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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Parashat Vayishlach - the Haftara

Parashat Vayishlach – the Haftara
Hosea 11:7 – 12:12
Reading date: 13th December 2008 – 16th Kislev 5769

Our highlighted Haftara text
"And Jacob set up a pillar at the site where YHVH had spoken to him, a pillar of stone, and he offered a libation on it and poured oil upon it...
Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel's grave to this day”. (Gen. 35:14, 20)

“Rock of Ages”
Stones seem to be a trade mark for Jacob; they just keep appearing in Jacob’s life. In this week’s Parasha VaYishlach, we learn that Jacob [again] at Beth El, sets up a (matzevah) stone pillar (Gen. 35:14). Last week, when we read of Jacob’s journey from Canaan, Jacob stopped at Luz/Beth El where he built an altar of stones. The term ‘beth el’ (literally, House of YHVH) refers to this specific type of stone pillar, but later became associated with a sacred site at the town of Luz. The shrine on the boundary of Ephraim and Judea was of great importance in the time of Judges and Kings. Jeroboam made it the chief sanctuary to compete with the southern Jerusalem. Consequently, in the prophets, Beth El became a symbol of Israel’s iniquity, and was condemned by Amos and Hosea, notwithstanding its association with the patriarch Jacob.
But Beth El is not the only place that we see Jacob with rocks. Last week, we read how Jacob set up a stone cairn at Gilad after making a pact with Laban. And twenty years earlier in the story, he had put a rock under his head for a pillow where he had his famous angel dream (‘sulam’ here means staircase, not the ladders we imagine today). And when he met Rachel at the well- in a moment of passion (and super strength) he rolled the stone from the mouth of the well. When Rachel died en route Hebron, Jacob buried her, and again we read that he sets up another [stone] pillar. Jacob even uses the term ‘ehvehn’ in his final blessing to Joseph to describe YHVH: “By the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob— There, the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel, The God of your father who helps you, And Shaddai who blesses you. With blessings of heaven above, Blessings of the deep that couches below, Blessings of the breast and womb. The blessings of your father Surpass the blessings of my ancestors, To the utmost bounds of the eternal hills” (Gen. 49:24b-26a).

The word for rock is ‘ehvehn’ or ‘sela’. Rocks represent strength, stability and permanence. Another term ‘tzur’ is often used to refer to a large boulder, and hence conveys the sense of a place of shelter. Not surprising then that ‘tzur’ is an epithet for YHVH: ‘Tzur Yisrael’. "HaTzur- The Rock!—YHVH’s deeds are perfect, Yea, all YHVH’s ways are just; A faithful God, never false, True and upright is YHVH" (Deut 32:4). In just a few weeks, we will sing a Chanukah song with that reference to YHVH: ‘Ma’oz Tzur’ (Rock of Ages).

Rocks are also associated with Torah, since the Ten Commandments were written on stones. In one midrash, Rabbi Levi cites a parable of king who protects a city from attacking soldiers with soldiers of his own. So too, YHVH gave us the Torah to guard against our impulse to do evil. Since our impulse to do evil (“I will take away the heart of stone out of your flesh (Ezek. 36:26)) is compared to a stone, the laws of Torah are called ‘stones’ (from the stone tablets). ‘Stones’ [of Torah] therefore effectively will guard against ‘stones’ [of evil impulse] like some will say that a remedy is for ‘like’ to cure ‘like.’

The Patriarchs and Matriarchs are seen as more than individuals; they are archetypes. Maybe one thing that made them special was their ability to see the Divine in particular aspects of nature: Abraham saw it in trees; Isaac in water. Jacob found holiness in rocks.
All this thinking about rocks’ potential to symbolize Torah or even YHVH reminds us of a modern day parable or ‘moshal’ of a Jewish school that wanted to create a small portable ‘Aron Kodesh’ (a Torah ark) to house a Torah for a classroom. They bought a standard, no frills white cupboard from a put-it-together-yourself furniture store and decorated it. How blessed this one cupboard was, to become a Holy Ark instead of a plain cupboard. And then we see an image- that the thousands and thousands of plain cupboards in this store's warehouse that were being probably being sold for kitchens and bathrooms and garages all had the potential for holiness, to be an ‘Aron Kodesh’.

Each of us has a special gift to discover holiness in the world; some find it in family, others in ritual, some feel it in nature, others in music. Like the Patriarchs, each of us can choose to uniquely find something holy in our lives that will ultimately lead to fellowship with YHVH.

Shabbat Shalom

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