he then lifted up his voice and cried…(29:11).


But strangely enough, most of the commentaries refrain from making the connection.  While they marvel over Ya'akov's show of strength, they fail to specifically link it to the arrival of Rachel.  In fact, for most of the commentaries (as well as the readers) the entire episode is largely inexplicable.  Why all of the attention upon the shepherds and upon the well?  Why all of the details about the number of flocks and about the heavy stone?  Why all of the conversation between Ya'akov and the men when the only pertinent fact is the arrival of Ya'akov at his destination?  Would it not have been sufficient to state that upon Ya'akov's arrival near Charan he enquired about his long-lost uncle and then chanced upon Rachel his cousin?  While we can readily appreciate the cathartic quality of the encounter with Rachel – symbol of his family and of his future – all of the other particulars seem extraneous.


            The baffling nature of the passage may be gauged by the fact that the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 70:8) provides us with no fewer than seven different explanations for the section, all of them drawing upon themes that are non-contextual.  Thus, in one reading, the three flocks refer to Moshe, Aharon and Miriam respectively while the well refers to Israel's post-Exodus experience in the wilderness when God miraculously slaked their thirst.  Alternatively, in another of the Midrashic readings, the well refers to the city of Jerusalem, while the three flocks are a reference to the three pilgrim festivals, for during these times the people of Israel would draw their spiritual sustenance (i.e. the water from the well) from the inspiration of the Temple festivities (the Ramban, 13th century, Spain, adopts a variation of this in his commentary to 29:2-3).  It should be readily apparent that while all of these explanations may in fact be communicating important and profound ideas, they are not at all implied by the straightforward reading of the text.




            Perhaps the key to understanding the passage is to be found in the literary cues that are provided by the critical verse that describes the moment of the meeting between Ya'akov and Rachel.  The verse, in its entirety, reads as follows:


When Ya'akov saw Rachel the daughter of Lavan his mother's brother, and the sheep of Lavan his mother's brother, Ya'akov approached, and rolled off the stone from upon the mouth of the well, and watered the sheep of Lavan his mother's brother…(29:10).


While the mention of Rachel's connection to him is of course important – she is the daughter of Lavan his mother's brother and therefore represents the potential fulfillment of Rivka's expectations that Ya'akov might find a wife – the threefold repetition of the relation is unwarranted, and certainly no new information is conveyed by the fact that the sheep as well are related to him!  We note of course that of all of the details contained in the verse, the most oft-repeated yet unnecessary concerns Ya'akov's MOTHER, for we are well aware of the familial connection already.  Hadn't Rivka made clear in her words to her son that he was to flee to "Lavan my brother in Charan" (27:43)?  The text, however, may be emphasizing "his mother" for that very reason: it is not simply the sight of Rachel or of the sheep that inspires Ya'akov with supernatural strength, but rather the thought of his own mother Rivka! 


            Recall that it had been Rivka who had always loved Ya'akov and believed in his latent abilities, even as Yitzchak inexplicably preferred Esav in spite of all of his failings (25:28).  Recall as well that it had been Rivka and Rivka alone who had initiated the plan of impersonation (27:6-8), even as she knew that such a deed would irrevocably destroy her relationship with her hunter son.  In its aftermath, it had been Rivka again who had bidden her favorite son to flee, so that he might live (27:43).  We parenthetically note that in both instances – the pretense as well as the hurried departure – Rivka convinces Ya'akov with the very same phrase that highlights her pivotal role: "and now my son listen to me…" (27:8; 27:43).  In essence, while we tend to focus upon Ya'akov's feelings of estrangement and loneliness on the eve of his flight from before 'Esav, we must take care not to overlook his grieving mother who sacrificed all for his sake.  It is she who is truly left alone after his departure, for while Ya'akov journeys towards family and a brighter future, Rivka remains behind to suffer the terrible aftermath of his deed.  There will never be reconciliation with Esav and even as she bravely exclaims to Ya'akov that "you shall dwell with him for a short time until your brother's rage subsides…and then I shall send and fetch you from there" (27:44-45), both she as well as Ya'akov realize that in all probability they will never see each other again!




            Thus it is that Ya'akov journeys forth, burdened with the terrible realization that he leaves behind his mother Rivka forever.  Surprisingly, although it is recorded of Esav that he pathetically "lifted up his voice and cried" (27:38) when Yitzchak declared to him that the blessings have been secured by the impersonator, the text mentions no sound of Ya'akov's cries at the moment of his parting.  Breaking his mother's embrace, he unflinchingly turns his back and leaves her, for he knows that were he to be overcome now, he could never stem the flow of tears. 


            Steadily, he travels on, now reassured by the Divine vision at Beit El but still far, far away from Charan and the haven of his maternal uncle's household.  As he walks, the final image of his broken mother remains seared into his consciousness, for in his mind's eye he clearly sees Rivka's red and swollen eyes and hears her muffled sobs.  Finally, a well appears, always a potent symbol of hope and regeneration in the Torah.  Recall, for example, that Hagar had been twice saved from despair by the sight of a well (16:7; 21:19), and that both Avraham and Yitzchak had understood that their respective futures in the dry and barren Negev could be secured only by wells of water (21:25-30; 26:13-33). 


            But while the general metaphorical associations of wells may be enough to explain their sudden appearance here, might there perhaps be an additional dimension to the matter?  When Ya'akov chanced upon that bucolic landscape, a well in the field surrounded by gently bleating flocks, even as he realized that he was finally approaching his destination, could he have perhaps been reminded of another similar setting, one that he himself had never seen, though he had intuitively known it since his childhood?  Hadn't his mother, when she slipped into wistful reminisce, always painted the landscape of her own coming of age with similar brushstrokes to what he now saw before him?  How could he not now remember her vivid portrayal of Eli'ezer's arrival so many years earlier, perhaps at this very well, with ten thirsty camels and so many dust-encrusted retainers? 


            She had been a young girl then, unburdened by all of life's intricacies and naively unaware of its nasty surprises, and, as the cool evening fell, she had been on her way down to the well to fill her jug with water (24:16).  Tentatively, the weary traveler had approached her and had asked for a sip of water, and how graciously had she responded: "drink, my lord"!  Quickly lowering her heavy jug, she gave him water and then proceeded to heroically care for all of his parched animals: "Swiftly, she emptied her jug into the trough and ran back to the well to draw, until she had drawn water for all of his camels" (24:20).  And with that act of compassionate and childlike decency, she had sealed her fate to later become Yitzchak's loyal wife and the mother of his mismatched children, Esav and Ya'akov.




            The fundamental elements of that encounter – its sanguine tone, its act of simple and uncontrived nobility especially towards the strangers and the beasts, and even the superhuman quality of the deed itself (for watering ten thirsty camels is no small feat) – are all reproduced here exactly.  Ya'akov sees Rachel the daughter of Lavan HIS MOTHER'S brother, and the sheep of Lavan HIS MOTHER'S brother, and he proceeds to remove the massive stone in order to water the sheep of Lavan HIS MOTHER'S brother!  Filled with the memory of his own mother Rivka and her youthful act of heroism, still consumed by her more recent deed of self-sacrifice for his sake, Ya'akov approached the well and miraculously lifted off the boulder, even as he peered deeply into the eyes of his cousin Rachel who, we may surmise, bore a striking resemblance to his own mother!  Finally, the circle of Rivka's selfless and superhuman act now closed, Ya'akov "lifted up his voice and cried" (29:11), releasing the tears that had been staunchly held back since he had left her on that awful day months (or, in accordance with Rabbinic tradition, years) before.


            The commentaries, then, were quite correct in refusing to see in the episode a shallow expression of infatuation, and while they neglected to explicitly draw the connections that we have drawn, they were surely aware of the possibility.  As Rashi himself remarks, in his second explanation for Ya'akov's tears:


[Ya'akov cried] because he had arrived empty-handed.  He said: "Eli'ezer my father's servant had with him earrings and bracelets and beautiful gifts, but I have nothing!" (commentary to 29:11). 


This then is the true significance of Ya'akov's encounter at the well.  In the end, Rivka's prayers for eventual restoration went unanswered and she never merited seeing her beloved Ya'akov again.  In fact, so consuming was her act of self-sacrifice, that the Torah neglects to mention her death or burial at all (see the Ramban, on this point in his commentary to 35:8).  The text suffices with a parenthetical mention by Ya'akov himself, who states the matter on his own deathbed as he impresses his sons with the necessity to bear his bones back to Canaan:


He commanded them and said to them: I will soon be gathered unto my ancestors, bury me with my fathers, in the cave that is located in the field of Efron the Chittite…There they buried Avraham and his wife Sarah, there they buried Yitzchak and HIS WIFE RIVKA, and there I buried Leah…(Bereishit 49:29-30).


Rivka's only epitaph, then, is the deed recorded in our Parasha, as Ya'akov approaches the massive stone and rolls it off, giving water and life to his cousin Rachel's sheep and to all of the shepherds' flocks.  Like Rivka before him, he declares that acts of compassion and kindness can never be self-serving, that they are seldom effortless, and that they often bring tears in their wake.  Rivka's life had been one long tale of such deeds, and her final and most awesome act of self-sacrifice – the securing of the patriarchal blessings for Ya'akov even with the realization that it would spell her own doom – is what her son now commemorates as he steps forward in her memory and removes the colossal stone, so that the shepherds and the sheep might drink their fill.


Shabbat Shalom