Rashbam: A Stony Problem (Vayeitzei)

Jacob’s dream is famous for angels and ladders, but it contains as well an unassuming prop – a stone.  Jacob, fleeing from Esau’s wrath and heading toward his uncle Lavan, needs a pillow on his first night on the journey, and uses a stone. After a wild dream with angels going up and down a ladder, and God’s voice booming prophecy in his ears, Jacob dedicates the stone as an altar to God. (Genesis 28:10-22)

Jacob sleeping on a stone as depicted in Ethiopian Jewish art.
Jacob sleeping on a stone as depicted in Ethiopian Jewish art.

This story hovers on the edge of the mystical and miraculous. What role does the stone play? Might it amplify the extraordinary nature of story, or is it a simple, normal prop in a human drama? The question comes from a seeming oddity in the Hebrew text. In v. 11, we read וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵֽאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם (he took from the stones of the place), most literally implying that he gathered several stones to make his pillow. But then later, in v. 18, after he awakens, the text reads  וַיִּקַּ֤ח אֶת־הָאֶ֨בֶן֙ (he took the stone), clearly indicating one stone.

Rashi, based on a midrash (b. Chullin 91b), uses this confusing contradiction to amplify the magical qualities of the place. He comments on v. 11 that “They [the stones] started quarreling with one another. One said, ‘Let the righteous man lay his head on me,’ and another one said, ‘Let him lay [his head] on me.’ Immediately, the Holy Blessed One, made them into one stone.”

Rashi teaches us that with God’s help, the tensions and rivalries that occur from noble intentions can lead to a remarkable unity. (Or he teaches us how annoying it is to quarrel over silly things.) I love this image, and I’ll share a poem by Israeli poet Ruchama Weiss based on it below.

But first, since this series is about Rashbam, not about Rashi, let’s look at his brief comment. He too notes the problematic shift from stones (plural) to stone (singular). But he elegantly solves it by adding a single word to v. 11: “He took [one] from the stones of the place.” Grammatically, it works. Contextually, it works. Imaginatively, it is less exciting than Rashi’s opinion.

Rashbam’s approach emphasizes whenever possible the principle of derekh eretz, the natural way of things. I take from his approach an appreciation for simplicity. Sometimes a stone is just a (single) stone.

These two comments, however, can also serve as paradigmatic examples of the two most common approaches to Torah study in general. Rashbam here represents the peshat, the clear-eyed contextual interpretation. From the perspective of peshat, we can imagine Scripture as a singular stone upon which we can rest our body of insight. Rashbam’s contemporary, Rabbi Yosef Kara, writes, “Whatever was needed from the proper understanding of the text was contained within it, so future generations would not misunderstand. There is no need to cite any outside sources…” (as cited in Kolatch, p. 96).

On the other hand, Rashi and his myriad arguing stones represents the midrashic, imaginative approach to Torah. While they collectively somehow serve as a foundation for our spiritual lives, midrashic opinions disagree with each other, they strive to persuade from every possible perspective, and yet we sense that behind the noisy diversity is the unifying principle of God’s voice, itself capable of holding paradox and potential.

Where do you lean – towards a less-complicated, rational-based lens on life, or towards a fanciful fascination with what could be?

Here is my translation of Ruchama Weiss’s poem HaAvanim SheTachat Roshi – The Stones That Are Under My Head, from her 2008 collection Sfatai Tiftach.

I ceased
That is to say –
I chose to cease
From things to which I am accustomed
But that have no substance,
Like quarreling with you in the morning,
Like hollow telephone conversations.
I ceased,
I truly ceased.

The stones that are under my head
Do not argue.