BOULDER OR PEBBLE?
BY HENNIE BLACK
In this week’s Torah portion of Vayetze, Yaakov runs away from his brother Eisav and travels to the home of Lavan, his uncle, in Charan. On the way, Yaakov bumps into a group of shepherds standing at a well, apathetic and complacent, as they wait for help to lift the big stone that rested on top of the opening.
Yaakov asked the shepherds, “Why don’t you move the stone?” To which they answered, “Lo nuchal,” (we are unable). It is impossible, they say. We are waiting for all the herds to gather together so the other shepherds can help us.
Yaakov was puzzled by their attitude. They were shepherds after all, who must have encountered similar situations before. Yaakov then proceeds to lift it off himself—effortlessly! The rabbis teach us that for Yaakov it was like a pebble; in fact, the rabbis explain, it was as easy as lifting the cork out of a bottle.
How are we to understand Yaakov’s unbelievable strength and the shepherds’ weakness? And what made Yaakov think he could move the stone in the first place?
Up to this point, Yaakov is presented as a passive and wholesome personality who “sat in tents”; that is to say, he spent his time learning. He had obeyed everything his parents told him to do, including leaving his home and returning to his mother’s family in Charan to find a wife.
What happened to transform Yaakov from a compliant, passive personality to one that exhibited extraordinary strength? The point at which he became a changed man occurred when G-d revealed himself in that famous dream, during which Yaakov saw angels ascending and descending and in which God promised him protection, descendants, and the land of Israel.
Up until that point, Yaakov was merely a private man, one who had the luxury to do whatever he pleased. After the dream, Yaakov was a transformed man. He got up and walked away with new vigor. He now had a mission to fulfill.
The Torah tells us that Yaakov “lifted his feet” as he picked up and left. On previous journeys, we are told that Yaakov “went” (Genesis 28:10: “And Yaakov went out of Beersheva and he went to Charan”). This change in description from “went” to “lifted his feet” is significant: it indicates that Yaakov had changed. He is reinvigorated to go out to fulfill his Divine mission.
It was Yaakov’s change in attitude, his perception of his own strength, that allowed him to lift the stone off the well, rather than any real change in his physical abilities. This contrasted to the shepherds’ perception of their inability to lift the stone. Because they thought it impossible, it became the reality. “Lo nuchal” (we cannot) was not in Yaakov’s lingo.
Yaakov’s strength to lift the stone was precipitated by his motivation to help Rachel, who, along with the other shepherds, was waiting for the stone to be lifted so she could provide water to her camels.
In his desire to perform an act of kindness, Yaakov put his whole heart into lifting the stone. His innate strength that he possessed all along was galvanized, and he was able to accomplish what everyone around him could not. Yaakov himself was not aware of the enormous strength he possessed until he dedicated himself to accomplishing the task.
Many times in our own lives we are unsuccessful when we first try something new. The extent of our abilities are much greater than we might think. It is our perception that becomes our reality. If we perceive ourselves as able, then that becomes our reality.
It is up to us to decide how to react to the “stones” in our own lives—whether we look at them as boulders or as pebbles. If we want to move boulders, we must see beyond ourselves. When we are driven with a goal/mission in mind, we can accomplish whatever we set out to do.