“His whole life will be a struggle to grow, to achieve the stability, the wholeness for which he yearns.” That’s Aviva Zornberg’s evocative assessment of the Jacob of Parashat Vayishlach, (The Beginning of Desire, p. 241) he who wrestles with an angel (or God, or himself, or his/his brother’s guardian angel, or…?), reunites with his brother Esau, and returns home shalem (whole, safe, at peace, in friendship). A struggle to grow and to achieve stability and wholeness sounds like an apt description of most of our lives. We’re all in search of shleimut – wholeness or fulfillment – and the path to it is never an easy one.
What exactly is this thing called wholeness? The Zohar views Jacob’s wholeness as a mystical (and mysterious) coming together of all the elements both of his life and of the entire cosmos. “Complete above, complete below; complete in heaven, complete on earth” in the Zohar’s words [1:172b] (shalem l’eyla, shalem l’tata; shalem b’shemaya, shalem b’ara). In contrast, Zornberg offers a concept of wholeness that is more process than product. Calling wholeness “a dynamic rather than a static idea,” she lands on “the managing of contrary forms…the husbanding of divergent energies…” as her definition. That’s how Jacob’s wrestling match can be an act of, if not achieving, at least striving toward wholeness.
Wholeness feels pretty hard to come by in this current moment. Fragmentation and division surround us on all sides. The anti-Semitic murders in Jersey City this week render our people, not to mention our hearts, a lot less than whole. Our country is as divided – at least politically and culturally – as it has been in a century and a half, and perhaps ever. Israel, too, seems remarkably fragmented, unable to bring a new government into being, and now facing elections for the third time in a year. And then add our own distracted and frazzled lives to the mix. How, really, does one manage all the contrary forms and husband all the divergent energies?!?
One of my favorite rabbinic teachings (Tosefta Sotah 7:12) depicts a confounded student struggling to handle the diversity of opinions thrown her way in the name of Torah. Why learn Torah at all, she wonders, when Beit Hillel permits while Beit Shammai prohibits? The Tosefta’s answer begins with a reminder that the full kaleidoscope of views actually derives from one source, from The One in fact – ‘one Shepherd, one God, one Provider, the Sovereign of All Deeds.’ The student’s real work, our real work, is ‘to make of one’s heart a house of many rooms’ and to welcome all the variety in. Not easy, to be sure, and a definite recipe for kicking up an abundance of dust in the course of wrestling. But that’s the path.
In search of wholeness? Make of your heart a house of many rooms. Jacob’s discovery of that path of struggle earns him his new name of Israel. And we are, to this day, the people of Israel, Jacob our Ancestor’s children.