THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Vayishlach – פרשת וישלח
December 2, 2017– יד כסלו תשעח
This essay is sponsored by Josh & Deena Davis in memory of Sarah Rebecca Davis שרה רבקה בת יעקב.
He Arrived in Peace
Jacob’s return to the Land of Canaan after more than twenty years away from home is described this way by Scripture: ויבא יעקב שלם עיר שכם (Genesus 33:18). While it is clear that Jacob’s first stopover in Canaan was in the vicinity of Shechem, the ambiguous word שלם (shalem) makes it difficult to translate the verse.
In Biblical Hebrew, shalem typically means complete or whole. In the Talmud, Rav understood Genesis 33:18 to mean that Jacob arrived in Canaan with his physical body, financial resources, and Torah knowledge all completely intact (Shabbat 33b). The Midrash adds that Jacob was complete in his progeny (Genesis Rabbah 79). Before his confrontation with Esau, Jacob split his household into two camps on the theory that if one camp were to be massacred the other would likely flee and survive. In fact, all survived.
Jacob injured his hip while grappling with the angel. He departed from Penuel with a noticeable limp (Genesis 32:32). In Rav’s view, by the time of his arrival at Shechem, Jacob had completely recovered. Jacob’s material resources were depleted by his generous gift to Esau: 200 she-goats, 20 he-goats, 200 ewes, 20 rams, 30 milk camels and their colts, 40 cows, 10 bulls, 20 she-asses, and 10 he-asses. After taking leave of Esau, Jacob sojourned in Transjordan at Succoth. The rabbinic tradition claims that Jacob spent eighteen months there (Megillah 17a). Nahum Sarna suggested that Jacob tarried there “to utilize the natural resources of the fertile valley in order to recoup what he gave away to Esau.” In this view, Jacob was once again financially “whole” as he entered Canaan. Pseudo-Jonathan similarly rendered shalem as “complete in all his things.” Jacob preserved his Torah knowledge despite his long stay with the idolatrous Laban (Rashi), and despite the fact that arduous travel tends to compromise one’s intellectual attainments. As Torah Temimah explained, shalem connotes that Jacob’s impressive achievements in both the material and spiritual realms were in no way diminished by the difficulties he encountered in his time away from home.
An alternative view understands shalem to be a place name. In the Septuagint, Salem is a city in the region of Shechem. According to Jubilees 30:1, Salem is east of Shechem – a reasonable interpretation given that Jacob was coming from the east and only approached the outskirts of the town. The Vulgate rendered Genesis 33:18 “in Salem urban Sichimorum.” Rashbam and Hizkuni also understood shalem to be a place name. Hizkuni explained that Shalem was one of many cities governed by the regional prince, Shechem. He cited the verse “For Heshbon is the city of Sihon king of the Amorites (Numbers 21:26)” as evidence that Scripture occasionally identified a city by its proper name followed by the name of its overlord. The Arab village of Salim is located six kilometers east of Nablus, and there is an ancient tell four kilometers east of Nablus which might have been the Biblical “Shalem.” The weakness of this explanation, however, is that Scripture already referred to a Canaanite town named Salem, the home of Malchisedek (Genesis 14:18). These two locations are not identical. As Robert Alter notes, were there really two distinct places named Salem, one would have expected the Biblical narrator to offer an explanatory gloss to prevent confusion.
Ramban understood shalem to mean that Jacob was finally calm. He had inner peace because he no longer felt threatened by Esau. As long as Jacob remained on the east side of the Jordan River, he was too close to Mount Seir to feel at ease. Succoth was not very far from Esau’s abode. The Midrash reports that during his stay in Transjordan, Jacob continued sending periodic tribute to Esau in the hopes of mollifying him. Upon crossing into Cisjordan, Jacob was confident that there he would be protected, whether because the local inhabitants would come to his aid, because his father was a recognized holy man, or because the merit of being in the Holy Land would save him. As Sforno commented, Jacob may have felt, upon entering Canaan and even before reaching the parental home of Isaac, that God had fulfilled his stipulation at Beth-el “and I return safely – בשלום — to my father’s house” (28:21).
I prefer Ibn Ezra’s interpretation that shalem means that Jacob came in peace. This reading is supported by what Shechem and Hamor said to the townspeople in attempting to convince them to submit to circumcision as a precondition of treaty relations with Jacob’s clan: “These men come in peace to us שלמים הם אתנו (34:21).”
Jacob could have returned to Canaan and held himself out as the rightful owner of the land by dint of Divine promise. He did not do so. His first act was to purchase a parcel of land for one hundred kesitahs. Like his paternal grandfather, Abraham, in the episode at Machpelah, Jacob was willing to pay for what was arguably already his. Jacob recognized that his family was not yet a great nation ready to conquer a country; it was merely a small clan that could ill afford to antagonize numerous and powerful neighbors. Jacob chastised Simeon and Levi after the massacre at Shechem not on moral grounds, but on those of realpolitik. “You have stirred up trouble for me, making me stink among the land’s inhabitants, among Canaanite and Perizzite, when I am a handful of men. If they gather against me and strike me, I shall be destroyed, I and my household (34:30).” Scripture stresses that Jacob came in peace lest the reader think that the subsequent breakdown in relations between Israel and the local inhabitants was premeditated. It was not.
It is possible to draw a parallel between Jacob’s attitude upon returning to the Land of Canaan and that of modern era Zionists. While it is certainly true that as early as the 1890s Herzlian Zionism espoused an eventual Jewish State, and that among Revisionists there was never any ambiguity about the ultimate goals of the movement, nonetheless, among mainstream Zionists in the early decades of the 20th century, talk of statehood or Jewish sovereignty was muted or muffled. On the record, Zionist leaders spoke of a Jewish National Home, of building up the Yishuv, of making the desert bloom, and of unfettered Jewish immigration. There was consistent denial that the growing Jewish presence was in any way a threat to the Arabs or that Jews intended to displace the indigenous population. Like Jacob, Zionist leaders recognized that militant bellicosity was imprudent without a demographic critical mass. Like Jacob, the Jewish National Fund bought land already vouchsafed for our people by God. Only with the events of World War II and the Holocaust did the Zionist leadership change its presentation and, in the 1942 Biltmore Program, openly call for Jewish sovereignty.
Jacob’s behavior upon arriving at Shechem remains an invaluable lesson for Jews. We must come peaceably to any new place of residence and not foment adversarial relationships. We must be aware that we are small in number and that emphasizing our chosenness, or conveying any notion that we are entitled to special privileges, is likely to create a backlash.