Vayishlach – Finding Wholeness in Our Brokenness

Posted on November 19, 2021 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck

No one relishes their struggles. Life’s challenges are often daunting, fraught with uncertainty and fear of failure and loss. Conventional wisdom bids us to take the path of least resistance and avoid difficulty. And yet, time and again, we see that the hard times in our lives are often the ones of greatest growth, and that this tends to be true whether we succeed or fail. Victory is certainly sweet, but loss can be our greatest teacher.

Looking at this week’s parashah, Vayishlach, one could easily conclude that Jacob emerged from his reunion with his brother, Esau, a diminished man. He is physically disabled, his hip having been wrenched from its socket by the angel with whom he wrestled through the night. His material wealth has been reduced for having given half of all he possessed as gifts to appease Esau, who was approaching him with an army of 400 men, clearly intent on settling old scores.

On the other hand, his choices succeeded in dissuading his brother from taking vengeance for the harm Jacob had inflicted upon him in their youth. So maybe Jacob’s gain exceeded his loss. He and Esau achieved peace and reconciliation, which, as our rabbis taught, is the greatest of all blessings.[1]

But maybe Jacob achieved something even more precious than peace with his brother. Maybe he achieved the kind of peace suggested by the root of the word shalom, which means “wholeness” or “peace with oneself. “

Our rabbis concluded that this is precisely the outcome of Jacob’s struggles. They noted that after Jacob and Esau parted ways, the Torah says that Jacob continued his journey and “arrived safe in the city of Shechem…”[2] The Hebrew word for “safe” here is shalem, which also means “whole,” leading the rabbis of the Talmud to say that Jacob was “shalem b’gufo, shalem b’mamono, shalem b’torato.” “Whole in his body, whole in his material wealth, whole in his Torah.”[3]

This is an astonishing comment. How can the rabbis say that he was physically whole when we know that he was limping from the injury to his hip? And how can they suggest that he was financially whole when he had given away half his fortune? The key to understanding this statement lies in the third assertion, that Jacob was whole or complete in his Torah, in his wisdom.

All his life Jacob had fancied himself to be better and more worthy than his brother — worthy of a greater portion of the family’s property and more worthy of his parents’ blessing. Coming out ahead, winning, was all that mattered to Jacob. His very name, Ya’akov, meaning “the supplanter,” revealed his conniving character. For a while it worked for him. He got away with his scheming and trickery. Until he didn’t.

Devastated by Jacob’s deceptions, Esau reached his breaking point and determined to kill his brother, forcing Jacob to flee for his life. Frightened and alone, Jacob had a dream of a ladder linking heaven and earth with angels going up and down. It was his first encounter with God and the beginning of his transformation. He went on from there to receive a taste of his own medicine at the hands of his uncle Laban, who deceived him repeatedly, further causing Jacob to reconsider his place in the world. And finally, he faced his brother coming toward him with an army of 400 men. Fearing for his life, Jacob sent messengers bearing gifts to placate Esau. He divided his camp in two to minimize the casualties in the event of battle. And he spent the night wrestling with an angel.

In the morning, the Jacob who encountered his brother was a different person. He was no longer interested in gaining advantage over others. He no longer saw himself as the center of the universe. He had made room in his heart for God and for others, and in his brokenness, he had found wholeness.

The wise educator Parker Palmer speaks of two kinds of broken hearts. “There’s the brittle heart that breaks into shards, shattering the one who suffers as it explodes… Then there’s the supple heart, the one that breaks open, not apart…”[4]

Jacob’s heart broke, but it didn’t shatter. It broke open — open to see the image of God in his brother’s face, to feel love, to feel whole — maybe for the first time in his life.

None of us relishes our struggles. But if we resist the impulse to harden our hearts, if we keep them soft and supple, able to feel love, they will break open. Open to one another. Open to God. Open to growth and renewal. Open to what Parker Palmer calls a “hidden wholeness.” Life breaks us all, but in our brokenness, we can find wholeness.


Shabbat Shalom,




Rabbi Arnie Gluck


[1] As Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai taught: “Great is peace, for all blessings are included with it…” Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 9:9
[2] Genesis 33:18
[3] Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 33b
[4] Parker J. Palmer, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old