Once upon a time there was a prince who lived in a faraway land. He was wise and peaceful, and would sit in the castle and study all day. He had an older brother who was the opposite, a loud, rough man who spent his days fighting and having adventures far from home.
One day his father the king let it be known that he had a treasure that he wished to give to the prince’s older brother. The queen thought that the wise prince should have the treasure, and helped the prince trick the king into giving it to him. When the older brother found out, he threatened to kill the prince. The prince was frightened, and fled to the kingdom where his mother had been born.
When he got there, he found a princess waiting at the well with her sheep. She explained that she needed to wait for all the shepherds to gather so that they could lift the heavy stone that covered the well. The prince singlehandedly lifted the stone from the well, allowing the princess’s sheep to drink.
The prince and the princess fell in love. But the princess’ evil father was not pleased. He made the prince work for the princess’s hand, and tried to trick him when it was time to pay the prince for his labor. The wise prince saw through the tricks, married both of the evil king’s daughters, and left a rich man.
The prince and princesses had many children who went on to found a great nation.
Does this story sound familiar? It’s the story Yaakov Avinu written as a fairy tale (with some poetic license and edited to fit into a few paragraphs). I suspect that this is the way that most people relate to the stories in Chumash when learning them as little kids. And I think that this first impression stays with them and influences the way they relate to these stories throughout their lives, especially since learning Tanach is not encouraged in yeshivas.
If these stories are perceived as fairy-tales, then they are not required to make literal sense. We don’t question the story of Jack and the Beanstalk because there is a giant (which is physically impossible) living in a castle in the sky (which is physically impossible). And we don’t question the Rashi that says that Og, who is a giant (which is physically impossible) told Avraham about Lot so that Avraham would get himself killed and Og could marry Sara (which is physically impossible).
I remember sitting in class in first grade listening to the Rebbi describing Yaakov lifting the rock off the well and thinking, “Wow, an actual person named Yaakov, a long time ago, picked up a huge rock!” I imagined the well as a stereotypical ‘wishing-well’ - a low, circular stone wall with a winch and bucket and a peaked roof. On top of the wall sat a huge, oblong gray rock which jutted out from under the roof on either side. And I imagined what it would have been like for ME to have lifted that rock from the well. Then I thought about what it must have been like for Yaakov.
This all sounds a lot more sophisticated than it was. I wasn’t engaging in mental exercises to put myself in the place of the avos. I was daydreaming. I had a vivid imagination and a tendency to see myself as the hero of the story, whether I got that story from a TV show or from the story my Rebbi was telling in class.
This particular daydream made me see Yaakov Avinu as a real person living in the real world. I think this view colored all of my religious learning from that point on. If he was a real person in the real world, then what he did and things that happened to him had to make sense in the real world. It was a long, long way from that first-grade daydream to full-blown skepticism, but in retrospect I think it was a first step and an important ingredient in my later desire for the Torah to mesh with what we know of how the world functions.