The Whole and The Part - Part I
After Yakov’s encounter with Eisav, he crossed over the border and
returned to the land of Canaan. The Torah recorded in last week’s Parsha
that the first place he chose to settle was the area of Shechem. (33:18-
19) "And Yakov came 'whole' to the city of Shechem... and he camped
outside of the city. He then purchased the field where he had pitched his
tent from the family of Chamor the father of Shechem..."
The Shem Meshmuel makes the following observation. Avraham, upon entering
Canaan for the first time, went to Shechem (12:6). Yakov, upon returning
to Canaan, first went to Shechem. Yehoshua, upon crossing the Yarden for
the first time, led the Bnai Yisroel (Sons of Israel) directly to Shechem
(the ceremony at the twin mountains Ayval and Grizim). Additionally,
Shechem proved to be a place of great significance in other ways. Dina was
violated in Shechem. The brothers sold Yoseph into slavery in Shechem; and
the split between the kingdoms of Yehudah and Yisroel, (North and the
South) took place in Shechem.
The Shem Meshmuel explains that the word Shechem means, "portion - part of
the whole." Shechem was a place that could inspire tremendous unity or
disunity. The reason that Avraham, Yakov, and Yehoshua “first planted the
flag” in the area of Shechem was to establish from the outset that their
purpose in living in the Promised Land was to reinforce the whole by
embracing their responsibilities for creating the whole.
The part in relation to the whole can be viewed in two opposing ways. On
the one hand, the part is primary and the whole functions as the means or
support for the part. On the other hand, the part is important only in its
capacity to complement and complete the whole. It is the whole that is
primary and the part that supports the whole. Shechem was a location that
presented either choice. It could inspire the part to see itself as
primary and the whole as secondary and it could inspire the part to see
the whole as primary and itself as secondary.
Eretz Yisroel (Land of Israel) is not like any other land. It is a land
that responds to its inhabitants by either aiding or hindering their
exclusive mission. It can aid its inhabitants by giving its natural
resources to strengthen the nation's economy and well-being. It can hinder
its inhabitants by denying them its natural resources making the natural
environment inhospitable and challenging. When Avraham, Yakov, and
Yehoshua entered Eretz Yisroel they recognized the importance of the
moment. They understood that their being in the land could mean success or
failure and they had to be clear as to their intentions. If their
intentions were to serve Hashem (G-d) and aid in the creation of
the whole, they would be successful; if not, the land would deny their
attempts at settling and cultivating. The Land would chase them away.
This basic concept of the symbiotic relationship between the nation and
land is not new. From the very beginning of time the relationship between
human behavior and the availability of natural resources was made clear.
Adam and Chava had a perfect world that took care of them. Gan Eden
(Garden of Eden) left them free to focus solely on understanding G-d and
His intentions for humanity. Once they sinned Adam and Chava were chased
out of Gan Eden and humanities struggle with nature began. To the extent
that they listened to G-d was the extent to which nature gave over its
largess and bounty.
The Mabul made the symbiotic relationship between human and nature even
more direct. To the extent that the human is responsible for creating and
maintaining the whole of nature (the experience in the Tayvah (ark) by
caring for all the animals) is the extent to which the whole of nature
will support humanity in its endeavor to rise above animal and embrace its
own divine image.
The destruction of society with the Tower of Baval further underscored the
symbiotic relationship between human, nature, and devotion to Hashem. If
humanity devotes itself to Hashem, nature will support its social
constructions. However, if humanity unites in opposition to G-d nature
will respond by destroying the foundation of that society and dispersing
its members to the four corners of the earth.
The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah soon after the fall of the Tower of
Bavel (52 years) left an indelible scar on the perfection of the Land.
That utterly lifeless destruction proclaimed loud and clear that the Land
will respond to its inhabitants in the most extreme way possible. It can
be as the Garden of G-d or a pillar of salt. The choice is ours. If we
serve Hashem and humanity the land will be as Gan Eden. If we choose to
not serve Hashem and humanity it will become the scorched, infertile, and
wasted landscape we recognize today. The Avos (patriarchs) knew this
fundamental symbiotic relationship and embraced their responsibilities for
maintaining the whole.
On a smaller but consistent scale were the Avos themselves. Each of them
proved to be financially successful despite grave difficulties and
challenges. Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov each did far more than survive.
They rose to dominate their societies financially and spiritually.
Clearly, they were living examples of the human / nature relationship. The
Avos represented the importance of the part in relation to what it
contributes to the whole.
For whatever reason the area of Shechem was the key to unlocking or
locking Eretz Yisroel's potential to aid or hinder their destiny. It was
the key to the land being a blessing or a curse. Rashi records that when
Avraham went to Shechem and built his first Mizbeach (alter) "G-d showed
him the mountains of Grizim and Ayval where his children would receive the
oaths." Avraham knew that it was up to him and it would be up to them (his
future descendants) to commit to success. Yakov as progenitor of the
family returned to the land and immediately settled outside the city of
Shechem. He too understood that the success of their tenure in Eretz
Yisroel was dependent on the commitment they would make in Shechem. When
Yehoshua led the Bnai Yisroel across the Yarden (Jordan river) he was
commanded to shepherd the nation to the foot of Har Grizim and Ayval.
There, the nation would hear the blessings and the curses that was theirs
for the choosing. They would have to proclaim loud and clear why they
wanted to inherit the land. Being the children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and
Yakov was not enough. The right of inheritance was to those who would
honor the conditions of the relationship. They would have to decide if
they were to be the part, the portion, the Shechem that supported the
whole; or, the part, portion, Shechem that considered the whole important
only to the extent that it supported the part.
What is the part and what is the whole? To be more exact, what is the
whole? We know what the part is. We are each a part. The nation is a part.
But what are we a part of? To which whole are we responsible?
This week’s Parsha, begins to define the whole and the part. The root
meaning of the name Yoseph is to gather, to unify. Yoseph’s strength
according to the Shem Meshmuel was to unify his brothers into a cohesive
whole. Each of the brothers presented unique characteristics essential for
the whole of the Jewish nation. Yoseph was the one who was intended to
rally them all in the cohesive whole of a family soon to be nation that
could survive all that destiny would reveal.
Yoseph’s mission is revealed on two accounts. First the manner in which
the brothers related to him. Yoseph’s job was to unify and the barriers he
had to overcome were the brothers themselves. Secondly, the outcome of his
personal destiny transcended the unification of a nation and embraced the
unity of a world. He and he alone became the Mashbir, the provider of food
for the starving masses.
Next week we will continue the discussion of the Whole and The Part by
further exploring the uniqueness of Shechem as a place of Whole or Part.
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Torah.org
The author is the Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley
Village, CA, and Assistant Principal of YULA.