A vivid, recurring image in Genesis is of Jacob setting up pillars of stone along his journey. In Vayetze -- this week's Torah portion -- we learn just how significant stones are to Jacob.
Arriving at the first stop on his journey to Haran, Jacob takes "one of the stones of that place," and puts it under his head when he lies down. The stone is connected to, or perhaps causes, his dream of the angels going up and down the ladder -- the dream that makes him realize, upon waking, that "Surely, the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!" Jacob takes this stone and sets it up as a pillar, anointing it with oil and naming the place "House of God."
He resumes his journey, coming upon a well with a large stone over the mouth of it. When all the flocks have gathered to be watered, the stone is rolled away from the mouth of the well, and when they are done drinking, it is rolled back. Jacob sees Rachel and rolls the huge rock away by himself in order to water her flocks.
The portion continues with Jacob's love for Rachel, his working seven years in the hope of marrying her, and seven more years to actually marry her when he is given Leah first. The two sisters compete over who can have more sons, and Jacob builds up his offspring and his flocks. They all leave Laban's house together, but Laban follows them, demanding a proper goodbye.
The portion ends with Laban and Jacob making a pact. To mark it, Jacob sets up yet another stone as a pillar, and he asks his family to gather stones to make a mound. The pillar and the mound become a witness to the pact between Jacob and Laban, and the boundary marker between their territories.
The Physical World
Why so many stones? Stones lead to Jacob's dream, in which he senses God's presence, they allow him to meet his beloved Rachel, and they frame the entire portion.
The Chasidic commentator, the Sefat Emet, understands the stone on the well as the procrastination that blocks our mouths from the well of prayer. The stone symbolizes the physical world that hides the real, living contents of the well underneath it. A person needs to gather all his or her strength in order to roll back this stone and find the true inner meaning of his or her deeds.
For Jacob, the stone under his head allows him to experience and mark the presence of God. With this presence, he has the strength to roll away the stone over the well, opening him up to love Rachel and reveal his innermost feelings, just as he reveals the well water. His task over the next two decades is to stay true to these feelings, and in the end, he must use stones to set up a boundary between his family and Laban's, so that his family members can live out their destiny.
Jacob's stones mirror the touchstones in many of our lives -- moments of experiencing the presence of God, moments of opening ourselves to love, and moments of setting new direction or boundaries so we are able to grow more fully into our true path. The stones serve Jacob as reminders of these moments, marking places that he returns to to thank God.
Jacob teaches us to notice the sacred moments in our own life journeys, pausing at them long enough to mark them with our own version of Jacob's stones.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College.