Vayeitzei: Yaakov Avinu and the Mouth of the Well

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Vayeitzei, Yaakov Avinu finds himself fleeing the wrath of Eisav, his brother.  After Yaakov received their father, Yitzchak’s, blessings before Eisav (Bereishis 27), Eisav avows to kill his brother after their father’s demise (27:41).

After his famous dream, known as “Sulam Yaakov” (the Ladder of Yaakov) (Bereishis 28), Yaakov finds himself in the land of the East (29:1), where he hopes to find his mother’s family, where he will ultimately lodge for twenty years.  

As he stands near the well – the gathering place in Biblical times for all important events! – the shepherds gather with their flocks.  However, they are unable to draw water from the well, for: וְהָאֶבֶן גְּדֹלָה עַלפִּי הַבְּאֵר, there is a large boulder covering the mouth of the well (29:2).  To uncover the well, all the shepherds in town gather at the same time with their flocks, and with their united strength, they are able to collectively roll the boulder off the top of the well, to access the water deep within.

And so it happens day in and day out… and yet!  On this day, Yaakov Avinu is in town.  

And behold, as Yaakov is speaking with the shepherds, while everyone stands around the well: וְרָחֵל בָּאָה, עִםהַצֹּאן אֲשֶׁר לְאָבִיהָכִּי רֹעָה, הִוא, and Rachel is coming with the flocks of her father, for she is a shepherdess; וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָה יַעֲקֹב אֶתרָחֵל, בַּתלָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ, וְאֶתצֹאן לָבָן, אֲחִי אִמּוֹ; וַיִּגַּשׁ יַעֲקֹב, וַיָּגֶל אֶתהָאֶבֶן מֵעַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר, וַיַּשְׁקְ, אֶתצֹאן לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ, and it was, when Yaakov saw Rachel, the daughter of Lavan, the brother of his mother, and the flocks of Lavan; Yaakov came close and rolled the stone from upon the mouth of the well and watered the sheep of Lavan, the brother of his mother; וַיִּשַּׁק יַעֲקֹב, לְרָחֵל; וַיִּשָּׂא אֶתקֹלוֹ, וַיֵּבְךְּ, and Yaakov kissed Rachel, and he raised his voice and he wept (29:9-11).

The hero!  The savior!  The victor!  Yaakov, single-handedly, rolls the huge rock off the mouth of the well; a feat that until now has been impossible by any one man.  Every other day, all the shepherds work together to uncover the well; today, Yaakov does it alone.  

From where did our forefather – the simple man who dwelled in the tents of Torah – have the strength for such a feat?

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm z’l offers a piercing and important insight and answer.  “This narrative certainly is remarkable.  Jacob’s feat of strength and the shepherds’ apparent weakness requires some explanation.  Why could Jacob do it?  And, even more important, why couldn’t the shepherds?  What does all this mean, and what is the Torah teaching us?

“… The stone represents the difficulties in the way of each and every person in his desire to set free the forces which lie in the great well of his personality and being.  And it is his attitude to this stone, his approach to these difficulties, which determines whether he will be able to roll it away, like Jacob, or be forced to keep the well covered, like the shepherds.

“Yes, it is the attitude which counts the most.  It is the idea which gives birth to the fact.  The reason the shepherds could not roll the stone away was that they were convinced they could not do it… לֹא נוּכַל, they said, ‘We cannot.  It’s impossible’ (29:8).  When a man thinks that a particular task is impossible, then for him it becomes impossible.

“Jacob, however, had no such difficulty.  He didn’t think that it was impossible.  He thought that a man certainly could remove the stone from his well.  He, therefore, went over and, without further ado, simply moved it out of the way.  He thought it was possible, and so for him it became possible.

“The same rule holds true for most of us.  If we face the stone on our individual wells – the difficulties which keep us back from doing those constructive things which we want to do, and we imagine that stone to be a boulder – then that is what it is, and try as we might it cannot be budged.  Our ‘lo nukhal’ attitude makes of it an ‘even gedola’, a large rock.  Approach it, however, with the attitude that it is only ‘kemelo pi kevara ketana’ (a rock ‘as small as the hole of a strainer’, which is how the Sages interpret how the rock appeared to Yaakov), that the stone is only a pebble, and it can be rolled away as easily as a pebble.  What you think is impossible becomes impossible.  Think of it as possible, and the odds are that you can do it…

“The great Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) was once asked how one becomes a Vilna Gaon.  And he answered, ‘Vil nur, vest du zein a gaon, If you only will it, you can become a gaon.’  Just don’t say ‘lo nukhal’…

“The stone upon the well of human nature, and the Jewish soul particularly, can either be a boulder, or a pebble.  What a man does with that stone depends on what he thinks of it.  He can imagine it a boulder and it will choke off his life’s mission.  Or he can be a Jacob and understand it is only a pebble; cast it off and eventually even grapple with angels – וַתּוּכָל – and overcome (32:29) and win” (Derashot Ledorot, Bereishit, p.136-139).  

Chodesh Kislev.  The month of Chanukah.  The yomtov of the many into the hands of the few, the strong into the hands of the weak, the wanton sinners into the hands of the pure, the fall of a mighty empire into the hands of the Maccabiim.  How was such a victory possible?  How and why are we still lighting the Chanukah licht so many centuries later to commemorate a seemingly impossible victory?  Because the true believer never says ‘I can’t.’  He sees before him a pebble, not a boulder.  Like Yaakov, who is renamed Yisrael, he wrestles with G-d and man, וַתּוּכָל, and he can.  

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום, 


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