Today’s Torah reading contains the famous passage where father Jacob’s name is changed to Israel. Jacob was returning from Mesopotamia where he had fled to uncle Laban’s home because his brother Esav swore to kill him when Jacob had stolen the blessing promised to him by their father. Jacob hears that Esav is coming to greet him accompanied by 400 soldiers. He panics. He divides his camp into 2 so in case one is attacked, the other might escape. He then wanders off into the night because he can’t sleep knowing he will meet up with his brother in the morning.
Suddenly, he gets mugged by a mysterious stranger. The 2 wrestle all through the night and Jacob is wounded—his hip-socket is dislocated. In the morning, as the dawn begins to rise, the stranger says, “Let me go, for it is nearly daybreak.” And Jacob says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The stranger gives Jacob a new name and calls him “Israel” because, as he says, “you have wrestled with Gd and with man and you have prevailed.” The Torah then tells us that Jacob left limping. (Gen. 32: 26-32)
Much has been written about this amazing encounter asking, who was this mugger and what’s the significance of the name Israel? Today I would like to focus on Jacob’s—or should I say Israel’s—wound. Rabbi Jack Reimer asks an interesting question: How did Jacob manage for the rest of his life? Did he use a cane? Did he use crutches? Did he use a wheelchair? Did he limp for the rest of his life? Did people treat him differently because he was handicapped? Did he treat himself differently because he was handicapped?
We don’t know. The Torah never refers again to Jacob’s wound or to his limping. But the Torah (33:18) tells us after Jacob’s reunion with his brother: Vayavo Yaakov shaleym ir sh’chem, “Jacob arrived shaleym at the city of Shechem.”
What does shaleym mean? Literally, it means, “whole,” or, as the ArtScroll Chumash translates it, “intact.” But how could the Torah say that Jacob arrived intact when he now limped because the hip socket had been wrenched out of his thigh? There are a lot of words that we might use to describe a handicapped person. “Whole” or “intact” are not words that come 1st to mind.
Let me tell you the story of an elm tree—written by Po Bronson about life in the farmlands of Michigan—that sheds some light:
This elm tree was planted in the 1st half of the 20th century in the farm town of Beulah, Michigan. The tree grew to be magnificent spanning some 60 feet. Its trunk alone measures about 12 feet in circumference. And a vivid scar encircles the tree.
In the 1950s, the family that owned this farm had a bull, which they kept chained to this tree with an iron chain. As the bull would try to break loose, this heavy iron chain scraped a gash in the bark of the tree, about 3 feet off the ground. The gash deepened over the years, threatening to kill the tree. But although it was severely damaged, the tree, for some reason, didn’t die.
After some years, the family sold the farm, took their bull and moved away. Before they moved, they cut the chain, leaving the loop embedded in the trunk with one link hanging down. The elm continued to grow, and bark slowly covered parts of the rusting chain. The deep gash around the trunk became an ugly scar, but for some reason, no one ever cut it off.
Then, one year, a plague occurred in that part of Michigan: Dutch Elm Disease. Thousands of elm trees were infected and died. But this elm, for some reason, somehow survived. And no one knew why. And so, plant pathologists from Michigan State University came out to study the tree. They reported that it was the chain itself that had saved the tree because it absorbed so much iron from the chain around its trunk it became immune to the fungus. The irony is that what surely should have killed the tree actually made it stronger and more resilient.
Let me repeat that last line: “what surely should have killed the tree actually made it stronger and more resilient.” It reminds me of what is probably the most famous line Ernest Hemingway ever wrote: “The world breaks everyone, with no exceptions; but afterwards many are stronger at the broken places.”
“The world breaks everyone!” How true! Who among us doesn’t carry scars of adversity? Some of us carry scars that are visible, and some of us carry scars that are not, but we all have scars? You see, scars and wounds are the price we pay for living on this earth.
What Hemingway and that elm tree teaches us is that scars are not meant to be hidden. They are not meant to shame or embarrass us. When we look at our scars, they remind us of what we have gone through, and that we have survived. They remind us that the damages that life inflicts upon us can leave us stronger and more resilient. What hurt us in the past may make us better equipped to face the future.
And that’s what I believe the Torah means when it says that Jacob arrived shaleym to the city of Shechem. It means that Jacob arrived with his scars…and that these scars—these wounds that he suffered—made him stronger and better able to cope with the hardships he would face the rest of his life. If he survived those wounds—if he survived Esav—he could survive anything.
Jacob never mentions his limp again. If he felt it—and I imagine that he did every time he took a step—he never talked about it. He never wallowed in pity over it. But it gave him the confidence to face the new pains that life might throw at him. This is an amazing life lesson, is it not?
Yes, you have scars, and so do I. Yes, each one of us, like Jacob, walks around with the wounds that life has inflicted upon us. Some of these wounds came as no fault of our own and some were received while just trying to do what was right. Some of these wounds are the results of mistakes that we made and some of them—let’s be honest—are the consequences of actions or sins that we have committed.
But I suggest that we should look upon our scars as things of beauty. Rabbi Reimer suggests that “they’re the tuition that everyone must pay for attending the school of life.” If only we would look at our scars this way, then, like father Jacob, we might arrive at our destinations shaleym—intact and whole—even with, and perhaps even because of, the scars and the wounds that we wear.
Hemingway was right: “The world breaks everyone, but afterwards many are stronger at the broken places.” That’s what happened to Jacob and that’s what can happen to us if we don’t hide from our scars but learn from them.
Let me finish by telling you an insightful story about a colleague. When he was a freshman in college he once got totally drunk. His friends—who were just as drunk as he was—dared him to smash the glass cover on a case that contained an ax to be used in case of a fire. He took the dare and smashed the cover with his bare hands, and some of the glass ended up inside his hand. For some reason, he put off going to the Emergency Room to have the glass shards removed for a few days, and when he finally went there, they told him that it was too late. The glass had formed a scar that would be with him for the rest of his life.
When he heard this he was very upset. But over the years, he has come to terms with that scar. It’s not very big or noticeable, but now, whenever he’s tempted to drink more than he should, he looks down at that scar and says to himself, “No more!” The scar that he thought was an embarrassment now protects him. Keyn y’hi ratzon, so may the scars that we carry protect us. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis