Rock Of Ages


There is an old story, a kind of midrash, in which the wanderings of the Jewish people are compared to the journey of a stone. Brought back to life by the mysterious modern commentator known as the Draschba, this story begins with the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, which we read during Rosh HaShanah. In the Draschba’s telling, the rock on which Abraham attempted to sacrifice Isaac was split open when the ram was substituted for the man. Those flints, impregnated with the joy of life affirmed, floated downstream into human history, distributed randomly in every direction, bubbling to the surface every time a text is split open, and its holy power ignited and revealed.

It’s a wonder that few have thought to look at the meta-history of the Jews through the rocks into which they have poured their hope, tears, and wrath. As the Draschba explained about the Psalm’s incantation of God as “rock and redeemer”: “God is always both rock and redeemer, as sturdy and foundational as stone, and as hopeful and elusive as redemption. God can never be just one or the other.”

And so throughout the Bible the Journey is interpreted as an ongoing encounter with inanimate rock, transmuted into meaning, and then shattered again before it can be ossified into idol.

What are the stops on this journey?

After Abraham split the primal sacrificial rock, a fragment found its way to Beth El, where Jacob laid his head and dreamed of angels on a ladder. “This is none other than the house of God,” he imagined, “and this is the gate of heaven!”

This rock, melted by Jacob’s struggle to become Israel, became the sands of the Red Sea crossed by the Israelites. And these sands, combined with the golden rocks taken from the Egyptians, cohered again in the Golden Calf. Moses, upon seeing this, smashed the ten commandments into a million pieces. Traditional commentators say that the remains of these first tables were placed in the Ark with the second set.

But the Draschba suggests that infinitesimal shards of these stones covered the Sinai in dust, and the 40-year journey of the Jews through the desert was an attempt to touch, with their bare feet, every last grain of these words. How did they know where to walk? They followed the pillars of fire, true, but according to the Draschba their compass was the “magnet of the broken tablets, pointing out to the people the iron filings strewn throughout their journey, a project which took an entire generation.”

There are many other canonical rocks which burst forth into redemption: The stone which Moses hit, redeeming a parched people with water; Mount Sinai itself, which the Talmud suggests floated into the sky to protect the people from harm; the stone temples of Jerusalem, which toggled back and forth between edifice and dream.

The Draschba, a kabbalist, goes even further back, seeing the breaking of God’s primordial vessels into shards of glass as a model for the diaspora of rock and sand that has formed the spiritual highway of the Jewish people.

What are the rocks’ lessons for us, living in a world that sometimes seems like a field of boulders?

The Draschba, who some say was also a sculptor, explained that “Just as humans are enjoined, kabbalistically speaking, to find God’s scattered sparks strewn throughout the dross of the world, we are asked to see each object in the world as a work of beauty waiting to be revealed, and each person as a holy piece of marble in the process of being revealed.”

The Draschba puts it yet another way: “God commands us: Remember! (Zachor!). The rabbis wondered at the connection between remember and re-member, seeing spiritual forgetfulness as a kind of dis-memberment, and the journey of remembrance like the ingathering of sands back into the original rock.”

It is told of a ritual practiced by Jews who still live in the desert, sleep in the open and rest on stone pillows during the month of Elul: As Rosh HaShanah approaches these desert Jews to the rocks as if to people, laying their children on the cool, rough surface, remembering how Abraham turned pagan sacrifice into metaphor; how Jacob turned hardship into story; how Moses turned a mountain into mindfulness.

Dan Schifrin is producer and moderator of “Ideas of Late,” a new conversation series at the Jewish Federation of the East Bay in Berkeley, Calif.