And he arrived upon the place and lodged there all night, because the sun was set; and he took from the stones of the place, and put them under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep.
And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.
Rashi notes that, before Jacob lies down to sleep, the verse speaks of the plurality of stones: “he took from the stones of that place, and put them under his head.” When Jacob wakes up, the verse suddenly switches from plural to singular mentioning only one stone: “and took the stone that he had put under his head.” Rashi, Maharsha and other Biblical commentators state that the plurality of stones that Jacob took miraculously fused into a single stone. The Rashi’s explanation, based on the Talmud (Chullin 91b), is well known.
I would like to propose another homiletic explanation of this seeming contradiction. Stones are the coarsest form of matter. In this sense, they are emblematic of the physical matter, as opposed to spiritual, and of the nature in general. The verse in the beginning of the story speaks of many stones to hint at the apparent multiplicity found in the material world.
“How many are your works, or Lord!”
— Ps. 104:24
The head of Jacob, which rested on these stones, represents metaphorically our understanding of nature. At first, nature appears fragmented, full of diverse and disjointed phenomena.
During his sleep, God appeared to Jacob.
I am the Lord, the God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac. The land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed. And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south.
— Gen. 28:13-14
God promises Jacob that he will sire many descendants who will be “as the dust of the earth.” This is a manifestation of the one-to-many dynamic, emblematic of the creation of the world, which is the primordial manifestation of the One-to-many paradigm.
After this theophany, Jacob finds only a single stone under his head. The fusion of the stones represents the opposite dynamics of the many-to-one paradigm. It symbolizes the unification of the seemingly fragmented physical phenomena into a single reality, a transformation of our fractured understanding of the reality into a coherent vision of unity.
Many authors have pointed out that it is not coincidental that modern physics and its quest for unification originated in the West with its predominantly monotheistic religions.
The current breed of candidates for the title of a “Theory of Everything” hope to provide an encapsulation of all the laws of nature into a simple and single representation. The fact that such a unification is even sought tells us something important about our expectations regarding the Universe… Our monotheistic traditions reinforce the assumption that the Universe is at root a unity…
— John Barrow, Theories of Everything, p. 15
A single stone under the head of Jacob symbolizes our quest for the Theory of Everything—a unification of the reality. This is just one example of a more general notion that, whereas God’s creation of the world is the realization of the One-to-many paradigm, it is the Divine service of man to do the opposite—to sublimate the physicality in the return from many-to-One. This ultimate paradigm shift is the essence of the Messianic redemption.