He arrived at the place and lodged there, because the sun had set, and he took some of the stones of the place and placed [them] at his head, and he lay down in that place. (Genesis 28:11)

Jacob called for his sons and said, “Gather, and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days. Gather and listen, sons of Jacob, and listen to Israel, your father.” (Genesis 49:1–2)

The twelve individuals became one unified soul

When Jacob left Beersheba for Haran, he stopped along the way to spend the night in a deserted place which would one day be the site of the Holy Temple. Gathering twelve stones together, he placed them under and around where he would lie down. As he laid his head down, the twelve stones fused to become one stone.

Years later in Egypt, when Jacob was about to die, he called his twelve sons to his side. They gathered around him, and the twelve individuals became one unified soul. They said the Shema prayer before their father Jacob, thus reassuring him that the principles of serving G‑d and recognizing His absolute Oneness would be lived and taught by them as well. One family, with one heart and one soul.

When Jacob gathered those twelve stones together on the way to Haran, it was with the intent of binding him to the twelve sons he would yet have. Indeed, the Hebrew word even (“stone”) is a composite of the words av (“father”) and ben (“son”), so that in the very word for “stone” we have a binding together of father and son. By divine intent, the twelve stones fused: they would always be bound not only to him, their common root, but also to one another.

The oneness of the People of Israel, we are taught, is a reflection of the Oneness of the Creator. In our daily prayers, we take on the mitzvah of ahavat Yisrael (love of a fellow Jew like the love for one’s self) before we say Shema Yisrael, the declaration of G‑d’s unity. Several times throughout the day, we beseech G‑d to “bless all of us as one.”

What does this fusion, of rocks and of souls, really mean?

It is clear that in order to optimize our relationship with G‑d, we must optimize our relationships with one another. When the oneness below (i.e., unity among Jews) is most complete, there is an alignment which allows—even commands—blessings to pour forth. We are even taught that when our ancestors were united in idol worship, the resulting exile was less severe than what resulted from being immersed in both Torah and internal conflict—quantitatively by 1,900-plus years, and qualitatively by several Crusades, an Inquisition, the Holocaust, and tragically much more.

But how do we achieve that essential oneness? What does this fusion, of rocks and of souls, really mean? To understand what is expected of us, we need to look at the One we are expected to emulate. Chassidut explains that G‑d created the world because He wanted a dwelling place below. Maybe, like me, you’ve wondered just what sort of an advantage that could possibly be for Him.

The advantage, in short, is that when a place of so many seeming contradictions and so much diversity can recognize His Oneness, there’s something more solid and more real in that recognition than when the higher worlds praise Him. On a deeper level, G‑d’s Oneness is actually expressed by the very existence of such diversity within Creation. Our oneness as a people is meant to reflect this. His Oneness gives birth to diversity; ours is meant to stem from and support diversity. And a unity which stems from diversity is infinitely more real than a unity that rests on uniformity.

This idea can be better appreciated by looking at a detail of how the Holy Temple was constructed. There were 13 gates by which one could enter the Temple: one for each tribe, and one general gate which was permissible to all. These were not superfluous; clearly, there were advantages to using one’s own gate, and advantages to using the 13th gate. There are times when we seek G‑d as individuals, and times when we seek Him simply as Jews.

The power of the individual remained

Jacob did not take one large stone and lay it beneath him, nor did he give one blessing to all twelve sons. Instead, he gathered twelve individual stones, and he gave twelve individually tailored blessings to the twelve sons and their descendants.

In both cases there was a moment of fusion, of joining together in absolute unity. It was a oneness all the more solid because the power of the individual remained. Immediately after saying “Shema Yisrael” as one, the sons became individual souls again in order to receive their blessings—tools for their own unique paths in this world—from their father.

It’s up to us to learn how to live with both, the individual blessings and the rock-solid unity. Neither one will be true without the other.