A sermon in memory of my father Paul Janes, whose first Yarzheit (in the Hebrew calendar) was this week.
We made it to Penarth whilst on holiday. It was a moment of peace after the turmoil of the first half of 2020. I had been to university in Cardiff and very occasionally we would venture up to Penarth for an icecream in one of the cars that were, in those days, as rare for students as mobile phones. Sitting on the beach with family we breathed in the cool damp air – we were in Wales in the summer after all! We learnt to skim stones – sort of. The simple life for me – looking for small flat pebbles to launch into the water. It reminded me of long summer holidays with my father teaching me how to do the same. And then, as stomachs rumbled, we headed for the pier and chips and ice cream all round. But, I’m sure you’re the same, before we left the beach came the inevitable moment of choosing a pebble to take home. I reckon we could create a feature in the garden if we had actually kept all the stones we’ve taken from beaches and river banks on family holidays. Something about them has a permanent allure and captures our curiosity. The smooth feel and the changing colours, perhaps that they’ve been on the beach for so long or washed up in the last tide. A simple stone – that’s all you need really for children for chanukah, I’ll send you the video when my kids unwrap 8 nights of left over gravel from the base of the shed I laid in the autumn.
The stone that the builders refuse
Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time to throw away stones and a time to gather stones. (Ecclesiastes 3:5). We gather stones and skim stones with abandon when we visit the pebble beach. But in the mind of the rabbinic commentators stones are metaphors and Ecclesiastes says we will be gathered from exile according to Rashi in the 11th century. In an exegesis on the book of Esther, Israel is likened to a stone, even when the stone in question seems to be referring to a physical building like in our psalm for Hallel (Psalm 118:22) and immortalised in the words of Bob Marley, “The stone that the builders refuse, will be the chief cornerstone.” But then Jesus popularised this verse – his metaphor of the wicked tenants (in Matthew 21:33-46 and Mark 12:1-12 and Luke 20:9-19) essentially asserts that Jesus is the rejected stone but will become the main cornerstone. You may be interested to know that the reference made to a stone smashing what it strikes or whatever falls on it in the Gospels is almost identical to the exegesis in the midrash on Esther (Esther Rabbah 7:10). The restoration of the rejected stone is a metaphor for our redemption. For Bob Marley perhaps it was a personal rejection or the voice of the underdog that will eventually lead to triumph.
Tablets of Stone
Almost certainly parallel to other ancient near eastern practices, the tablets of stone with their inscription of the commandments are a permanent testimony (Deuteronomy 5:19). Or as permanent as the biblical authors can imagine. With good reason really – the Rosetta Stone was preserved pretty well and the various Steles of the ancient near east give us some of the most incredible insights into a largely unknowable history. The code of Hammurabi, from the 18th century BCE, with so many connections to our laws in the Torah, is preserved in 2.25 metre stone engraved with the words. The permanence of God’s word, or of the word of the law, became signified by the stone carving of the commandments.
Something in stone is permanent
We know that stones are worn down and degrade, they may have been the hardest thing available to the people of the ancient near east, but the pebbles on the beach are smooth because they have been rubbed smooth, their sharp edges have been ground away to dust. Running our fingers over the pebbles, choosing to skim or to put at the bottom of mum’s rucksack to be cleared out at home, we are feeling the contours of time, the water and the other stones have collided with each other. But stones are the closest thing we can get to something physically permanent that we can hold. Some suggest that is the reason we place a stone on the grave. It stays as a sign that we visited, a sign that will not fade like flowers and grass that withers and dies (Psalm 103:15-16) and the stone is symbolic of God’s presence – the Rock of Israel (Deuteronomy (32:4) – the Rock whose deeds are perfect.
He took of the stones that he placed under his head
Jacob understood this well when he took the stones from his pillow upon which he rested his head upon when he had his dream. Setting them up after realising ‘Surely God is in the place and I did not know it. How awesome is this place, this is the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.’ (Genesis 28:16-17) Jacob creates a stele to mark the moment and the place. When I was just a young rabbinic student living in Israel my first ever davar Torah on this moment described the putting up of stones like this as anchors and signposts in our lives. The places we can come back to, that steady us on our life’s journey. Living in Jerusalem at the time it was even more appropriate, the suggestion in the tradition is the ‘place’ in which Jacob found himself was the same ‘place’ that Abraham bound Isaac (Mount Moriah – Jerusalem) that would become the place for the dwelling of Hamakom ‘The Place’ God. (Genesis Rabbah 68:9).
Now stones will feature strongly in the life of Jacob – because from this spiritual moment of permanence and rootedness we swiftly move to a different stone. In a moment of inflamed passion Jacob is able to singlehandedly roll away the heavy stone from atop the well to water the flocks (Genesis 29:10), when he has seen Rachel in whom he eventually falls in love. But back for a moment to the word in Genesis for the pillar he sets up – it denotes something that is ‘upstanding’, like God stood over the ladder in the dream (Genesis 28:13). It is a matzevah (Genesis 28:22). The same word we use for a tombstone today. In fact, remember I said Jacob and stones are recuring features? It is in the story of Jacob that we read of the first and perhaps only tombstone being erected in the Bible for an individual and it is for his beloved Rachel (Genesis 35:20). Jacob does what we now do – he marks the place of burial with a stone, a permanent reminder of the life of Rachel on their journey as a family, after giving birth to Benjamin, on the road to Beit Lechem (Bethlehem).
The righteous need no memorials
This moment of erecting a matzevah, a tombstone for Rachel has its own discussion in the midrash (Genesis Rabbah 82:10) which is based on a comment by Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel recorded in the Yerushalmi Talmud Shekalim 2:5. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says, “The righteous need no monuments, their words are their memorials.” The gravestone is a marker, perhaps a way to record the existence of someone who has died whose family or deeds are lost in time. But they are not the memorial of the person who has died. Jacob’s actions really tell us that. The stones are markers, they are way-points in the journey of life, the things that help steady our journey to help us avoid losing our way. A way of fixing our wonder at the world, of bringing the sense of the ineffable into the otherwise mundane passage of time. But even that which is engraved can become faded and worn like a pebble on the sea shore. What remains then are the actions and the love we gave into the world, the changes we made and the impact on those we love around us. Let us set up our own steles, let us notice the gates of heaven and the dwelling places of God. And then let us go on to build memorials in our deeds and in our words for the world in which we live.