December 9, 2021 |

Plymouth Rock vs. Foundation Stone

Ah, Thanksgiving is here! Most American Jews (the Hellers included) happily and proudly celebrate this holiday, comfortable in its mostly secular origins and happy to share a mid-week day of rest and relaxation with family and friends. The origin of Thanksgiving goes back to William Bradford and the Mayflower Pilgrims, who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620. After barely surviving their first winter, they learned to sustain themselves with the help of the Wampanoag Indians, and in 1621, had a harvest celebration in gratitude. When Abraham Lincoln first established a consistent November national holiday in 1863, he envisioned it as a day that would unite Americans and make them proud of their country and its history. And so, whether we always think of it or not, Thanksgiving is marked by not only the giving of thanks to God for our bounty[1], but also a desire to be unified as Americans, to be proud of our national origins and to celebrate the present and hopeful future of our great country.

This American history parallels, in an unusual and interesting way, our Torah portion of Vayetzei. When our forefather, Ya'akov, is forced to flee from the murderous intention of his brother Esav, he has a mystical dream and encounter with God at Beit El. He takes the rock upon which he has been sleeping and makes it into a matzeva, a monument, upon which he pours oil (Gen 28:18). The purpose of the monument it twofold: Ya'akov gives thanks to God for promising him that He will protect him in his long journey and makes a vow that he will one day return to this rock and make it into a beit elohim, a house of God (28:22). According to Jewish tradition, this rock was the even ha-sh'tiya, the foundation stone, the navel of the universe. In the Beit ha-Mikdash (i.e. the house of God), this stone was placed in the Holy of Holies underneath the Ark and on this stone the Yom Kippur incense offering was placed. (Mishna Yoma 5:2)

Of course, Plymouth Rock is no even ha-sh'tiya and the founding of the American colonies cannot compare to the foundation of the Jewish people. However, like Ya'akov, the pilgrims went through their winter of discontent and, like Ya'akov, emerged with thanks to build a nation on the other side. As is our Jewish way, let's look a little closer at what Ya'akov does when he returns from Padan Aram and returns to his original monument. (Spoiler alert: we are now going to talk about NEXT week's sidra.)

After 20 years of difficult service to Lavan, Ya'akov returns to his homeland, confronts his brother at last, and arrives in the city of Sh'chem. In some ways, this is the end of his journey. He marks this fact by erecting an altar (mizbei'ach) in gratitude to God for saving him from both Lavan and Esav (Rashbam). However, this is not really the end of his journey, for he has not yet returned to Beit El, the site of his original dream. He remains in Sh'chem for a number of unhappy years (Ibn Ezra) before God FINALLY comes to him and tells him to go up to Beit El.

"And Elohim said to Ya'akov: Arise and go up to Beit El and make an altar there to God, Who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esav." (35:1)

However, when he arrives at Beit El, he actually does two things: first, he erects an altar, a mizbei'ach (after which his name is changed from Ya'akov to Yisrael) and second, he erects a monument, a matzeva (after which, Binyamin, the last of his twelve sons, is born). In other words, he does BOTH.

What is the difference between a mizbei'ach-altar, and a matzeva-monument? A monument, which is made of a single stone, represents foundations or origins. Ya'akov puts up a monument at the very beginning of his journey. Though he will have many years of hard labor to realize his dreams, the monument represents the essential relationship between him and God, the values and goals that will guide him on his way. In contrast, an altar is made up of many stones joined together and represents results, the fruit of one's labors. Ya'akov puts up an altar near the end of his journey to celebrate and give thanks for his accomplishments in raising a family and withstanding the corruption of his relatives.

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 19th c.) adds a deeper level of looking at this dichotomy. The monument, a single stone taken from the ground, represents nature, or what we receive from God. Erecting a monument is a way of giving thanks to god for those things that He has given us. Ya'akov puts up a monument at the beginning of his journey to thank God for the gifts He has bestowed up on his young servant. It is anointed with oil, primarily as a gesture of thanksgiving. An altar, made of many stones, however, represents what WE do with the gifts God has given us, and the actions we take to serve God, what we have done with our God-given talents and opportunities. Ya'akov erects the altar - upon which offerings are made - to show that he has dedicated his life to serving God.

Finally, a monument represents aloneness, individuality. When Ya'akov is alone, he erects a single stone monument. But an altar represents togetherness and community. When Ya'akov returns to the holy land with a beautiful family, he erects a multi-stone altar to celebrate the community he has founded.

Now, we can understand why Ya'akov erects BOTH an altar and a monument at the end of his journey. The altar represents his devotion to God and his accomplishments through his years of struggle outside the land. He is thankful that God has stayed with him these many years and allowed him to have a beautiful family and to have acquired the wisdom and strength to become on of our avot, our patriarchs. The monument, however, represents that this moment, too, is still the beginning of another chapter in the story. Now that the story of the Patriarchs is over, the next chapter --- the life of the 12 tribes-- is about to begin[2].

As we celebrate this Thanksgiving holiday and the Shabbat that follows it, let us give thanks for the gifts, opportunities, and challenges that God has send our way, let us celebrate our accomplishments and set goals for the future, and let us enjoy the families and Jewish communities of which we are blessed to be a part. Every day - including Thanksgiving -- is an opportunity for us to come together as Jews and to be proud of our great nation, under God, indivisible, Who remembers the kindnesses of our patriarchs and continues to bless us every day. Shabbat shalom!


[1] Interestingly the original Thanksgiving day, in 1621,may have been celebrated in September or October (historians are unsure of the date). As a harvest holiday, it would have made much more sense around the time of Sukkot, which is why we Jews have a sense that we have already had a harvest holiday of thanks to God.

[2] Rav Hirsch, interestingly, says that after the giving of the Torah, the era of monuments comes to an end. Thus, we read in Devarim 16:22, "And do not erect for yourselves a monument, which God despises." The era of Jewish beginnings comes to a close with the giving of the Torah. cf. Ibn Ezra ad loc.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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