It takes two to fight!
In an image often featured in Parshas VaYeitzei projects, Yaakov Avinu lay down to sleep with twelve small stones surrounding his head, but then awoke to find one big boulder for a pillow. Chazal have a tradition that each stone fought for the honor of supporting the tzadik’s head; when the fighting reached a deadlock, Hashem miraculously combined all the rocks into one (Rashi, B’reishis 28:11).
As children, this midrash provides a cute image to help us remember the story. However, a deeper perspective was offered by Rav Yehoshua Isaac Shapiro zt”l (d. 1873), known affectionately as “Rav Eizel Charif” for his sharp wit. As long as people are open to the idea of compromise, even the most bitter and divisive disagreements can eventually be settled. However, when all parties involved are “stonewalling,” there is no natural way to bring them together. When each side prioritizes self-interest over mutual harmony, it would take a miracle to unify hearts of stone.
Given this symbolism, we can understand why Yaakov was given this message specifically at this juncture in his life. Recall that this miracle occurred as Yaakov was on the run from his brother, Eisav, whom he had angered at the end of last week’s parshah. His mother Rivkah had instructed Yaakov to stay at Lavan’s house “until your brother’s wrath has subsided” (B’reishis 27:44). How was Yaakov supposed to gauge how Eisav was feeling while the two brothers were living so far apart?
Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein zt”l (in Tosefes B’rachah) explained that this is what Rivkah was emphasizing in the very next verse, in which she repeats, “until your brother’s rage subsides from you” (27:45). It seems almost identical to what she had just told Yaakov, but the key addition is the phrase “from you.” Rivkah was teaching Yaakov the secret to discerning how Eisav was feeling about him: Yaakov could self-examine his own resentment regarding Eisav and being forced to flee from home. Interpersonal relationships tend to be reciprocal, so the way that we feel about others reflects how they feel about us (see Mishlei 27:19). Here, when Yaakov would notice a reduction in his own frustration, it would be an indication that Eisav might be calming down, as well.
Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski zt”l elaborated that the concept of “mutual feelings” is not merely a passive window into the mind of another; it allows people to actively change the attitudes of adversaries. Grudges tend to escalate from mutual fanning of the flame; each side self-righteously clings to its virtue at the expense of infuriating the other. As soon as one party commits to making peace, it is very difficult for its opponent to continue inflaming the situation. Therefore, Rivkah was telling Yaakov to not only monitor his internal barometer, but to deliberately work toward overcoming his own anger. Treating Eisav in a conciliatory, rather than confrontational, manner would help defuse the situation. Sure enough, this is how the conflict between the two brothers was eventually resolved in next week’s parshah.
Returning to VaYeitzei, the significance and timing of Yaakov’s miraculous, rock-hard pillow is now apparent. Hashem was providing Yaakov with a visual demonstration of his mother’s lesson: As long as each brother remained stone-hearted, it would take a miracle for them to come together. Warmth and forgiveness were going to be necessary for peace.
The lesson here is clear. While we certainly have no control over the stubbornness of others, we can always choose to be the gem among the rocks. Often a stone-cold conflict can be softened as soon as one side demonstrates a willingness to reach an agreement. It takes two to fight, but it only takes one person to end the fighting and save a relationship that is “on the rocks.”