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Well-Founded Customs

By: Rav Jonathan Bailey

After Yaakov’s dreams of angels, ladders and God’s assurance of protection, he travels on and arrives at a well outside of Charan. Upon reaching this well, the Torah reports:

 יּ֞ נּ֧ ֣ בּשּׂ֗ נּשׁ֞ שׁשׁ֤ ֙ ֣ ֔ כּ֚ בּ֣ ֔ שׁ֖וּ ֑ ֥ גּ֖ פּ֥ בּ:

 וּשׁ֣מּ ֗ ֤וּ ֨֙ ֙ פּ֣ בּ֔ שׁ֖וּ צּ֑ שׁ֧וּ ֛ פּ֥ בּ֖ הּ:

“(2) And [Yaakov] saw and behold there was a well in the field, and behold there were three flocks resting by it; for it was from this well that the flocks would drink, and the large rock was upon the mouth of the well. (3) And the flocks would all gather there and roll the rock off the mouth of the well and give their sheep to drink; and then they would return the rock from upon the mouth of the well to its [original] place.”

Why was Yaakov so surprised (“”), twice?[1]  Also, there are other places in TaNaKH that mention a similar ‘large rock’, but it’s either recorded as “ [2] or “ [3] – both easily translated (because of the presence of the letter ‘’ twice, or the double lack of the letter ‘’) as ‘the large rock’ or ‘a large rock’ respectively. Here, in our pasuk however, it’s written “ [4] – this therefore cannot be simply translated as ‘a/the large rock’. So, what does it mean? Additionally, the explanation the Torah gives in pasuk three as to why all the flocks gathered waiting to draw water from the well is fairly straightforward. What’s enigmatic, however, is why the Torah also then records pesukim seven and eight:

 יּ֗ ֥ וֹ֙ יּ֣וֹ גּ֔וֹ ֖ ֣ מּ֑ שׁ֥וּ צּ֖ וּ֥וּ וּ:

 יּוּ֘ ֣ וּ֒ ֣ שׁ֤ וּ֙ כּ֣֔ וּ֙ ֔ ֖ פּ֣ בּ֑ שׁ֖וּ צּ:

“(7) And [Yaakov] said to [the shepherds]: the day is still early, it’s not time to gather the flock yet, give drink to your sheep and go shepherd! (8) And they said to him: we can’t until all the other flocks have gathered, then we [all] roll the rock off the mouth of the well and give our sheep to drink.”

Why do we need to hear the entire explanation again? Why do we need a two-versed record of Yaakov and the shepherds’ conversation which only ends up telling us exactly what was already described by the Torah’s narrative four pesukim before?

 ֡ כּשׁ֩ ֨ ֜ ֗ בּ֙ ֣ מּ֔וֹ ֥ ֖ ֣ מּ֑וֹ יּגּ֣שׁ ֗ יּ֤ ֨֙ ֙ פּ֣ בּ֔ יּ֕שׁ ֥ ֖ ֥ מּוֹ:

“And it was when Yaakov saw Rachel, the daughter of Lavan, the brother of his mother and [saw] the sheep of Lavan, the brother of his mother; that Yaakov approached [the well] and rolled off the rock from the mouth of the well and gave water to the sheep of Lavan, the brother of his mother.”

Two questions on this pasuk - one textual, once conceptual: Textually, why repeat the phrase “ ” three times (!) in one pasuk?! And conceptually, why do we need to know that Yaakov single-handedly removed a large rock that only multiple shepherds from multiple flocks could have moved? Is the Torah making sure we don’t miss out on an adrenaline-filled, almost impossible feat of strength all in the name of love? And even if we would accept the feasibility of this feat, for there have been cases where mothers have single-handedly lifted cars to save their children, are we supposed to compare that love to one where Yaakov has only just seen Rachel for the first time?! Is this a ‘Torah lesson’ worthy of an entire verse?

Our first step is to define the meaning of the phrase “ ”. As stated above, textually it can’t merely mean ‘a/the large rock’; rather, it needs to be understood as ‘the rock was large on the mouth of the well’. In other words, it’s placement on the well was significant – it’s describing a qualitative value, not a quantitative one[5]. And this would explain why Yaakov was so surprised when he stumbled upon this scene. There’s a well ‘in a field’ – i.e. accessible to everyone – with a ‘normal’ rock-cover upon it to keep out dirt and small animals, and to protect against accidents (hence ‘the rock’, the expected rock-cover), and there are three groups of flocks just waiting around instead of drawing water so that they can take their sheep out to graze! So, in light of our understanding, why are the shepherds just waiting around? The Torah explains that it was the ‘surprising’ custom of this particular place that everyone would wait for everyone else before drawing water. Not that they couldn’t draw the water alone, but rather, they wouldn’t. Each day they would all gather together, all remove the rock, and then all return it to its place: an extraordinary accepted custom of social equalization. And because this rock was the vehicle reflecting this unique custom, it was therefore ‘large’ – significant, symbolically important - upon the mouth of the well. And being thus unique, it explains why the Torah spends two pesukim describing it (and why Yaakov is so surprised by it).

So when these same facts are once again recorded in pesukim 7 and 8, we must appreciate that this report isn’t there to tell us something new but rather to relay to us that Yaakov received this explanation personally. Previously the Torah relayed to us the uniqueness of the shepherd-well-rock custom; but in 7 and 8 we are being told that Yaakov, too, upon expressing his surprise, was personally told of this unique local custom. And why is this important? Because of what he does in the very next pasuk! He steps forward and rolls the rock off of the well and draws water for Rachel’s sheep all by himself! And in light of what we were told (in pesukim 3 and 4), this action isn’t merely a record of some love-infused superhuman feat but rather, more significantly, it represents an outright rejection of the unique and established local custom! And based on pesukim 7 and 8, we are also given to appreciate that Yaakov knew this too – so when he rolled the rock off by himself he was consciously rejecting their accepted local shepherd custom!

And now we can answer our final question – why the repetition of the phrase “ ”, three times, in this ‘custom-rejecting’ pasuk? Yaakov saw Lavan only (x3 pattern of emphasis of theme) in the context of his being the brother of his mother. In other words, despite arriving in a new land and finding himself in this totally new context, he was nonetheless appreciating the truths of this new land (Lavan) only through the perspective of his old one (his mother’s brother)[6]. And this is why he openly and unabashedly removed the rock from the well – for that wasn’t the custom where he came from and therefore he had no issue doing it his way despite the fact that it wasn’t the locals’ way.

And this also fits very nicely into the wording Lavan uses when ‘explaining’ the Leah and Rachel switch on Yaakov’s wedding night. He says:

 יּ֣ ֔ שׂ֥ ֖ בּוֹ֑וּ ֥ צּ֖ ֥ בּ:

“And Lavan said we don’t do this in our place, giving the younger before the elder”

Brilliantly, even after seven years, we are being told that Yaakov still did not consider himself in this new world but rather continued to focus on and retain his world – its customs and behaviors - within theirs.

But why is this such a problem? Why does the Torah go to such lengths to make sure we appreciate Yaakov’s stubbornness in fully accepting the new culture he found himself within?  The true goal of God’s original command to Avraham of was the acceptance of fully rejecting his past to allow for a full-transformation into God’s directed future. Without completely leaving behind who he was, Avraham could never truly become the man God needed him to be. Similar to the harsh months of basic training in an army; they completely break down the new cadet to be able to build him totally anew, into the complete solider they desire. To merely super-impose another persona upon a previous one doesn’t ever allow for a complete existence of either persona, much less the desired new one. Yitzchak sent Yaakov away to create the opportunity for his son, the next link in the Divine Legacy. For when he was ultimately called to return home, Yaakov would then totally leave behind the world he had previously been a part of to allow for a full transformation into the -traveling God-directed player he needed to be. However, if he never fully gave up his life and never fully accepted himself into the life, his return would not accomplish the necessary life-changing, persona-transforming significant Divine choice. So the Torah relays to us that for too long, Yaakov did not forsake his past life, did not completely accept the society he was required to.

So, was his entire sojourn in the ‘outside world’ a waste? Was his return to Eretz Yisrael ultimately a diminished ?

 ֕ כּשׁ֛ ֥ ֖ וֹ֑ יּ֤ ֙ ֔ שׁלּ֨֙ ֣֔ וֹ֖ וּ:

“And it was when Rachel bore Yosef, Yaakov said to Lavan, ‘send me and I will go to my place, and to my land”

It’s seemingly strange that Yaakov would say both, ‘my place’ and ‘my land’; however, within our understood context, this ‘addition’ is significantly essential! Yaakov tells Lavan that he’s ready to leave and return to his place; for he – during the ensuing seven years since Lavan challenged his erroneous imposing of his customs on them[7] – seemingly had accepted the reprimand, had understood the necessary obligation to fully immerse himself into the outside world to which he was sent, and ultimately had dwelled fully within it. And, at the moment Yaakov decides to return home, to initiate his destined obligation, he verbalizes what we’ve needed to hear: he’s going to totally leave behind this place – of which he has been a part - so that he can totally return to that place - which he will become a part, anew!


[1] The following is an idea inspired by a question posed to me by Richelle Willner-Martin

[2] Shmuel I 6:15 and Shmuel II 20:8

[3] Yehoshua 24:26, Shmuel I 6:14 and Shmuel I 14:33

[4] With only one ‘’, used as a prefix for the first word – and this is the only time this specific abnormal syntax is used.

[5] The word ‘’ is often used to reflect a symbolic or qualitative significance: see Shemot 18: 22, Va’yikra 12:10 and Devarim 7:21, for example.

[6] If this label is merely about successfully finding the person his mother described as ‘ ’, you wouldn’t need three mentions; especially because Lavan himself wasn’t even actually there!

[7] Using the same word, !


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