Here in Jerusalem I live between two languages, yet I try to speak only one at a time. I cringe when I hear other Americans in Jerusalem peppering their English with select words of Hebrew: “We’re doing a total shiputz with an amazing kablan!” I aspire to access the full range of expression in whatever language I am speaking, without smuggling in words from another tongue. And yet sometimes I find myself guilty of the same shoddy linguistic border patrol, like last week, when I kept borrowing a key word from the parsha: “I’m just not shalem with this decision” or “I wish I could agree with shlemut” or “she’s just such a put-together, shalem person.”
In last week’s parshat Vayishlach it is Yaakov who is described as being shalem: “And Yaakov came shalem to Shechem” (33:18). This verse appears after the parsha’s mounting anticipation about the confrontation with Esav and the surprising anticlimax that follows. Yaakov, terrified of the impending confrontation with his estranged twin, attempts to appease Esav by sending messages of peace and bountiful gifs of he-goats, she-goats, ewes, rams, camels, colts, cowls, and bulls: “If I propitiate him with presents in advance and then face him, perhaps he will show me favor” (32:21). Quaking in his boots, Yaakov prays to God to save him from the dreaded clash with his brother: “Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike” (32:13). Worried for the welfare of his wives and children, Yaakov resorts to the desperate measure of dividing his family into two camps in the hope that if Esav were to attack, he would lose only half his numbers.
Although Yaakov is fully prepared—militarily and psychologically—to fight off his brother, Esav surprises him by coming in peace. As David Flatow points out in a d’var Torah on the Drisha Institute website, instead of the expected confrontation with Esav, Yaakov finds himself instead wrestling with a mysterious man who approaches him in the darkness when he waits alone on the far side of the river. Somehow Yaakov succeeds in fighting off this anonymous aggressor, perhaps because he was already prepared for battle (with Esav) at the moment when he met him. Flatow points out that Yaakov is the kind of person who prepares thoroughly for everything that he expects in life, and as a result, when he is confronted by the unexpected, he has the wherewithal and the reserve strength to deal with those challenges as well. According to Flatow, this is the source of the shlemut that we are told about in the first verse after the anticlimactic meeting with Esav: “And Yaakov came shalem to Shechem.” Yaakov, in a state of constant preparedness, had an inner peace and wholeness that enabled him to successfully navigate even those challenges that he least expected.
I aspire to the shlemut of Yaakov even as I recognize how sorely I lack it. I wish to be able to reach that level of ease and inner peace that enables me to confront everyone I meet with a smile and a willingness to take on whatever the situation might require of me. And yet instead I find myself answering the telephone with a sense of dread creeping into my voice: “Who is calling me now, and why are they interrupting me, and what am I going to have to do for them,” instead of “oh how lovely, an opportunity for human encounter!” Yaakov takes the time to put his life in order, and as a result, he is able to deal with anything that comes his way. He accepts that life is not always what you expect, and that sometimes it is the willingness to embrace the unexpected that enables us to glimpse Peniel, the face of God. Moreover, he engages in regular dialogue with God, which instills in him the wholeness and the sense of self-awareness that enables him to be receptive to other human beings. I can learn from this as well; all too often I find myself so caught up in my own turmoil and “issues” that I must unload them on the first person I meet, instead of greeting others with a receptiveness to their needs and concerns. Perhaps if I spent more time emptying myself out to God in prayer, I’d have more room for the needs of the other people in my life.
I still do not have a suitable English translation for shlemut, perhaps because, as David Bellos writes in Is That a Fish in Your Ear, his recently-published book on translation, “It’s an indisputable fact about languages that the sets of words that each possesses divide up the features of the world in slightly and sometimes radically different ways.” Shlemut is a combination of several English phrases: it is the sense of wholeness that allows for the inner peace and that enables us to confront the challenges at hand without being torn apart by whatever we are dreading or anticipating at any given moment. It is also a kind of maturity and a willingness to make room for others, even if we meet them unexpectedly, and even if they surprise us by being pacific rather than aggressive – or vice versa. I am blessed with many models of shlemut in my life: from my husband who never loses his cool regardless of what goes wrong; to my sister-in-law who is so comfortable in her own skin that she is able to devote her entire existence to being there for others; to my baby son who has been lying on our bed content to play with his feet and delay his breakfast for the past twenty minutes so I could type up these thoughts. Perhaps one day I will learn how to put his needs first, but that, I fear, involves a sense of shlemut that I am still working to master.
2 thoughts on “Parshat Vayishlach: Learning to be Shalem”
My name is Navina and am a member of a Progressive congregation in Wellington, New Zealand. Preparing a drashah on parashat VaYechi, I came across what you wrote about it last year…and went on to read your latest post. I look forward to visiting your blog in the future. Many thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Thank you for insights.Yakov may have been prepared to survive whatever he had to face. But he says his days were “few and bad(ra-im)”. If he was comfortable in his skin he was not comfortable with family issues of birthright,blessing,fleeing,
deceiving,being deceived and exploited,rape,brotherly hatred
famine, exile to Egypt. He was a survivor.Feeling low in the morning and better by the afternoon is a body rhythm
suited to alternating solitude with fellowship.I might start the daf-yomi