David Walk

Elusive Perfection

I really love Ya’akov Avinu! Avraham and Yitzchak are so perfect. It’s hard for me to readily identify with them, but Ya’akov just keeps working so hard to overcome obstacle after obstacle. And the issues he faces sibling rivalry, unruly children and father-in-law woes, are matters of concern to us all. He just never relents in dealing with hurdle after hurdle. Sounds like real life.

But in this week’s Torah reading we discover that Ya’akov has reached a lofty and noble state. Here’s the verse: And Ya’akov arrived SHALEM at Shechem in the land of Canaan, when he came from Padan-Aram; and he encamped before the city (Breishit 33:18). Oh, that word SHALEM. So many ideas rooted in that one charged and fraught word.

Disappointingly, probably the P’SHAT or literal meaning is that it’s the name of a small community in the vicinity of Shechem. That name and variations were apparently relatively common in pre-Israelite Canaan, like Yerushalayim. But that inconvenience does not stifle rabbinic resourcefulness. Our Sages have built a wonderful network of alternate approaches.

The first and most famous interpretation is presented by Rashi: Complete, unimpaired in body because he was cured of his lameness (from the wrestling match with Esav’s angel); whole as regards his possessions for he was not short of anything even though he had given that massive gift to Esav; and perfect in his knowledge of the Torah for whilst he was in Laban’s house he had not forgotten what he had learned. This famous homily is based on the Talmud (Shabbat 33b) and the Midrash (Breishit Raba 79:5).

From that Midrashic approach our Sages have developed marvelous ideas. SHALEM suggests ‘complete’ in the most significant aspects of life. The Shnei Luchot Habrit (Reb Yeshayahu Halevi Horowitz) suggests that this refers to the three major ways we protect ourselves. This protection or shield is a MAGEN whose three letters suggest its content. The MEM hints at money or finances (MAMON); the GIMMEL represents his physical body (GUF) and the NUN stands for NESHAMA, his eternal soul.

Rav Binyamin Tabori, on the Yeshivat Har Etziyon website describes this exceptional status attained by Ya’akov, by informing us that he was:

an “ish emet” (man of truth) who is triumphant over all. This is emphasized by the altar to “Kel, Elokei Yisrael” (23:20). Rashi cites the midrash  that God Himself called Yaakov “God.” The midrash explains that Yaakov is God of this world (literally: “Kel ba-tachtonim”), Yaakov’s truth in this world is a reflection of God’s seal of truth. The Ramban mentions the Chazal that Yaakov’s image is engraved on the heavenly throne. Yaakov’s truth is grounded in the eternity of heaven. Hence, Yaakov, unlike Avraham and Yitzchak, had a complete family which followed his ideals.

So, here is Ya’akov triumphant and of almost supernal status here on earth. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the story ended there? But no! A couple verses later he experiences his own October 7th. His daughter, Dina, is kidnapped and raped!

His life only seems to go downhill from there. Soon his beloved Rachel tragically dies in childbirth. When he finally arrives home and settles down, Rashi informs us that he desired nothing but a life of peace and tranquility. Almost immediately the drama of his sons’ sibling rivalry emerges and dominates the narrative for basically the rest of Sefer Breishit.

Why bother?!? If the good times are so ephemeral why should we strive so hard to achieve them. Since chaos is so prevalent, just let it be, and save our energy for less lofty pursuits, like personal pleasures and enjoyment. If we’re not in control anyway just let bedlam prevail.

Actually, Rav Kook basically asks that very question. That Torah giant of the early twentieth century asked: Why should we even bother to reach towards shleimut? We are certain to fail, so why strive for SHLEIMUT?

I would add, and if we are blessed to attain SHLEIMUT and bring about a peaceful and perfect society, how come it is so fleeting? Why does the chaos return so quickly?

Rav Kook believed in persistence against all odds, and answered his own concern:

True, we will fall. The definition of SHLEIMUT (wholeness) is not to reach perfection, but to constantly reach towards it, even though we will never fully grasp it.

We can’t view SHLEIMUT as a static entity. It is an ambition and a target to strive for. Life is about that chase for SHLEIMUT. It isn’t a zero sum game. We have to continually and steadily steer that course towards that Ultimate Thule. It’s like Don Quixote’s declared ambition:

To try when your arms are too weary. To reach the unreachable star…No matter how hopeless. No matter how far.

The Knight Errant was right! Ya’akov Avinu knew this truth millennia before Cervantes. It is not really about attaining the goal; it is about the life spent in its pursuit. And again Don Quixote was absolutely correct when he concluded:

And the world will be better for this. That one man, scorned and covered with scars. Still strove with his last ounce of courage…To reach the Unreachable Star!

We don’t have to finish the job. We just have to keep up the effort. Our beloved Medina is in the midst of a terrible, nightmarish episode along the path to this quest. But we have to keep going no matter the effort or the cost, because we know in our innermost soul, that the Medina will be better for this. We are all that knight scorned by all for this effort.

Just like Ya’akov Avinu, we are in this quest, this mission for the long haul, for the duration. And that will be the truth and the reality until the GEULA SHLEIMA, complete Redemption arrives.

O may it come speedily in our days! O God, we could use it right now!

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
Related Topics
Related Posts