Stones have so much symbolic weight! You know this already, if ever you've gone for a hike and picked up a smooth stone from an old riverbed and slipped it into your pocket, or if you've visited a cemetery and left behind a small rock on top of a headstone to show that you've been there. This week's Torah portion is titled (and begins with the Hebrew word) Vayetze -- meaning "he went out" -- and it chronicles the patriarch Jacob's travels, first from Beersheva to Haran, and continuing on from there. As I re-read the parasha week, I noticed all the many stones (Hebrew: s. even, pl. avanim) that feature in the story along the way, tangible markers that punctuate Jacob's journey.
Stones have so much symbolic weight! You know this already, if ever you've gone for a hike and picked up a smooth stone from an old riverbed and slipped it into your pocket, or if you've visited a cemetery and left behind a small rock on top of a headstone to show that you've been there.
This week's Torah portion is titled (and begins with the Hebrew word) Vayetze -- meaning "he went out" -- and it chronicles the patriarch Jacob's travels, first from Beersheva to Haran, and continuing on from there. As I re-read the parasha week, I noticed all the many stones (Hebrew: s. even, pl. avanim) that feature in the story along the way, tangible markers that punctuate Jacob's journey.
1. The first stone is the famous one that Jacob uses as a pillow when he dreams of a ladder or staircase filled with angels ascending and descending. And so we find, in Genesis 28:11, "vayikach mei-avnei ha-makom, vayasem m'ra'ashotav," that Jacob "took from among the stones of the place, and put it under his head." After dreaming of angels, Jacob wakes up in the morning and takes that same stone and sets it up as a monument, pouring oil over it in an act of consecration (28:18). He declares, "v'ha-even ha-zot asher samti matzevah yihyeh beit elohim," "This stone, which I have established as a pillar, shall be God's abode" (28:22). As Jacob resumes his journey, this anointed stone monument remains behind, a physical symbol of the connection he experienced there between the earthly and divine realms.
2. As Jacob journeys on, he comes to a well, where eventually he will meet his cousin and future wife, Rachel. Even before he glimpses her, though, he encounters a challenge: "v'ha-even g'dolah al pi ha-be'er," a large stone covers the mouth of the well, and it needs to be rolled out of place in order to water the flocks and then rolled back into place, each day. Usually, it seems, this feat is a communal effort, accomplished by multiple shepherds working together. But, "when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban, and the flock of his uncle Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well, and watered the flock of his uncle Laban" (Gen. 29:10). Chassidic commentators read this stone as a metaphor for any obstacles that might prevent one from serving God (for an example, see the Kedushat Levi's comment on the verse); by removing the stone, the patriarch Jacob removes an obstacle, thus opening up the pathway not only for water to be drawn from the well, but also for love to flow between Jacob and God, and between Jacob and his future wife.
3. Stones appear one final time towards the end of the parasha. By this point, Jacob has many children, and great friction has built up between him and Laban (both his uncle and his father-in-law). Before he and Laban part ways from one another, the Torah describes a ceremony involving stones. First, Jacob sets up a single stone as a pillar and then he and his family members collect stones and build a mound or stone-heap (Gen. 31:45-46). Both Laban and Jacob then swear oaths in the presence of these stones, promising not to attack one another with hostile intent once they part ways (31:47-54). The mound and the pillar -- that is, the stones themselves -- become the witnesses to their agreement, and there they remain, a concrete reminder of their commitments.
As Jacob travels through the land of Canaan -- from south to north and ultimately back towards the south again -- the stones of his journey serve as permanent physical markers of where he has been, as well as reminders of some of the most pivotal moments of his life.
Paying attention to the stones in Jacob's story can also help us to focus attention on the "touchstone" moments in our own lives... that is, when we have experienced God's presence, when we have removed obstacles from our path, when we have made commitments and chosen new directions, and more. Even if we don't have physical pillars to show for it, noting these touchstone points can help us view our own life journeys -- complete with successes, challenges, twists and turns -- in sharper relief. Understanding where we have been -- being able to see the monuments and mounds of stone behind us (figuratively if not literally) -- can certainly help us connect the dots, and map where we want to go next in our journey.
The same is true for Kavana on an organizational level. In each year of Kavana's existence, our community has established monuments, encountered obstacles, and left mounds of stones behind us that have served as witnesses to our decisions and directions. At the end of each year, we pause to review where we have been -- that is, we look back on the stones and monuments of the past year -- and we share these impressions with our community in the form of an Annual Report.
I invite you now to join in the exercise of reviewing the "stones" that marked Kavana's journey through Fiscal Year 2021 (July 2020-June 2021). This was a year that actually felt like longer than a year to many of us! That said, we managed to dream dreams, move obstacles aside, facilitate meaningful connections (both spiritual and communal), and make decisions about how to move our community forward. We hope that flipping through this report will make you feel proud to be part of the Kavana community, and will inspire you to deepen your commitment over the coming year! Click here to read our Fiscal Year 2021 Annual Report!
I look forward to continuing our collective journey together, and to leaving new stones and monuments behind us as we continue on our path, just as Jacob did before us.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom, in advance,
Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum
As this week's Torah portion opens, Jacob is preparing to meet his brother Esau. He isn't certain what the tenor of their reunion will be; after all, the twins had parted on terrible terms many years ago, mostly because of Jacob's own actions. He sends messengers ahead to scout out the situation, and when they report that Esau is coming towards him with an entourage of 400 men, Jacob assumes the worst.
This Shabbat, Jewish communities everywhere will read Parashat Toledot, so named because it begins with the phrase "v'eileh toledot yitzchak ben avraham," "These are the generations (or descendants or stories) of Isaac son of Abraham." The text moves on pretty quickly to the drama of the next generation: the famous sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau. But, before we skip ahead to there, the opening words invite us to linger with Isaac and the "sandwich generation" that he and his wife Rebecca represent.
A few days ago, a "bomb cyclone" sent me looking for comfort. As the wind howled outside my window and lights flickered, I changed into cozy sweatpants and brewed a cup of hot tea to soothe my nerves.We use the word "comfort" on two levels in the English language: to talk about a state of ease and freedom from pain or constraint, and about the alleviation of grief and distress. In this week's parasha, Isaac seeks comfort on this higher, second level. He has a serious personal history of trauma and loss with which to contend: his upbringing in the context of a troubled blended family, where his parents pitted him against his older step-brother; the dramatic episode when his father came close to sacrificing his life on a mountain top. Now, his mother Sarah has died, leaving him grief-stricken. Where will Isaac turn for comfort?