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Torn in Body, But Whole in Spirit

  • Torn in Body, But Whole in Spirit

    Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4−36:43
D'var Torah By: 

FOCAL POINT

  • . . . if I return safely [v'shalom ] to my father's house, then will the Eternal be my God. . . . (Genesis 28:21)
  • Thus Jacob, in his journey from Paddan-aram, arrived safely [shaleim] in the city of Shechem, in the land of Canaan; he made camp facing the city. (Genesis 33:18)

D'VAR TORAH

Our ancestor Jacob's departure from and return to Canaan is framed by the Hebrew root shin-lamed-mem, meaning "wholeness."

When Jacob leaves Canaan in Parashat Vayeitzei, he vows to follow God if God will return him to his father's house b'shalom, which means "in peace," "in safety," or "in wholeness." In this week's parashah, Vayishlach, we are taught that indeed, Jacob returns shaleim, "whole," to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan. The Hebrew root that means "whole" serves as bookends for Jacob's transformation from youth to mature adult.

When Jacob leaves the land, he does so in fear and terror. He has just cheated his older brother Esau out of his birthright, deceived his blind old father Isaac, and stolen the blessing meant for Esau.

Jacob, who dreamed of wealth and power as a youth, has to flee from his home because his brother Esau intends to kill him. Before Jacob can return, many years go by-hard years of work and struggle.

Jacob returns married with children, having experienced all the problems one can have in life. In his mind is that old fear: Does Esau still intend to kill him, or has Esau forgiven him?

Just before crossing into the land, Jacob wrestles with an angel and defeats him. Jacob refuses to release the angel until the angel blesses him. The angel gives Jacob a new name-Yisrael-Israel, "the God fighter," "one who struggles with God." But in the struggle, Jacob is also hurt. Torah tells us that the angel wrenches Jacob's thigh. The Hebrew text says he tears Jacob's sciatic nerve, which we know runs all the way down the lower back (Genesis 32:25-29).

Further, Torah says that Jacob is limping (Genesis 32:32). Yet it tells us that Jacob comes "whole," shaleim, into Shechem.

How can this be? He is torn in his body! Anyone who has ever had pain in the lower back-which we call sciatica-knows how much it hurts. People so afflicted say the pain is so awful that sometimes you can't even stand up straight.

Jacob no doubt enters Shechem not standing upright, but bent over, limping, painfully dragging himself along. Is this a man who is whole?

The answer seems be that Jacob is torn in his body, but whole in his spirit. Jacob is a man who has made mistakes in his life, has suffered misfortune and despair, and yet has learned to grow from the experience. Jacob is clearly not the same man who fled Canaan years before. He has wrestled with God, and God has blessed him.

In the past, Jacob was cruel to his brother. But now, when he and Esau meet, they embrace and kiss. He is forgiven, but he has also earned that forgiveness. Jacob the deceiver, the trickster, the thief makes peace with God and with the people he has hurt. Although he is torn in his body, he is shaleim, complete, whole in his spirit.

There is not one among us who can trek along a spiritual path to wholeness, to shalom, without experiencing hurt along the way. There is not one among us who can become a complete person shaleim, without a little wrestling and a little struggle, or without mistakes and errors, setbacks, and disappointments.

Becoming whole in spirit with God takes discipline. It takes devotion. It takes work. It takes faith. It even takes sacrifice. And reaching a state of wholeness with other people is not easy. To become whole with your friends, your family, and the other people around you takes love. It takes forgiveness. It takes generosity of spirit. It takes understanding. It means putting aside hatred and prejudice.

All this is far from easy. Even Jacob had to struggle. Even Jacob had to get a little hurt before he could become whole.

There is in our time a great desire to reconnect with the spiritual practices of Judaism, to rekindle inside of ourselves a spiritual connection to God and the world. Many people flock to "spiritual centers" to find easy paths to enlightenment and meaning. The story of Jacob teaches that achieving spiritual wholeness takes not only work and sacrifice, but also struggle, and even failure. It is our willingness to learn from our mistakes, to grow from our errors, and yes, even to be torn and to bear scars that brings us to a greater sense of shalom.

BY THE WAY

  • Shalom is a value within the individual person. In our complex world we are too torn between conflicting goals, values, dreams, and aspirations. Shalom is related to shelemut, meaning "wholeness." We need to set our course and live it wholly. (Rabbi Arthur Green)
  • A broken heart is a whole heart. A leaning ladder is a straight ladder. (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, quoted in Simcha Raz, Hasidic Wisdom: Sayings from the Jewish Sages [Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1998], p. 183)
  • And Jacob came shaleim (whole) to the city of Shechem:
    Rav interpreted thusly: Whole and healed in his body, financially whole, and whole and complete in his knowledge of Torah. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 33b)

YOUR GUIDE

  1. The Talmudic sage Rav interprets the meaning of shaleim quite differently than the above d'var Torah. What lesson is Rav trying to teach?
  2. Are struggle, failure, and hurt necessary for growth? How do we learn from our errors in order to achieve sh'leimut, "wholeness"?

Douglas Sagal is the rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, Westfield, New Jersey.

12/17/2005
Reference Materials: 

Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 217–237; Revised Edition, pp. 218–240;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 183–208

When do we read Vayishlach

2018, November 24
16 Kislev, 5779
2019, December 14
16 Kislev, 5780
2021, November 20
16 Kislev, 5782
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