Thursday, 22 Nov 2018

Written by Zahavit Shalev


What does it mean to be whole?

Jacob struggles all night with an angel and emerges with a hip injury and a limp. He prepares for a possibly nasty encounter with his estranged brother Esau which he lubricates with extravagant gifts. Things go well, and the brothers part on civil terms.

And Jacob arrived safe [shalem] in the city of Shechem which is in the land of Canaan having come there from Padan Aram. And he encamped [vayichan] before the [face of the] city. (Gen 33:18)

He then buys the land on which he pitches his tent.

Literally, the verse might be read as saying that Jacob arrives in a town named “Shalem” where Shechem (a local ruler) lived, in the Land of Canaan. However Rashi and other commentators prefer to read “shalem” as an adjective describing Jacob’s personal state. Rashi quoting the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat 33b explains that Jacob enjoyed three types of wholeness:

1 – He was physically whole – this is odd considering he recently came away from a wrestling match with an angel with a pronounced limp.

2 – He was financially whole – for although he had served Laban, his father-in-law for 14 years and had also just made a massive peace offering of many cattle to his brother Esau, his cattle had reproduced and made up the loss.

3 – He was sound in his knowledge of Torah – having not forgotten the learning he had acquired prior to his arrival in Laban’s home 14 years earlier.

“Vayichan” in the second half of the verse means quite simply that Jacob camped in front of the city. But the Talmud puns on the idea of graciousness (“chen”) and suggests that the appropriate response to a feeling of wholeness is a gesture of generosity. This idea is proposed by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who has experienced a “miracle”:

Rabbi Shimon said: Since a miracle transpired for me, I will go and repair something for the sake of others in gratitude for God’s kindness, as it is written: “And Jacob came whole to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Padan Aram; and he graced the countenance of the city” (Genesis 33:18).

Rav said, the meaning of: “And Jacob came whole [shalem]” is: whole in his body, whole in his money, whole in his Torah.

And what did he do? “And he graced the countenance of the city”. This means he performed gracious acts to benefit the city.

Jacob “pays it forward” by doing something good for others. The rabbis then discuss what beneficial act Jacob performed for the city of Shechem.

Rav said: Jacob established a currency for them.

And Shmuel said: He established marketplaces for them.

And Rabbi Yoḥanan said: He established bathhouses for them.

In any event, clearly one for whom a miracle transpires should perform an act of kindness for his

neighbours as a sign of gratitude.

These teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai are embedded in a longer story. The gist of the story is that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son had gone into exile for some years because Rabbi Shimon had been overheard speaking disrespectfully about the Roman rulers over Palestine. Rabbi Shimon had claimed that all the institutions established by the Romans – marketplaces, bathhouses and bridges – were not general benefits for all who lived under their rule, but were just  devices to extract money from people, and therefore really only mercenary and self-interested. For this he had had to flee with his son. They spent 13 years living in a cave, learning Torah. They become increasingly misanthropic and disdainful of society until one day Rabbi Shimon had an epiphany and realised that this misanthropic solitude needed to end.

Upon exiting the cave, Rabbi Shimon’s son-in-law, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair went out to meet them. His first act was to bathe Rabbi Shimon whose skin was sore and cracked all over. Rabbi Pinchas’s tears entered the cracks causing Rabbi Shimon pain. Rabbi Shimon did not focus on the pain, but on his joy, thanks to his conviction that his exile had resulted in his becoming a better person.

Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Pinchas become study partners, and it is at this point that Rabbi Shimon makes the statement I quoted earlier. He comes full-circle on the statement which resulted in his exile. He moves from declaring that society’s institutions are evil, to recognising that they are mostly beneficial. As an act of gratitude for his return to civilisation, he deems it appropriate to embrace, and further promote these societal instruments – variously (depending on which rabbi’s version we accept) money, marketplaces, and bathhouses.

What’s going on here? It’s actually not a very complicated lesson. Being “shalem” does not come from escaping from the world. In fact, personal wholeness, is a by-product of attempting to live peacefully with others.

It’s certainly no coincidence that the root “sh-l-m” which connotes both peace and wholeness, is also associated with payment. Yuval Noah Harrari reminds us in Sapiens that the invention of money “was purely a mental revolution. It involved the creation of a new inter-subjective reality that exists solely in people’s shared imagination”. Money is a truly brilliant instrument for enabling interactions between people and fostering trust. Settling down and living in society, building a life composed of many small interactions – that is what results in wholeness.


Zahavit Shalev LBC rabbinic student


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.