"Yaakov Came Whole"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

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"Yaakov Came Whole"

Adapted by Shaul Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish


Yaakov sent messengers before him to Esav, his brother, to the land of Se'ir, the field of Edom.  And he commanded them, saying: "So shall you say to my master, to Esav: 'I lived with Lavan, and stayed there until now.'" (Bereishit 32:4-5)


Rashi offers two possibilities as to Yaakov's intention in mentioning the time that he spent with Lavan.  The second explanation is well known: "I lived (garti) with Lavan – but observed the 613 (taryag) commandments."  This interpretation leads us to define the time that he spent with Lavan as a period of "survival."  Despite the great challenges that he experienced, and all the problems and difficulties that he had to overcome – from the exchange of Rachel for Leah to dishonest dealings in paying his wages – Yaakov never gave up, nor did his faith waver, and he continued to observe all the commandments, never forsaking the tradition of his fathers. 


The same idea appears again, later in the parasha, when we read, following Yaakov's encounter with Esav: "Yaakov came whole (shalem) to the city of Shekhem" (33:18).  Here Rashi comments: "Shalem [means] whole in body… whole in his possessions… and whole in his Torah." This interpretation once again expresses the view of Yaakov as a "survivor"; the verse describes his mettle in having managed to maintain his exemplary spiritual level despite everything that could have brought him down.


Should Yaakov indeed be viewed in this light? During all the years that followed his flight from his parents' home, did he merely maintain his spiritual level, not progressing? Prior to the encounter with Esav, the Torah records Yaakov's prayer: "For with my staff [alone] I crossed over this Jordan, and now I have become two [whole] camps" (32:11).  What a great change has taken place in Yaakov's life: from a situation in which he was a fleeing bachelor, he has acquired – within a couple of decades – a large family and much wealth.  Can his situation as a persecuted, single man, arriving at Lavan's home, be compared in any way with his situation now – "Now I have become two camps"?


Yaakov's progress is not expressed in the establishment of a family and the attainment of wealth alone.  When the Torah tells us that he came "shalem – whole – to the city of Shekhem," it seems to mean more than that he had not fallen in his spiritual level, as Rashi maintains.  There is a great difference between a person who has not fallen in his spiritual level, and a person who is shalem.  "Completeness," "wholeness," means progressing to the highest possible level, not just managing to preserve one's existing level.


When we are introduced to Yaakov at the very outset, the Torah testifies that he is a "simple [wholehearted] man dwelling in tents."  What is the meaning of this description? What seems most striking in this description is its lack of maturity and initiative.  Yaakov is 'tam' – simple – not only in the sense of "innocence," or "wholeheartedness," but also in the sense of a person who sits in his tent with no idea of how to survive in the world outside.  There is one verse that seems to describe Yaakov's personality in the clearest possible terms: when Rivka urges him to steal the blessings, she tells him – "Upon me be your curse, my son."  These words present Yaakov as someone who is unable to bear responsibility for his own actions; Rivka persuades him to steal the blessings only when she assures him that it is she who will assume responsibility.  The Yaakov who lives in Yitzchak's house is not capable of assuming responsibility, and therefore Rivka must do it for him.


During the years that have passed since then until parashat Vayishlach, Yaakov has not only studied in the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever, but has also passed through the "Beit Midrash" of Lavan and Esav.  In this Beit Midrash of the big, wide world, he learns to take responsibility for his actions and to deal with "real life" outside the tent. His marriage to Rachel forces him to deal with Lavan's deception; he earns his living through many years of hard work; he stands up to Esav's army – and emerges victorious.  The Yaakov whom we meet in our parasha is an active character, a man of initiative, who knows how to deal with the reality that unfolds around him, and to find solutions.  It is true that Yaakov observed the 613 commandments while staying in Lavan's home – itself an impressive achievement.  But this is only a small element in the huge personality change that takes place in him there.  From being a "simple man, dwelling in tents," he becomes an assertive, responsible person of initiative.


The point that seems to symbolize this more eloquently than any other is the altar that Yaakov establishes before entering the land: "He called it 'E-l Elo-hei Yisrael'" (33:20).  Rashi once again offers two interpretations of the name.  The first is that God told Yaakov, "You rule the lower worlds; I rule the upper worlds."  What a radical statement as to Yaakov's status!  This is not the fearful Yaakov whom we met at the outset. 


Rashi's second explanation is that Yaakov "coronated" God as the God of Israel.  The full significance of this act is somewhat blurred in our consciousness, perhaps because it is easy to lump together or confuse the various altars built by the forefathers (Avraham built three, Yaakov two), and to think that the purpose of all of them was the same.  It should be noted, however, that in parashat Vayera, prior to the akeda, Avraham builds an altar: "He planted a tamarisk in Be'er Sheva, and he called there on the Name of the Lord – the everlasting God" (21:33). Rashi explains: "By means of that tamarisk, God's Name was invoked over the whole world." Avraham called upon the Name of God, Who rules the entire world.  God, in Avraham's view, is the universal God Who rules and controls all of creation.  Now Yaakov's innovation is cast in clearer perspective: Yaakov emphasizes the fact that God is the God of the Nation of Israel, not only the God of the entire world.  Could there be any greater expression of initiative and assumption of responsibility on Yaakov's part than acknowledging and coronating God as his God, and not only as the universal God?


We should not underestimate Yaakov's achievement in emerging from Lavan's and Esav's school of hard knocks with his spirituality intact.  But we must also take into account the full and complete change that he has undergone – from a "simple man dwelling in tents" to the leader of a nation, the patriarch of a great family and a formidable camp, with a unique claim to God and a special relationship with Him.  Yaakov teaches us that even in difficult situations, and even during the darkest times, a person should not fear.  Even in the darkest times and places – and perhaps specifically then – a person may reach the loftiest heights.  Yaakov's message is not only that a person is able to face challenges and crises and retain his spiritual level, as Rashi explains, but that via those crises he may attain the pinnacle of human completeness and wholeness.  It is precisely by means of those challenges that he may move from being a "simple man, dwelling in tents" to a situation in which "Yaakov came – whole" – whole in body, whole in his possessions, and whole in his Torah.


[This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Vayishlach 5765 (2004).]