If you’ve ever been to the circus, you’ll notice that the large, hulking elephant is kept in place by a simple chain tied to a peg in the ground. This is quite astounding: how can a giant animal, capable of ripping full trees out of the ground, be tethered in place with just a little peg?

When the elephant is a baby, it is chained to a similar peg, and at such a young age before physically developing, it is sufficient to keep it in place. Whenever the young elephant tries to break out, the chain cuts into the flesh and hurts the baby, recording in the animal’s brain that it is painful and impossible to get out.

And so, even months or years later, the elephant remains stuck in that way of thinking, despite the fact that it could easily rip the whole thing out of the ground with just a small kick.

Many of us fall into this same trap.

Jacob the Superman?

After managing to secure the blessings intended for his brother Esav, Jacob was forced to flee his home and travel to distant Charan, to his Uncle Laban. Our parshah begins by recounting Jacob’s famous dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. The next part of the story tells of Jacob’s arrival in Charan, and how he eventually met Rachel—his cousin and future wife.

The first episode of that chapter is the moment when Jacob arrives in Charan and even before meeting Rachel, he chances upon a well, surrounded by idling shepherds. Jacob is puzzled by their inaction, so he asks them: What are you guys waiting for? Why don’t you give your sheep some water and continue grazing them?

“We cannot [do that],” explain the shepherds, “until all the flocks are gathered together, and they will roll the rock off the mouth of the well, and we shall [then] water the sheep.”1

Jacob doesn’t buy it, and just as Rachel shows up with her flock, he dramatically steps up and rolls the boulder off of the well, as easily “as one removes the cork from a bottle.”2

It makes for a dramatic story, and it’s certainly a great way to make a first impression on your date, but when you think about it, the whole exchange is quite odd. Was Jacob simply showboating here? It’s difficult to accept that someone of Jacob’s caliber would be trying to one-up these poor shepherds who didn’t possess the supernatural strength he did. So what was he trying to prove? If he simply wanted to help out, he could’ve seen the obvious obstruction, quietly removed it, and called it a day. Why go through the whole dialogue just to prove his strength?

Who Said?

Jacob wasn’t showboating. Quite the opposite. He was trying to teach those shepherds an invaluable life lesson: Just because everyone says “You can’t move the stone!” doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t move the stone.

Take another look at the story. What are the first words out of the shepherds’ mouths? “We cannot do that.”

Jacob was trying to tell them, “Who said you can’t? Did you try? And even if you tried yesterday and it didn’t work yesterday, does that mean you can’t do it today?”

Jacob was a visitor with a fresh perspective, able to challenge the status quo and ask: Who said? You’re so used to repeating that over and over again, you have all accepted it as truth. But maybe it isn’t? Maybe you can move the rock, if you only tried?

To demonstrate his point, Jacob stood up to the task and rolled it right off. We need not suggest that he possessed Herculean strength. Rather, he possessed a different kind of strength: the strength to buck conventional thinking.

Beware of Stale Thinking

Don’t be like the elephant. Her baby brain told her that she wasn’t able to break out of the weak chain, and that’s where she got stuck. She’s stuck in the past, convinced of the voices that scream, “You can’t!”

Don’t be like the elephant.

Be like Jacob. When someone tells you, “You can’t. The stone is too heavy, and you’ll never be able to roll it off,” don’t listen to them. When you sing that song to yourself, don’t listen either. Be like Jacob and say, “Who said? Watch me—I will!”

And just like that, you can.

Now, of course, I’m not suggesting that you should convince yourself that you can sprout wings and turn into Marvel’s next superhero. What I am suggesting is that there’s definitely one or two items in your perennial “can’t do” or “that’s just the way it is” folder that really don’t belong there.

“I can’t go to shul every Shabbat. It’s just not who I am. I never have, and I never will.” Who said that? If you’ve ever said that, well, think again. Be like Jacob and roll that stone off your heart/soul.

“I’m not going to ever stop losing my cool with my spouse, or children, or both. That’s what I’ve done this year, last year, and the year before that, all the way back to my great-grandparents with their children. That stone isn’t rolling anywhere!” Maybe. It sounds convincing enough, but the good news is—it’s simply not true. You can roll that boulder off your resume right here and now if you decide to.

Will it be hard? Of course. Will the stone pop off your inner well like a cork out of a bottle, much like Jacob was able to do? It’s impossible to know if you don’t try it. It may be a drop harder, or even much harder. But if you emphatically declare that just because the whole world—including yourself!—says “you can’t!” doesn’t mean you truly can’t, then Jacob’s promise to you is that “You can!”3