Vayishlach: Keeping Things Whole

In this week’s parsha, Jacob is described as being shalem, a term that is often translated as “whole” and connotes peace, completion, and perfection: “And Jacob arrived shalem to Shechem” (Gen. 33:18). This verse appears after an account of the patriarch’s mounting anxiety as he anticipates encountering Esau and the surprising anticlimax that follows. Jacob, after sending abundant gifts of cattle to appease his brother and praying to God for deliverance, resorts to the desperate measure of dividing his family into two camps, in the hope that if Esau were to attack, he would lose only half his family. To his surprise, however, he finds himself struggling not with Esau but with a mysterious figure who approaches him in the darkness while he waits alone on a river bank. Somehow Jacob succeeds in fighting off the unnamed aggressor and concludes that he has seen “Peniel” – the face of God. Even more surprising, when Esau finally makes his appearance, he kisses and embraces Jacob, and the brothers part in peace. Having successfully navigated these two encounters – one with an angel who acts like an aggressor, and one with an aggressor who acts like an angel – Jacob arrives at Shechem in a state of perfect, complete, and peaceful wholeness.

The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) interprets this type of wholeness as having three components: It refers to Jacob’s body, his finances, and his Torah study. In spite of his limp, and in spite of his generous gifts to his brother, and in spite of the fact that he has just spent twenty years working as a shepherd for his uncle, Jacob nonetheless arrives at Shechem feeling content physically, financially, and intellectually. It seems that this sense of wholeness is related less to objective circumstances and more to the way that Jacob feels about himself following the challenges he has managed to overcome. The Torah goes on to relate that Jacob, upon his arrival in Shechem, “encamped before the city” (Gen. 33:18). The word for “encamped,” va-yichan, comes from the same root as chen, meaning “grace.” The rabbis explain that Jacob graced the city by acting as benefactor, furnishing it with new coins, marketplaces and bathhouses. Jacob arrives in Shechem feeling so whole and complete that he is able to give of himself freely and generously.

The Talmudic discussion of Jacob’s arrival in Shechem appears in the context of the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi) a first-century sage who spent thirteen years hidden in a cave studying Torah with his son to escape Roman persecution. When Rashbi emerges from the cave, it is after years of subsisting on only the carobs and water miraculously provided by God. His skin is so flayed that his son-in-law immediately takes him to a bathhouse to tend his wounds. Presumably he has no material possessions to speak of, having just spent his life cut off from human society. But as he assures his son-in-law, his years of privation have been worthwhile, since he has attained prominence in Torah. He declares, “Since a miracle has been performed for me, I will go and fix something.”

It is at this point that the Talmud references Jacob’s sense of wholeness, noting that Jacob, too, made a contribution to the city where he had newly arrived. The juxtaposition of the stories of Jacob and Rashbi allows for one story to illuminate and fill in the gaps in the other. Rashbi believed that a miracle had been performed for him, and presumably Jacob did as well, having just been spared a potentially violent and devastating clash with his brother. Jacob assured Esau that “God has favored me and I have plenty” (Gen. 33:11), just as Rashbi assured his son-in-law that he did not mind his wounds because they were a testament to his single-minded devotion to Torah. Both men found themselves at a place in life where they felt safe, secure, satisfied with their accomplishments, and ready to give to the world around them.

When Jacob and Rashbi reach that place of wholeness, they do not rest or retire; they immediately look around them to see what needs repair. Rashi, commenting on “vayeshev Yaakov”—”and Jacob settled” (Gen. 37:1)—explains that Jacob wanted to settle down in tranquility at the beginning of next week’s parsha, but God said to him that righteous people do not merit to settle in tranquility in this world. They must always be rushing around to make the world better. It is only by moving that they remain whole, complete and shalem, as American poet Mark Strand captures so beautifully:

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

When we feel whole, we are able to keep other things whole. After Jacob’s intense introspection and Rashbi’s extended isolation, both men reached a point in life where they were able to turn their focus outward and share their gifts with the world. Indeed, perhaps their greatest gift is the worthy example they set for all of us.

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