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All That Doesn’t Kill Me… (Vayishlach – 11/23/18)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

All That Doesn’t Kill Me…
Tragedy affects all of us. Some challenge us and make us stronger. Some make us weaker. Our Parsha seems to jump on the “All that doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” bandwagon, but then again, maybe it doesn’t. Let’s look at one verse – Genesis 33:18- and how it’s been translated by different authorities:
ספר בראשית פרק לג
(יח) וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם עִיר שְׁכֶם אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן בְּבֹאוֹ מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם וַיִּחַן אֶת פְּנֵי הָעִיר
“Jacob arrived safe in the city of Shechem…” (JPS translation)
“And Jacob came in peace to the town of Shechem…” (Alter translation)
“And Jacob came to Shalem a city of Shechem…” (King James Version)
After Jacob’s peaceful meeting with Esau, each parting in peace, and after the midnight encounter with the angel with whom Jacob wrestled, The Torah tells us that Jacob and his household journeyed to Shechem. In the verse, however, there is an ambiguous word that might be a qualifier or a place name: the word “shalem.” That word in Hebrew can be translated as “whole,” or “complete” or, if it is an adverb, the word Shalem could mean that Jacob arrived “safely” to Shechem.
One can also consider it a place name, Shalem, or Salem, a city that was a suburb of Shechem. Thus, in the King James Version Jacob came to Salem, a city of Shechem, on the outskirts of Shechem.
Classical commentaries taking their cue from the Talmud (TB Shabbat 33a) say that the word “shalem” refers to Jacob having retained his health, his wealth, and his mind. Rashi for instance says that Jacob arrived in Shechem, “shalem,” spiritually unharmed from his sojourn with Laban and physically and economically unscathed from his journey from Padan-Aram back to Canaan. Rashi’s grandson, however, the Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, 1085-1158) does not accept his grandfather’s meaning of the word “shalem,” and he asserts that the word “shalem” refers to Salem, the city.
Having read the text many times, I believe that Scripture wrote this verse with specific ambiguity.
In other words, Jacob returns not just to his homeland, the place of his birth, but to the complexities of his life lived and yet to be lived. The emotionally exhausting reconciliation with a brother whom he treated with cunning, the preparations he made in trying to save at least part of his family should Esau prove to be a threat to himself and his family, the nighttime wrestling match during which he was injured and left him limping, the memories of his dependence upon Laban for two decades, the growth of a family with wives, concubines and many children, the subtle jibes of Laban’s sons, Laban’s own chicanery and envy, and the midnight escape from his place of near servitude to return to Canaan, all of these events had to have leave their mark on our third patriarch. How is it possible that he came back “shalem” whole?
The answer is He did, and he didn’t. There is a profound nuance to that verse in balancing the place name of Salem and the meaning of “shalem” meaning whole, or complete. In iterating the double meaning of the city Salem and the meaning of “shalem,” the Torah has touched a profound truth about being human and about life itself. That despite all of the tragedies of Jacob’s life, despite his faults and his mistakes, he persevered. He was willing to make tough win-lose decisions, to humble himself as he meets his brother, to return home, establish a religious sanctuary and face whatever may come.
Unlike Rashi’s interpretation, Jacob was inevitably not fully whole. After arriving in Schem, Jacob confronts three more horrific events: his daughter Dinah is raped, Rachel, his beloved wife dies, and Joseph, his favorite son goes lost, thought to have been killed. Yet, through all of this Jacob kept his faith and persevered. Finally, when he was reunited with Joseph at age 133, he rejoices in seeing his family whole, but he’s not whole then either. He tells Pharaoh (Genesis 47:9): “The days of the years of my life have been few and miserable, and they have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my forefathers in the days of their sojournings.”
Jacob was as whole as he could be. One of the things I admire about the Torah is its honesty about its protagonists’ struggles with God and evil. Aaron is not pleased to have to serve God after the death of his two sons. Naomi is not happy to return to the Land of Israel without her husband and two sons. She openly claims that “God has embittered her life.” Jacob here does not say to Pharaoh, “Never Better!” He’s broken, but he’s as whole as he can be.
“All that doesn’t kill us” doesn’t always make us stronger. Sometimes it leaves a gap that never gets filled. But if we persevere nonetheless, we exhibit the trait of wholeness, and sometimes, like Jacob, we achieve some consolation in the end.

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