Jacob’s dilemma is summarized at the end of last week’s parasha, when he finally separates from Laban. We are told that ”וישב לבן למקמו“ – “Laban returned to his place,” whereas Jacob only “הלך לדרכו” – ”went on his way.” Laban has a “place” of his own, while Jacob at this point has only a journey to continue. Similarly, at the beginning of next week’s parasha, we are told that Jacob “settled” in Canaan, but we know that this settlement will be no more permanent than any of the others in his life, and that he will eventually make his way to Egypt. And in between those episodes is our parasha, Vayishlach, which is filled with confrontations and crises almost without respite. The instability which is a theme of Jacob’s life is given concrete expression when he is injured during his bout with the angel and must limp onward.
It is tempting to do some amateur psychologizing and to see Jacob’s uncertainty about his place in the world as the source of his building mania. The man who lacks a permanent home tries to control his world through construction. There are two principle structures that Jacob favors – the matzeivah(מצבה), a monument or pillar, which comes from the Hebrew root י.צ.ב., meaning stability, and the מזבח (mizbeiach), the altar. Jacob begins his building career when he leaves Israel because of his fear of Esau’s anger and sets up a pillar at the place where he had his famous dream (not coincidentally, about a ladder מוצב ארצה, firmly established on the ground).
The altars that Jacob built fit into an existing pattern. In the ancient world, the altar would have been known as a place of sacrifice, even if the god to whom the altar was dedicated might vary. An altar was well-known symbol of religion and religious ritual. In contrast, the purpose of a matzeivah is much more ambiguous. Consider a few of those built by Jacob: the monument at Beth El, which marks a holy place that Jacob hadn’t recognized and the promise made to him by God. The monument at Gal-Ed, when he parts from Laban, which seems to mark a treaty and boundary point between Jacob and his father-in-law. And the monument at Rachel’s burial site, which marks a personal tragedy, and is the first grave marker we hear about in the Bible.
From these different uses it becomes clear that the matzeivah is an inherently ambiguous form, one that’s capable of taking on a variety of different meetings. Those meanings are dependent on the people directly involved to understand. A traveler who, following Jacob’s route, came to Beth El and the monument Jacob built there, and then to Gal-Ed to the monument there, and then to the roadside monument marking Rachel’s tomb, would have no way of discerning the purpose of each of these structures. If a need for stability drove Jacob, why did he rely upon matzeivot, whose meaning could so easily be lost or misconstrued?
I believe the matzeivot – unique to Jacob among the patriarchs – carry an important message for us in our own religious lives. Abraham and Isaac both dug wells, which symbolize both the universal human need for spiritual life, and an effort to try to slake that thirst. Control of these wells was a source of friction between them and their neighbors. All of the patriarchs built altars, which as we noted were well-known markers of religious ritual. Jacob’s monuments, in contrast, represent unique events in Jacob’s life. They do not reflect universal human experience but instead allowed Jacob to memorialize the significant events of his life.
The wells and altars of the patriarchs represent formal religion. But the monuments, the matzeivot, established by Jacob are more personal. They represent the triumphs and the setbacks that we will inevitably face as humans on a religious journey. Jacob was not embarrassed by the personal nature of these monuments, and he did not see a need to either explain them or defend their creation. An authentic Jewish life acknowledges its commitment to ritual and to religion, but makes space, as Jacob did, for the personal moments that define each human’s experience. They may not be universally accessible, but their importance to us is often decisive. Jacob’s journey should lead us to respect our own need and the need of those around us for an approach to religion that addresses not only communal needs, but also allows us to express our individuality and our journey without self-consciousness.