“Yaakov arrived whole in the city of Shechem which is in the land of Canaan—having come thus from Paddan-Aram—and he encamped before the city” (Bereishit 33,18).
Twenty long years after fleeing from his brother Eisav, Yaakov finally arrives home. This homecoming concludes an incredibly difficult chapter in Yaakov’s life, including years of hard labor and deception in the house of Lavan, a wrestling match with a mysterious angel where he is seriously injured, and near-death experiences with both Lavan and Eisav. Seemingly, Yaakov is not walking with his head held high; he is limping, physically injured and spiritually exhausted from this journey.
Yet in Chapter 33, the text tells us that Yaakov arrived home “shalem,” or whole, to the City of Shechem, meaning without injury or loss.
After all that Yaakov has gone through, how could the Torah tell us that Yaakov arrived whole?
The word shalem is difficult for another reason. If the text indeed wanted to say that Yaaokv arrived home unscathed, then it should have used the word, b’shalom, safely, not shalem, which literally means whole.
True, Yaakov does return home intact; miraculously, none of his wives or children or belongings were harmed during his journey. But maybe the word “whole” implies something greater, something reflective of his inner state, something that illustrates a different kind of perfection.
Until now, Yaakov has lived up to his namesake: the word ekev means heel, but it also means crooked. Everything that Yaakov has received he has acquired in a backhanded way, from the blessing of the firstborn, to the herds of speckled, spotted, and striped sheep. At best, Yaakov is an opportunist, and at worst, at least in the eyes of Eisav and Lavan, he is a thief. Even if his actions all have valid motives, from the outside they appear questionable.
The night before Yaakov will meet with his brother Eisav, he is left alone, and he is ambushed by a strange man. They wrestle through the night, and at the end, just before dawn, Yaakov overpowers him, and demands a blessing.
“Your name shall no longer be Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed,” (Berashit 32,29).
No longer will Yaakov receive his blessings in a crooked or backhanded way; the prize for his victory is that he will receive his blessings in a straight, or yashar way, as the name Yisrael suggests.
In other words, through his struggles he has been transformed. The blessing he receives is not simply a change in name alone; it is a change in identity earned through 20 years of both physical and spiritual challenge. It is through his constant striving that he has earned this new level.
With this in mind, let’s look at the word shalem again, as true wholeness may be different than we originally imagined.
In Orot HaTeshuva, Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook asks the following question: why should we even bother to reach towards wholeness, for shleimut? We are certain to fail at some point, so why strive for the impossible?
Answers Rav Kook: True, we will fall, but the mistakes do not define us. The definition of wholeness is not to reach perfection, but to constantly reach towards it, even though we will never grasp it.
And so too with Yaakov. Yaakov’s greatness is not only seen in his singular victory over the angel, but rather in his constant striving, no matter what the odds. Yaakov limps home after enduring incredible physical pain and emotional abuse. He is far from whole. And he will undergo many more struggles as the Book of Bereishit reaches its conclusion. But he continues to strive. And that constant striving itself is Yaakov’s wholeness.
And just as Yaakov, Yisrael as he is now also called, persists, fights, wins, but then falls and struggles again, so too all of us. When we are presented with a challenge that seems just a bit out of reach, or we fall along the path of life, we can always gain strength from the model of wholeness that Yisrael teaches. Because his wholeness was never perfection, but rather a constant striving towards it.
What do you think? Have you found blessing in your life through your struggles? What are they?