Emanuel Synagogue

Finding our place of shalem - Reverend Sam Zwarenstein


Our patriarch Jacob’s life is certainly full of drama and unpredictable events. This week’s Torah portion offers a number of such occurrences, including his struggle with an unknown attacker, the tension around the reunion with Esau, the rape of his daughter and his sons’ vindictive retaliation, and the death of Rachel whilst giving birth to their son Benjamin.

Yet, despite these dramatic circumstances, we read about Jacob experiencing peace and wholeness; “V’ya’avor Ya’akov shalem ir Sh’chem asher b’eretz K’na’an…” (And Jacob arrived safely in the city of Shechem, in the land of Canaan) – Genesis 33:18. A number of publications translate “shalem” directly as “safe”. Shalem has the same root word as shalom, and can therefore other translations include whole, at peace, complete, or perfect.

Rashi’s explanation, which is echoed in the Talmud (Shabbat 33b), includes this diverse meaning of shalem. He refers to Jacob’s stance at that time as unimpaired, whole and perfect. Unimpaired in his body, for he was cured of his limp from fighting the stranger in the night. Whole with his money, for he did not lose anything despite all of the gifts that he had given Esau. Perfect with his Torah, for he had not forgotten his studies while in Laban’s house.

Rambam adds that until Jacob arrived in Canaan, where he would enjoy his father’s patronage and the merit of the Holy Land, he was still afraid of Esau. It was only after he reached Shechem that he felt safe (shalem).

The various different meanings of the word shalem allow for these and other explanations of Jacob’s state of being as he arrives back in his home land. He finds himself in a very different position, almost in a state of utopia.

Throughout Jacob’s life, there aren’t many moments like this, outside of perhaps his love for Joseph and then reunification with Joseph in Egypt much later in his life. Perhaps we shouldn’t feel too sorry for Jacob, much of what he has to endure is linked to his own actions. Despite this, he ends up having to tolerate a lot of hardship and pain, often to a disproportionate level.

This account of Jacob being “whole” is a reiteration of an earlier statement by Jacob to Esau, where he declares his state of feeling complete; “Kach na et birchati asher huvat lach, ki chanani Elohim v’chi yesh li kol…” (Please accept my present which has been brought to you, for God has favoured me and I have plenty) – Genesis 33:11.

This phase of Jacob’s encounter with Esau allows him to acknowledge that he is getting ready to be in a state of peace, wholeness and perfection. After fearing for his life and that of his family, as he prepared to face Esau, Jacob finds himself in a position where he no longer holds those fears, and he is able to bring himself to a place of shalem.

Life in general, as well as this year particularly presents us with many trials, challenges and tests of our sanity, resolve and courage. Jacob’s experiences and the way he processed his own circumstances, led him to a place where he was comfortable and secure with his mental and emotional state, despite all that he had endured. His tenacity and will to find his shalem allows us to reflect on how we could process our own moments of adversity, times of uncertainty, and situations of undue stress, by working through them and finding our place of shalem, of safety, wholeness, peace and perfection.


Shabbat Shalom,

Reverend Sam Zwarenstein


Emanuel Synagogue
7 Ocean Street
Woollahra, NSW 2025

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p: 02 9389 6444

e: info@emanuel.org.au

Shabbat Times

Parashat Chayei Sarah
Shabbat, November 14, 2020
27th of Cheshvan, 5781

Candle Lighting
Friday, October 9  7:16PM

Motzei Shabbat 7:53PM

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