Detail from "Jacob and Rachel at the Well" by James Tissot, ca. 1900
Detail from "Jacob and Rachel at the Well" by James Tissot, ca. 1900

How to change your reality from ‘no way’ to ‘I can do this’

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Genesis 28:10–32:3

An art dealer in Paris bought a painting bearing Picasso’s signature and wanted to have the painting authenticated by the master himself. So he brought it to him. Picasso took one look and immediately said, “It’s a fake.”

Two years later, the same art dealer acquired another signed painting. Once again, he showed it to the artist, and once again Picasso declared, “It’s a fake.”

But this time the dealer protested passionately. “How could you say that? I myself was present when you painted this canvas. With my own eyes I saw you do it!”

Picasso shrugged and said, “I often paint fakes.”

Don’t we all? How often do we “paint fakes” because we don’t bring our best to the task at hand? Living is an art, but all too often we bring only a portion of ourselves to our family, our spouse, our children, our Jewishness. We are fractional and half-hearted painters, not using the full palette of our paints and talents.

We can become so much more, aspire to so much more. We have room for growth in every direction. This reality is beautifully illustrated in a curious incident in the Book of Genesis.

The patriarch Jacob arrives in a village and sees the local shepherds standing around a well with their sheep. A large stone is on top of the well to keep the water clean and to restrict its use.

When Jacob notices the shepherds lingering in the hot sun, he is perplexed. Their garments stick to their skin with perspiration, and yet not a single one of them seems to be taking a drink from the well.

“Why don’t you remove the stone and drink? Refresh yourselves. Refresh your flocks. You will all feel better.”

They answer him: “You’re right. We’re thirsty, our sheep are thirsty and some cold water would taste wonderful. But lo nuchal We can’t move the rock, it’s impossible. It is too heavy for one or two men to roll off. We have to wait until all the shepherds have arrived and together, we will move it. The task is too big for just us.”

Then Jacob steps forward and single-handedly rolls the stone off the well and invites the shepherds to drink and water their sheep. We can practically picture the other shepherds gaping at him in astonishment and disbelief. How did one man manage such a feat, they must be asking themselves.

That’s the story. It’s simple. But what is the Torah trying to tell us? That Jacob is strong, the shepherds weak? What is the lesson? Is it simply a feat of physical strength, a remarkable display of weightlifting?

No. The well, the midrash tells us, was not simply a well. It symbolized the source of a person’s talents and innate abilities. And the stone was also not just a stone.

The stone represents all the things that block our access to those innate capabilities: the stone of bad habits; the stone of laziness; the stone of selfishness; the stone of obstinacy; the stone of all the difficulties that we encounter in life. Our challenge, says the midrash, is to do what Jacob did and summon all of our strength and remove those stones that block the well. (Genesis Rabbah 70:8. See also Likutei Torah, Va’etchanan)

And if each of us is brimming with a wealth of talent and capability, then why do many of us never express it? Why do we have it, but rarely see it?

The answer is that everything depends on our attitude. It is our attitude to the stone of difficulty that determines whether we will be able to roll it away like Jacob, or find it impossibly heavy to lift, like the shepherds.

But why indeed, could Jacob roll the stone off the well? And, why couldn’t the shepherds?

The reason the shepherds couldn’t roll the stone away was that they were convinced they couldn’t do it. It was heavy in their minds. Listen once again to the Bible’s words. Jacob says to the shepherds, “Why are you standing around in the hot sun? There is water right in front of you.” They answer him, “lo nuchal” — We can’t move the stone. It’s impossible!”

When we think that a particular task is impossible, then for us it truly becomes impossible. How we think shapes our reality.

Jacob didn’t consider moving the rock to be impossible. Because he believed that it was possible, it became possible.

When we face the stone that blocks our well — the difficulties that hold us back from doing those constructive things we want to do, from being the parent we want to be, the human being, the Jew we want to be — if we imagine that the stone is immovable, it will stay there forever. In fact, if we believe it to be immovable, we will almost certainly not try to move it.

But if we believe it can be rolled away, it will be.

Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Rabbi Dov Greenberg leads Stanford Chabad and lectures across the world.