Confidence, Chachma, and a Really Big Rock

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

When we speak of tzadikim and talmidei chachamim (wise men), we discuss their tremendous brilliance, deep insights, incredible middos and other positive characteristics. In general, we don’t speak of their physical prowess, usually due to the fact that it is neither relevant nor applicable. One would think this would apply as well to the avos (patriarchs), the model for the tzadik. Yet in the description of Yaakov Avinu in this week’s parsha, the Torah seems to focus on his physical strength, exhibited in his feat of moving the rock nobody else could budge from the top of the well. 

The Torah begins the story of the well as follows (Bereishis 29:2-3):

“He looked and [saw] a well in the field; and behold there were three flocks of sheep lying beside it, for from that well the flocks were watered. There was a large stone over the mouth of the well. When all the flocks were gathered, [the shepherds] would roll the stone from the well's mouth, and water the sheep. They would [then] return the stone to its place over the mouth of the well.”

The story continues with Yaakov inquiring as to Lavan and his whereabouts. As his conversation continues, Rochel enters with Lavan’s sheep, approaching the well. The Torah (ibid 10) then tells us the famous fate of the stone covering the well:

“When Yaakov saw Rochel, the daughter of Lavan, his mother's brother, and the sheep of Lavan, his mother's brother, he stepped near and rolled the stone from the mouth of the well. He then watered the sheep of Lavan, his mother's brother.”

This story contains a tremendous amount of detail and occupies a sizable amount of real estate in the Torah, something that troubled the Ramban. He writes (ibid 2-3) that the Torah expands on this story to let us know that “those who wait for God have renewed strength (Yeshayahu 40:31) and those who fear Him are given courage.” How so? The Ramban explains that when Yaakov came to the well, he was tired from his travels and yet he removed the stone by himself. On the other hand, the shepherds with the three flocks of sheep were unable to move the stone at all. 

The Ramban, taken at face value, is quite troubling. Many commentators agree that Yaakov was someone who was naturally strong, accounting for his ability to move the stone (see Rashi and Rashbam, among others). Moving the rock, therefore, would seem to be no great achievement by Yaakov. If one would assume he was not a particularly strong person, then what was his expectation when he came upon this rock? Taking the Ramban literally, one would have to assume that there was some type of Divine intervention that allowed him to move this stone. Did Yaakov know this to be true prior to his actions? Did Yaakov have the right to assume God would step in at that moment and aid him? This seems to be a very difficult approach to take. What, then, is the Ramban teaching us?

The logical approach here would be that Yaakov indeed was naturally strong, and that he was someone who had the means to move the stone. The Ramban, though, is alluding to a deeper idea. Yaakov enters into the situation of the well in a very difficult state. While he had previously received the famous prophecy at Beit-El, he was still on the run, alone, and penniless. This is the “tired” being referred to by the Ramban. Yet, with all that, we know that he was always being guided by the truth, his conviction and security placed in God. This state of mind allows for a certain sense of confidence in the individual, confidence that goes a long way in decision making and actions. It was this attitude that guided Yaakov in this episode. The Ramban, therefore, is contrasting the normal sense of loss and insecurity a person would have in this type of situation as compared to Yaakov’s self-assurance. His confidence, resulting from his conviction in God, aided him in achieving this objective.

One might be able to extend this idea beyond a contrast to the actual manifestation of this confidence in Yaakov’s plan. What plan did Yaakov have then? The Torah tells us (ibid 13) that “When Lavan heard the news of Yaakov, his sister's son, he ran to greet him.” The Sforno (ibid) points out that the “news” here refers to Yaakov’s moving the stone off the well, meaning that Lavan had heard about this event. Why is this significant for us to know? As mentioned above, Yaakov came to Charan without anything or anyone. His objective, as related by his parents, was clear – escape from Esav, find Lavan, and eventually search for a spouse from within Lavan’s family. Why not just walk up to Lavan’s door and knock, rather than go through all the conversations with the other shepherds and the displacement of the rock? As a result of his wealth, Lavan, as the Malbim (ibid 5) points out, was the most well known man in Charan. Showing up at Lavan’s house as a desperate, poor relative would certainly engender sympathy from his host. But Yaakov knew that in the long term, a sudden appearance would work against him. Eventually, the sympathy would fade and Yaakov would be seen as a burden, someone in a constant state of need. For someone whose value system revolved around the acquisition of wealth, power and fame, to relate to someone as being a needy individual would compromise the relationship. Yaakov understood that in order for the plan of his parents to succeed, he needed to take the initiative. He realized that obtaining a reputation, like becoming known for some great feat in the local community, would go a long way to establishing an identity that Lavan would relate to. Based on this approach, it could be Yaakov’s plan developed when he saw this unique situation at the well, where a stone was covering it and was not able to be moved by anyone. By removing the stone, he would achieve instant fame, which he sensed would be appealing to someone of Lavan’s position. As mentioned above, the Torah (ibid 10) tells us that “When Yaakov saw Rochel, the daughter of Lavan, his mother's brother, and the sheep of Lavan, his mother's brother, he stepped near and rolled the stone from the mouth of the well”. It is interesting that Yaakov looks towards both, Rochel and the sheep of Lavan. The obvious result of moving the rock would be to benefit Rochel. Yet he realized it would also benefit the flocks belonging to Lavan, something Lavan would certainly appreciate. This would then demonstrate the importance of the words of the Sforno.  Lavan greeted Yaakov not based on the fact that they were related--instead, it was the fame attributed to Yaakov that ultimately enticed him. Therefore, we see from Yaakov the chachma used in this plan, chachma characterized by a good deal of confidence. This could only emerge from his knowledge of the true ideas of God and his ability to place his security in Him.

Yes, Yaakov was strong, manifesting in his feat of removing the stone from the well. However, our focus should not be on his strength in and of itself. As the Ramban teaches us, Yaakov used his natural ability to overcome many of the insecurities that would emerge in the average person facing a similar situation. His confidence, a result of his convictions, was what allowed him to face the challenges ahead. And as the Sforno explains so eloquently, there indeed was a plan devised by Yaakov and the removal of the stone offered an opportunity to gain favor in the eyes of the wealthy and famous Lavan. While it is certainly true that the Torah recognizes Yaakov’s physicality, it is how he used chachma to apply his physical strength that is the essential feature of this story.