By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
December 1, 2001
Yaakov has endured it all: His twin brother Esav vowed to kill him at the first opportunity; his uncle and father-in-law Lavan tricked him again and again; he built a family over the course of twenty difficult years; a mysterious "man" wrestled him all night until dawn; and Esav marched towards him accompanied by four hundred men as Yaakov and his family advanced toward Eretz Yisrael.
Neverthless, Yaakov has survived. Despite all the years and the obstacles placed in his path, and despite the threats on his life, Yaakov finally returns to Canaan:
And Yaakov came SHALEM IR SHECHEM which is in the land of Canaan when he came from Paddan Aram; and he encamped on the outskirts of the city
The phrase SHALEM IR SHECHEM poses a problem of translation. IR means "city," but what is the meaning of SHALEM? What, or who, is SHECHEM?
Rashi heads a considerable list of commentaries who understand SHECHEM as the name of a city north of Jerusalem that we have encountered before. It was Avraham's first place of entry to the land, where it is also known by another name:
And Avram traversed the land until the place of Shechem, until Elon Moreh (12:6).
Yaakov, like Avraham, makes Shechem, situated between Mount Gerizim to the south and Mount Eval to the north, his first encampment. Later, when the Children of Israel would reclaim the land, they would stand in this same place to hear Hashem's blessings and admonitions (see Devarim 11:29-30, 27:12-13 and Yehoshua 8:30-35; it is interesting to note that throughout these verses, the place between Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval is never called Shechem!). Rashi, who is following the view of the Sages, sees Shechem as the place to make a formal "first stand" in the land.
Rashi is thus faced with the problem of translating the word SHALEM, which seems to interrupt the description of Yaakov's arrival in Shechem. His solution, based on Shabbat 33b, is to understand this as a modifier meaning "whole, complete, safe, intact" and it describes Yaakov's condition upon his long-awaited return to the land:
Whole in his body, for he was healed from his limp [after his encounter with the angel, (32:32)]; whole in his money, for nothing was lost as a result of all that gift [he had sent to Esav (32:14-16)]; whole in his Torah, for he did not forget his learning while in the house of
Rashi might thus translate our verse:
And Yaakov came intact to the city of Shechem . . .
Ramban adds, as long as he remained in Sukkot (see 33:17), Yaakov was constantly afraid that Esav might come north from Se'ir and attack him. In this vein, the midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 78:16) says that Yaakov continued to send Esav gifts throughout his 18 months in Sukkot. However, once Yaakov came to the city of Shechem which is in the land of Canaan, he no longer felt intimidated by Esav and he stopped sending the "protection money."
Ibn-Ezra, on the other hand, sees SHALEM as modifying the verb VAYAVO, And he came. His translation might be:
And Yaakov came safely to the city of Shechem that is in the land of Canaan . . .
The safe and unharmed manner in which Yaakov arrived to Shechem is in contrast to the upcoming tragic episode of Dinah (chapter 34). Rashi, in a later comment, accepts this understanding as well, but emphasizes that the verse is contrasting Yaakov's safe entry to all that preceded it:
And Yaakov came safely . . . when he came from Paddan 'Aram - from Lavan and from
Esav who encountered him on the way.
Rashbam understands SHALEM IR SHECHEM very differently. To him, SHALEM is the name of the city of Shechem, the "prince of the land" who in chapter 34 attacks Dinah. Thus, his translation would read:
And Yaakov came to Shalem the city of Shechem that is in the land of Canaan . . .
He makes a two strong arguments against Rashi's reading:
1. Cities are often called by the name of their rulers. [We might add that, even in chapter 34, the city is never called by the name Shechem.] The city might later be called Shechem in commemoration of its vanquishing by the sons of Yaakov.
2. It is not the way of the Torah to say that Yaakov arrived
"whole in his money"; what purpose does it serve to point out that, after sending a few gifts to Esav, he was still financially secure?
To Ramban, of course, Yaakov's security is primarily emotional. Still, Rashbam's point is well-taken, especially in light of Rashi's full comment: why should the Torah see fit to emphasize that Yaakov was now "Whole in his body, . . . whole in his money . . . and whole in his Torah"?
To respond to this, Malbim (R. Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michael, 1809-1877) refers to the vow Yaakov made to Hashem in Bet-El before leaving Canaan:
If G-d will be with me, and guard me on this path that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return in peace (SHALOM)to my father's house, and Hashem will be a G-d to me, then this stone that I placed as a monument will be a house of G-d, and all He gives me will I surely tithe to Him (28:20-22).
Now that he has arrived intact (SHALEM) in the city of Shechem that is in the land of Canaan when he came from Paddan
Aram, he should make good on his vow. Yaakov does not do so, and the tragedy of Dinah is the result. He finally returns to Bet-El only after Hashem commands him to (35:1).
Only in Eretz Yisrael did Yaakov feel safe. It was time for Yaakov to acknowledge his indebtedness to Hashem in bringing him back to his homeland.
We, who have been privileged to witness our people's return to Israel, should do the same.