But if he is materially empty-handed, he has ample spiritual provisions. Isaac has given his son a parent's blessing, which in those days was not just a bunch of words or pious, wishful thinking. It is a heavy gift, like acres of land or crowned jewels passed from one generation to another or a secret and powerful wisdom. Isaac gives Jacob the blessing God had given Abraham, which Abraham had passed on to Isaac. Such a blessing is not Jacob's to keep, but to pass on, and in doing so, he keeps the spirit of the gift of this blessing animated. It is a blessing of fruitfulness, of a large family, of a land to inherit and call home.
Accompanied by this blessing, Jacob sets out, going from Beersheva toward Haran. He gets to this place--he "lights" upon it, in one translation, because there is not enough light: The sun is setting and it is getting dark. It is hard for us to imagine a world in which the sun's setting stops us in our tracks. In the remaining light, Jacob selects one of the "stones of the place" and takes it, putting it under his head to serve as a kind of a pillow.
In this place, Jacob encounters God. Just the night before, the place was just anyplace. Just the night before, the stones were any stones. Now it is a place of witness, a place that when encountered again will always be a reminder of divine encounter.
Upon awakening, Jacob takes the very stone which he had transformed into a pillow, and by turning it some or by setting it upright, he transforms it once again. Now it is a pillar, a marker, a holder of sacred memory. Transforming it further, he pours oil on it. Oil is, for Jacob, a potent substance; to give it away is to give a libation. It also stains the stone, marking it. And thus the oil honors and tells a story.
The transforming does not end: With a gesture that is not even physical--no selecting, turning, or oiling--Jacob makes the most enduring and radical transformation possible. He gives the stone in this place a name, calling this place Beth El.
Now he can make his own pact with God: If things go well for me, if I find a wife and return home safely, you will be my God and this former stone and former pillar will forever be "God's House."
I like the idea that a stone becomes a pillow that becomes a marker that becomes God's house. I like the idea that with simple skills--selecting, moving, honoring, and naming--we can transform bits of our own worlds, creating the light that illuminates God's House, stone by stone, gesture by gesture.