This Shabbat we read Parshat Vayetze, and it is noteworthy that the opening pesukim of our parsha are the basis for some of the most creative and inspiring midrashim found across Rabbinic literature including the oft-cited Midrash involving the stones on which Yaakov placed his head.
Having arrived in what we are told was the Makom Hamikdash (the place where, later on, the Temple would be built), and in response to the sudden setting of the sun, Yaakov ‘takes stones (plural) from the place and puts them around his head’ (Bereishit 28:11). However, upon waking up, we are told that Yaakov ‘took the stone (singular) that he had placed around his head’ (Bereishit 28:18), and this shift from plural to singular led Rabbi Yitzchak to remark that ‘all the stones gathered together into one place and each one said: let the righteous one rest his head on me!’ to which a further Tanna added that ‘they all merged into one’ (Chullin 91b).
Of course, there are many ways to interpret this Midrash. However, perhaps the most popular interpretation aligns it with a message of Jewish unity where just as Yaakov was the father of the twelve tribes who were united through their paternal lineage, so too these stones united to express this same symbol of unity.
However, as we know this is not borne out in reality, and for the duration of Sefer Bereishit we read the story of sibling rivalry amongst the sons of Yaakov.
Interestingly, Rashi’s presentation of this text differs from its original, and instead of suggestion that that ‘they all merged into one’ being the words of a second Tanna, Rashi explains that after each of the stones requested that Yaakov lay his head of them, ‘immediately, the Holy One Blessed Be He made them into one stone’. Still, what we see from here is that the stones themselves argued without reaching a conclusion, and that unity was not achieved until an outside party – in this case G-d – brought them together. As such, what message of Jewish unity can we really learn from this Midrash? Surely, the only lesson found here is that unless G-d intervenes with a supernatural act, unity is an impossibility?!
However, I believe that a second look at this Midrash has much to teach us about what true Jewish unity is. True, the stones argued. However, they argued with the same words and about the same values. True, they each wanted Yaakov to lay his head on them, but they all agreed that Yaakov laying his head on them was something of value.
All too often our hope for Jewish unity is based on a naïve belief that we can all fuse together like the many stones into one. However, a more realistic level of unity – and one which has potential for divine intervention – is a unity where we listen to each other, understand each other, and notwithstanding our differing wants – are focused on the same goal. Simply put, arguing together is the first step towards unity.
Sadly, especially in our online world, it is this skill of arguing together which has been lost. Too few of us know how to argue in a way that shows an understanding of the other, and too many of us take the disagreement of another as a personal rejection.
What we learn from these stones is that arguing together may not create cohesion but it is often the first step towards it, and that in order to reach that goal there are times we must sit around in a circle, say what we want, and listen to another doing just the same.