Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Monday, November 30, 2009

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Our intrepid Patriarch, Ya'akov has been through the ringer.  His past twenty years have been, to say the least, tumultuous.  He has fled from his enraged brother, been abused by his bullying father in law, wrestled with a mystery adversary, and, finally, been reunited with his erstwhile fratricidal brother.  Phew!  A tough time has transpired.  Now it's time for him to settle down in the ancestral lands to a life filled with the blessings (so nefariously acquired) of wealth, peace and power that his father bequeathed to him so many years ago.  The next scene should have him sipping something tall and cold on a verandah. Alas, it wasn't to be so.  The latter part of Ya'akov's life is to be even more turbulent than the former, with rape, the death of his beloved, sibling struggles and, eventually, exile in the forecast.  I'm waiting for the mini-series. However, before those stormy developments, there is a retrospective moment.  It's that calm interlude which I would like to explore.

            The verse records that Ya'akov arrived shalem from Padan Aram (Genesis 33:18).  The significance of this phrase depends on how we translate the word shalem.  There is a whole team of major authorities (Rashbam, Chizkuni, Abaranel) who side step the problem and claim that Shalem is the name of a town near Shechem (called Nablus by Arabs and their supporters), and, therefore, not a description of the state of Ya'akov's fortunes at all.  There is evidence to support that contention, because there is an Arab village named Salaam five mile east of Shechem.  Nevertheless we will ignore them, because that route is a dead end, detouring us away from more fun interpretations.

            By the rest of us, shalem is translated variously as safely, intact, or in peace.  The most famous explanation of this moment of completeness is given by Rashi based on the Talmud (Shabbat 33b):  whole, unimpaired in his body, for he was cured of his limp and whole with his money. He did not lose anything because of that enormous gift that he had given to Esau. He was also whole with his Torah, for he had not forgotten any of his studies while in Laban's house.  Reb Zadok of Lublin (1823-1900) in his Pri Zadik adds that these three areas in which Ya'akov was whole:  body, assets, and Torah are the three ways we love God from the first paragraph of Shma; with all you heart (Torah), with all your life (body), and with all your might (assets, Deuteronomy 6:5). 

This great Rebbe then adds his own idea.  The wholeness of Ya'akov was his recovery from the wrestling match with the unknown stranger.  It says that when the mystery man can't defeat him he touches him in the socket of his hip (Genesis 32:26).  According to Reb Zadok this touch, which caused a temporary limp, was an attack on Ya'akov's genitals and, therefore, his progeny.  The attacker saw that Ya'akov couldn't be beat, but maybe his children could be assailed.  However, our verse testifies that Ya'akov emerged whole and all his children become part of Jewish destiny, as opposed to Avraham and Yitzchak who have children that remain outsiders (Yishmael and Esav).  As much as I like that idea, I'm going to present another.

There are many hints to the fact that Ya'akov was experiencing a split in his personality.  The first intimation of this fact is Yitzchak's observation that the voice is Ya'akov's but the hands are Esav's (27:22).  The Midrash seems to reinforce this impression during the dream of the ladder, when the angels go up and down to compare the sleeping Ya'akov on the ground to the face of Ya'akov engraved on God's throne in heaven (28:12).  The duality continues in the last verse of last week's parsha (32:3) when Ya'akov refers to his camping place as Machanain.  This means two camps.  The greatest clue to Ya'akov sensing this divide in his persona is the verse which is usually described as depicting his defensive measures against the imminent encounter with Esav and his army of four hundred men, namely:  And Ya'akov divided his camp in two.  There are two Ya'akov's struggling for supremacy.  Hence, the struggle with the strange assailant, who is probably himself.

The verse which introduces that rumble begins with an interesting term.  The expression which we translate as 'and Ya'akov was left alone (forgive me, but I keep thinking of Gretta Garbo)' is the unusual word v'yivater.  It seems to come from the root yeter, which means left over, rather than left alone.  I have this feeling that the Torah employs this unusual usage, because it has a homonym.  Back in chapter 15 God makes the covenant Between the Parts with Avraham.  In that momentous passage the word v'yivater, meaning 'and he split in two,' three times.  It's the only time that term appears in our Tanach.  It sounds just like our word, but is a different root, with a bet instead of a vav.  However, the sound echoes that that famous deal.  Ya'akov not only feels alone; he feels split asunder, into Ya'akov and Bizarro Ya'akov.    Ya'kov may feel that he is struggling with the pious and Esav parts of his nature, as, in his blindness, Yitzchak noticed.  But in reality, I think that the two parts are Avraham's aggressive personality and Yitzchak's reclusive nature.  What happens at this revelatory instant is that the newly minted Yisroel feels at peace with the two parts of his persona.  He becomes the Kabalistic entity called Tiferet or splendor (or synthesis), which demands that he utilize the best parts of each forebear to achieve a new kind of greatness, his own.

Don't we all feel that way sometimes?  Who is the real me?  Well, both.  We are all made up of separate parts emanating from disparate sources, both nature and nurture, both genetic and psychological.  I've always felt a greater kinship to Ya'akov than to the other Patriarchs and Matriarchs, and this may be the reason.  We all must confront the various influences and demands on our personality.  Only then can we make the decisions which will leave us whole.   


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