Parashat Vayetze – Erev Shabbat 6 December 2019
Week of 1-7 December 2019
Torah portion: Genesis 28:10-32:3 Haftarah: Hos. 12:13-14:10
Theme: Tabernacles of Memory

The late Irish poet John O’ Donoghue named stones as “tabernacles of memory”. Stones in that sense are interesting to explore and reflect on in Parashat Vayetze. There, stones act as bookends, beginning with Jacob taking a stone and setting it up as a pillar to remember the experience that he had in Beth El, to the treaty stone that acted as a witness between Jacob and Laban on his journey home. In between these two bookends, Jacob lifts a large stone from the mouth of a well that opens up the love story between Jacob with Rachel.

A clue as to the importance of the experience at Beth El and that links with the meeting with Rachel is found in the connecting verb that links the two episodes, “Jacob then moved on and headed for the land of the people of Kedem” (29:1). The verb to move on, in the literal sense means he “lifted up his feet” which occurs nowhere else in the Torah, may have been introduced “to underline the numbing after-effects of Jacob’s revelatory experience.” (Plaut, 196). “After-effects” suggests an ongoing rippling effect. What was this experience? It could be described as a liminal experience, which happened between Beersheva, representing all that was familiar to Jacob, and the unknown territory of Haran. In this hostile dark place the unexpected happened to Jacob. “He came upon a certain place (makom)”. “In post-biblical Hebrew, makom became a term for God” (Plaut, 197). It was in that place with a stone for a pillow that he had a dream, “a ladder, planted on the ground with its top reaching to heaven” (Gen 28:12). Heaven and earth were meeting where he was. “The LORD was there standing over him” (28:13).

The LORD reveals himself, “I am the LORD the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac” (28:13). The revelatory presence of the LORD dawns on Jacob signified by an awakening in more than a physical sense. Images blurt from him, putting words on his experience: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven” (28:15). This leads to a desire to hold the memory and the experience in a concrete tangible way, so Jacob “set it up as a pillar, pouring oil on the top of it” (Gen 28:19). He gave the place a new name to honor his experience, Beth El – the house of God.

As he continues his journey to Haran he meets shepherds with their flocks gathered at “the mouth of a well” (29:3). Here he meets Rachel, Laban’s daughter, and falls in love with her. The large stone at the mouth of the well is referred to five times. Jacob lifts the stone by himself to water the flocks “Lifting and throwing heavy stones was an old way of proving prowess” (Plaut, 197). Afterwards he kisses Rachel and “began to cry in a loud voice” (29:11). This was Jacob’s first act of reaching out in kindness to another. His love for Rachel unblocked the metaphorical stone that had covered his inner well of kindness.

Twenty years later Jacob is on his way back from Haran pursued by Laban. He and Jacob confront each other with their grievances near Mount Gilead. When the air is cleared between them Jacob sets up a stone monument and says “to his kin, ‘Gather stones’; so they took stones and made a mound; and they eat there by the mound. Laban called it Yegar-Sahadutha” (31:45-47). It is “the only Aramaic words in the Torah, meaning ‘mound … of witness’” (Plaut, 207). And Laban prayed, “May the Eternal keep watch between us when we are no longer in sight of each other!” (31:49). These stones mark significant turning points for Jacob and were truly “tabernacles of memory”, unfolding the LORD’s activity and presence in his life.

For Reflection and Discussion: [1] What are the “tabernacles of memory” that have marked your life? [2] How have you engaged in rituals to honor the significant experiences in your own life?

Bibliography: Fox, The Five Books of Moses (NY, 1997): Plaut, The Torah (URJ Press 2006).

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