Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Vayeitzei: Is Lifting The Stone Off The Well A Superhuman Feat?

Is lifting the stone off the well a superhuman feat? There are (at least) two readings, and personally, I am not convinced which is the most peshat-like. This is because to me peshat means that which fits in best with the text and the themes developed in the text, rather than the reading which accords most with a rational, scientific approach to the world.

The pesukim which detail Yaakov's first encounter with Rachel is in parshat Vayeitzei, in perek 29:
א וַיִּשָּׂא יַעֲקֹב, רַגְלָיו; וַיֵּלֶךְ, אַרְצָה בְנֵי-קֶדֶם. 1 Then Jacob went on his journey, and came to the land of the children of the east.
ב וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה בְאֵר בַּשָּׂדֶה, וְהִנֵּה-שָׁם שְׁלֹשָׁה עֶדְרֵי-צֹאן רֹבְצִים עָלֶיהָ--כִּי מִן-הַבְּאֵר הַהִוא, יַשְׁקוּ הָעֲדָרִים; וְהָאֶבֶן גְּדֹלָה, עַל-פִּי הַבְּאֵר. 2 And he looked, and behold a well in the field, and, lo, three flocks of sheep lying there by it.--For out of that well they watered the flocks. And the stone upon the well's mouth was great.
ג וְנֶאֶסְפוּ-שָׁמָּה כָל-הָעֲדָרִים, וְגָלְלוּ אֶת-הָאֶבֶן מֵעַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר, וְהִשְׁקוּ, אֶת-הַצֹּאן; וְהֵשִׁיבוּ אֶת-הָאֶבֶן עַל-פִּי הַבְּאֵר, לִמְקֹמָהּ. 3 And thither were all the flocks gathered; and they rolled the stone from the well's mouth, and watered the sheep, and put the stone back upon the well's mouth in its place.--
ד וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם יַעֲקֹב, אַחַי מֵאַיִן אַתֶּם; וַיֹּאמְרוּ, מֵחָרָן אֲנָחְנוּ. 4 And Jacob said unto them: 'My brethren, whence are ye?' And they said: 'Of Haran are we.'
ה וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם, הַיְדַעְתֶּם אֶת-לָבָן בֶּן-נָחוֹר; וַיֹּאמְרוּ, יָדָעְנוּ 5 And he said unto them: 'Know ye Laban the son of Nahor?' And they said: 'We know him.'
ו וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם, הֲשָׁלוֹם לוֹ; וַיֹּאמְרוּ שָׁלוֹם--וְהִנֵּה רָחֵל בִּתּוֹ, בָּאָה עִם-הַצֹּאן. 6 And he said unto them: 'Is it well with him?' And they said: 'It is well; and, behold, Rachel his daughter cometh with the sheep.'
ז וַיֹּאמֶר, הֵן עוֹד הַיּוֹם גָּדוֹל--לֹא-עֵת, הֵאָסֵף הַמִּקְנֶה; הַשְׁקוּ הַצֹּאן, וּלְכוּ רְעוּ. 7 And he said: 'Lo, it is yet high day, neither is it time that the cattle should be gathered together; water ye the sheep, and go and feed them.'
ח וַיֹּאמְרוּ, לֹא נוּכַל, עַד אֲשֶׁר יֵאָסְפוּ כָּל-הָעֲדָרִים, וְגָלְלוּ אֶת-הָאֶבֶן מֵעַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר; וְהִשְׁקִינוּ, הַצֹּאן. 8 And they said: 'We cannot, until all the flocks be gathered together, and they roll the stone from the well's mouth; then we water the sheep.'
ט עוֹדֶנּוּ, מְדַבֵּר עִמָּם; וְרָחֵל בָּאָה, עִם-הַצֹּאן אֲשֶׁר לְאָבִיהָ--כִּי רֹעָה, הִוא. 9 While he was yet speaking with them, Rachel came with her father's sheep; for she tended them.
י וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָה יַעֲקֹב אֶת-רָחֵל, בַּת-לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ, וְאֶת-צֹאן לָבָן, אֲחִי אִמּוֹ; וַיִּגַּשׁ יַעֲקֹב, וַיָּגֶל אֶת-הָאֶבֶן מֵעַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר, וַיַּשְׁקְ, אֶת-צֹאן לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ. 10 And it came to pass, when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother's brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother's brother, that Jacob went near, and rolled the stone from the well's mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother's brother.
A number of points.

1. Pasuk 2 states וְהָאֶבֶן גְּדֹלָה, עַל-פִּי הַבְּאֵר. The stone on top of the well was great.
2. Pasuk 3 states וְנֶאֶסְפוּ-שָׁמָּה כָל-הָעֲדָרִים, וְגָלְלוּ אֶת-הָאֶבֶן מֵעַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר, וְהִשְׁקוּ, אֶת-הַצֹּאן; וְהֵשִׁיבוּ אֶת-הָאֶבֶן עַל-פִּי הַבְּאֵר, לִמְקֹמָהּ. That is, this was the practice, to wait until all the shepherd came before rolling off the stone, then watering their flocks, then putting it back on.
3. In response to why they cannot water their flocks, in pasuk 8 the shepherds reply לֹא נוּכַל, עַד אֲשֶׁר יֵאָסְפוּ כָּל-הָעֲדָרִים, וְגָלְלוּ אֶת-הָאֶבֶן מֵעַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר; וְהִשְׁקִינוּ, הַצֹּאן. We are unable. It is unclear why they are unable.
4. Finally, upon seeing Rachel, in pasuk 10 Yaakov unrolls this stone: וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָה יַעֲקֹב אֶת-רָחֵל, בַּת-לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ, וְאֶת-צֹאן לָבָן, אֲחִי אִמּוֹ; וַיִּגַּשׁ יַעֲקֹב, וַיָּגֶל אֶת-הָאֶבֶן מֵעַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר, וַיַּשְׁקְ, אֶת-צֹאן לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ.

We can interpret this in two different ways. In the first way, (1) the stone is really, really heavy. Therefore (2), they had to wait until all shepherds came there. And (3) that is why they say they are unable -- they are physically unable. Therefore, (4) on seeing Rachel, Yaakov performs this superhuman feat of strength. This is approximately Rashi.

Thus, on pasuk 3, Rashi writes:
would gather there They were accustomed to gather because the rock was huge.
and on pasuk 8:
We cannot water [them] because the stone is huge.
and on pasuk 10:
that Jacob drew near and rolled As one who removes the stopper from a bottle, to let you know that he possessed great strength (Gen. Rabbah 70:12).
And this is a citation from a midrash in Bereishit Rabba, so Rashi knows he is channeling midrash. This does not necessarily mean that he does not consider it peshat. Indeed, see how he consistently works it into the various pasukim through the story.

Shadal writes:

On pasuk 2:
והנה נתנו אבן גדולה על פי הבאר, כדי שלא יוכל כל אחד מן הרועים להשקות צאנו כי אם בחברת כל העדרים, כדי שלא יאבד אחד מהם את המים שלא לצורך. הן אמת שלא היתה גדולה כל כך, שלא יוכלו שנים או שלושה לגלגלה, אבל שנים ושלושה שומרים זה את זה ולא יניחו לעבור על התנאי
On 8:

[ח] לא נוכל : נ"ל לא מחסרון כוח, כי היו שם שלושה עדרי צאן, והוא רחוק שיעשה יעקב לבדו מה שלא יכלו שלושה אנשים, אבל אמרו לא נוכל מפני התנאי שהתנו ביניהם, שלא תהיה רשות לאחד מן העדרים להשתמש ממימי הבאר בהיותו לבדו. והנה יעקב אולי שאל אם נשארו עדרים אחרים לבוא, ואמרו לו שלא נשאר אלא עדר רחל, וכשראה אותה מיהר וגלל את האבן והשקה את צאנה. ואף אם לא שאל אם נשארו עדרים אחרים שלא באו, הגה הוא לא היה מחוייב לשמור התנאי שהתנו ביניהם, ומצד אחר דבר הגון עשה (אף אם לא היתה קרובתו) למהר לפטור את רחל, שהיתה נערה אחת בין כמה אנשים.

On 10:

[י] ויגל את האבן : כדי למהר להשקות צאן לבן, כדי שתמהר רחל ללכת לביתה ; והנה כשגלל האבן עשה הנאה לשאר הרועים, וע"י כן הניחו לו להשקות צאן לבן תחילה, ואולי ג"כ בראותם גבורתו פחדו מפניו והניחו לו לעשות.

Thus, Shadal interprets the pesukim to mean that there was no miracle here. The stone was big, but not that big. Two or three could lift it. The idea was that you would have a few there, so that no one shepherd would come and take all the water and waste it. When they said "we are not able," it meant that though they were physically able, they were unable because of the agreement with the other shepherd. Finally, perhaps the last shepherd who was to come was Rachel, and this is why he did it all by himself. And if he didn't ask if there were others yet to come, he acted appropriately since he was not himself bound by the stipulation, and furthermore for reasons of modesty, since a young girl should not have to wait among all those men.

Thus, while perhaps impressive that he lifted the stone, Shadal takes it out of the realm of a superhuman feat.

Yet, I see merit in Rashi's explanation, more in the line of peshat. What purpose was there to speak of this stipulation among them? Throughout, it seems to me to be a buildup to the great feat of strength at the end. (Perhaps not superhuman, but certainly exceedingly mighty.) The content of pasuk 3, about their agreement, was to explain the need for a heavy stone mentioned in pasuk 2. And in this context, "we are unable" in pasuk 8 is surely along the lines of what had been set up earlier. And in pasuk 10, the idea was not one of modesty, or fulfilling the agreement with the arrival of other/all the shepherds, or that he was not bound by the agreement. Rather, it is one of drama. He saw his relative, indeed his wife to be, and was struck, and this inspired him to near-superhuman action.

Compare with the drama of Rivka seeing Yitzchak and falling/descending off of the camel. And compare Yaakov's watering all the sheep with Rivkah's watering all of Eliezer's camels, well beyond the call of duty. (Just as that was an impressive feat, so too this was intended as an impressive feat in relation to the meeting of the other.) And compare to Moshe at the well, when he chases off all the other shepherds harassing the daughters of Reuel. Rashi's peshat fits well with the theme being developed, in my opinion. Shadal's has to many complications which take off of this main theme, even if it does minimize the "miracle." But that is a subjective judgment.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Does anyone note the similaries between Yaakov watering Rachel's flock and Rivkah watering Eliezer's camels?

Nachman said...

I always assumed that given that it wasn't superhuman, and that as Yaakov is described as good at weightlifting and wrestling, shepherding up all night, etc. nothing of which is described about Esav:
the unspoken irony is that the one who is really better at sports is Yaakov. He just chose not to major in being an ish sadeh. In point of fact Esav needs 400 men to fight Yaakov and some sheep.

nachman

Milhouse said...

If Rashi thought it was miracle, then how do we "know that he possessed great strength"? If he performed a miracle then we know nothing about his strength, which might have been perfectly ordinary, or even less than that. Since Rashi says his feat proved his great strength, it's obvious that he is saying more or less the same as Shadal, that Yaacov was stronger than an ordinary person, and was able to move a stone that it would take several normal people to move.

joshwaxman said...

I see what you are saying, and would consider it a legitimate interpretation, even though I would still disagree.

There is a difference between being very strong and being imbued with superhuman strength.

Just as Shimshon haGibbor's source of strength was miraculous. Lemashal, Bereshit Rabbati talks of Betuel running towards Eliezer to kill him with a sword, when he saw Eliezer lifting up his camels to place them elsewhere. This would show great strength, but I would say of a type lemaalah miderech hateva.

When Rashi says
ויגש יעקב ויגל -
כזה שמעביר את הפקק מעל פי צלוחית, להודיעך שכחו גדול:

there are actually two points in play. The first is that there were at least three shepherds there, and so he did an action which typically requires more than even these three.

The second point is that even with the multiple shepherds, they would have to roll גלל the rock off, because of its great heaviness. But what Rashi, and the midrash, are saying here is that since it says ויגל without the multiple lameds, it means revealed, or something along those lines, such that he lifted it straight up and moved it, with apparent ease. I would say that this exceeds the capacity of even a really strong human. Such that if it is telling us of his great strength, it would be divinely imbued strength.

The miracle is not to show us his great strength, BTW, but the irregularity in the pasuk is to tell you of the great strength he exhibited here.

Even if we say this was al derech hateva, there is still a difference between Rashi and Shadal. And that is that Rashi clearly states that the stone was so huge that 3 shepherds could not have possibly moved it. Meanwhile, Shadal says that the 3 shepherds certainly could have moved it, but they were bound by the agreement. Shadal would also presumably say that Yaakov rolled it off, rather than simply plucking it off.

Thus, even if al derech hateva, the extent of this feat is more within the realm of rational expectations, within Shadal's peshat.

KT,
Josh

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