Keystones of the World
By Devorah Reich

From the Even Shesiyah to the Jewish Temple walls: An unusual, absorbing Torah study of the role that stones have played in our Jewish destiny.

Buy Keystones of the World by Devorah Reich at a special online price at www.targum.com

The Stone of Israel

Yaakov Avinu was old. He had reached the age of 147 and for seventeen years had been living amid the physical comforts of Egypt. He had been reunited with his favorite son, Yosef, and now, on his deathbed, summoned him and his other sons, as it is written, “Gather together and listen, sons of Yaakov; and listen to Israel your father” (Bereishis 49:2). Then he blessed each of them. The following verse is part of Yaakov’s blessing to Yosef:
His bow was strongly established, and the arms of his hands were made golden by the hands of the Mighty One of Yaakov; from there he became the sustainer of the stone of Israel. (Bereishis 49:24)

The phrase “the stone of Israel” is somewhat enigmatic. Was Yaakov referring to himself? To Yosef? The commentators shed light on Yaakov’s words.

Yaakov and His Family

To place the phrase in its setting, we will begin with an interpretation that explains the meaning of the whole verse.

“His bow” is a symbol of power. Yosef’s position as viceroy of Egypt was firmly established and in no danger of being undermined. “His hands were made golden” when the king presented his signet ring to Yosef. But what caused Yosef to shoot to power? Who engineered this amazing chain of events? The Almighty, the God of Yaakov. And “from there” through his position as viceroy, Yosef sustained and supported the “stone of Israel,” Yaakov. As the founder of the tribes of Israel, Yaakov is given this title.

A number of commentators state that the “stone of Israel” refers not just to Yaakov, but to his sons as well. According to one view, even, stone, is an abbreviation of av and ben, father and son, for Yosef sustained both his father and his brothers.

In a similar vein, another commentator explains that the word even means av, father, and denotes both the father Yaakov and his family.

“The sustainer” has a double significance. It was God, Who nourished Yaakov and his family by promoting Yosef to the position of viceroy. Furthermore, it was Yosef, who tended to the needs of his father and brothers.

An alternative interpretation of the entire verse (and the preceding one) is as follows: At a certain period in his youth, Yosef’s brothers embittered his life and hated him. But he remained strong, and “his arms” didn’t weaken because he listened to God. He was the powerful son of Yaakov, so it was he who supported his family.

The infant nation of Israel was then like an inanimate stone, states another commentator. Apart from Yosef, none of the brothers had any experience of trade. Naturally it fell to him to provide for his family and succor “the stone, Israel.”

Yosef

The Talmud relates that when Yosef was tempted to sin with Potifar’s wife the image of his father appeared to him in the window. Yaakov said to his son, “Yosef! In the future your name and those of your brothers will be engraved on the stones of the eifod (one of the kohen gadol’s vestments). Do you want yours to be blotted out? Do you want to be described as ‘one who associates with immoral women’ (Mishlei 29:3)?”

Upon hearing these words, Yosef conquered his evil inclination. Thus it was “the might of Yaakov” that caused Yosef’s name to be engraved on the stone of the eifod. And “from there he became a shepherd, a stone of Israel.” (This interpretation renders the word ro'eh as “shepherd” rather than “sustainer.”) Since he remained righteous, he was deemed worthy of being a shepherd for his people.

One commentator focuses on the word misham: “from there he became the sustainer, the stone of Israel.” Sham, there, is connected to the word shemama, desolation and emptiness. From being desolate and despondent, Yosef became a “sustainer” whose wisdom nurtured the people of Egypt. But it was not only the Egyptians who benefited from his presence. It was Yosef’s privilege to be the stone of Israel. Just as a cornerstone maintains the two adjoining walls, so he supported his father and his entire family.

Alternatively, sham is a rare singular form of shamayim, the heavens. At the very highest celestial level, it was arranged that Yosef would sustain his family in particular and the country in general. He thus attained the title of “the stone of Israel.”

The Jewish People

Setting this phrase in a broader context, several commentators conclude that “the stone” refers to the Jewish people.

The Sages of the Talmud say that knesses Yisrael, the assembly of Israel, represents the even haroshah, the keystone of the universe. “The stone, Israel,” therefore, denotes the object that completes the structure of the world.

In Midrashic literature, there are many allusions to stones that are symbolic of the Jewish nation.

In Koheles we read, “To everything there is a season...a time to gather stones together” (Koheles 3:1, 5). A midrash explains that this verse refers to two major events in Jewish history. The first is the splitting of the Red Sea. In the words of King David, “He caused Israel to pass through its [the Red Sea’s] midst” (Tehillim 136:14). In this instance, the Jewish people, symbolized by stones, were gathered to safety by dint of an open miracle.

The second occasion referred to in Koheles is mattan Torah, the giving of the Torah, when the people assembled around Mount Sinai in accordance with God’s instructions.

The Midrash Rabbah quotes a verse from Mishlei: “A stone is heavy and the sand weighty” (Mishlei 27:3). God says: “I have honored Israel who is called a stone,” as it is written, even Yisrael, “the stone, Israel.” Since the world was created for the sake of the Jewish people, they are compared to the foundation stone and the cornerstone and are honored accordingly by God.

A different midrash states that the gentile nations are compared to pottery. It is written, “When you come to the land, which Hashem your God gives you, you shall not learn to do like the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire” (Devarim 18:9–10). Since the gentiles were in the habit of killing their children in this manner, they are likened to pottery, which also passes through fire.

Yaakov, however, is called a “stone.” The Midrash illustrates the relationship between the Jews and the gentiles with the following analogy: if a pot falls on a rock, it is the pot that shatters. Likewise, when the gentiles attack the Jewish people, it is the former who will truly suffer.

Finally, a beautiful interpretation of the whole phrase, misham ro'eh even Yisrael (“From there he became the sustainer of the stone of Israel”). This commentator gives an interesting translation of the word roeh: to immerse oneself in deep thought over a period of time (connecting roeh to the word raayon, thought). When the Jewish people are in exile, they are similar to dust, as it is written, “Your children shall be like the dust of the earth” (Bereishis 28:14). The gentiles are compared to water, as it says, “Ah, the uproar of many peoples...and the rushing of nations that rush like the rushing of mighty waters!” (Yeshayahu 17:12). The powerful waters flow onto the specks of dust, dissolving them until they are completely lost. But when the particles coalesce and form a solid stone, even a torrent of water cannot destroy it.

The exiled Jewish people hold their fate in their own hands. If diverse opinions truly divide, every individual is as a speck of dust, vulnerable to attack by hostile enemies. But if they bond together and become “the stone, Israel,” no force can harm them.

“The might of Yaakov” represents the kindness and love of peace that were an integral part of Yaakov, qualities he bequeathed to Yosef. The verse continues, misham roeh even Yisrael. It is this trait, this desire to bestow kindness, that bears important consequences. Yosef in particular, and the Jewish people in general, will think deeply about how to unite our nation and bring about the emergence of “the stone, Israel.”

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