Meaning in the Torah’s Layout

Vayehi By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Dec 25, 1999 / 5760 | Main Commentary

Everything is susceptible to midrashic interpretation, including the physical appearance of the Torah text. As you know from aliyot to the Torah, the text of the Torah scroll is not divided onto chapters or verses, as it is in our printed edition of the Torah, but rather into units separated from each other by empty space. When the Torah scroll is raised to be bound and the text is turned to the congregation for viewing, these breaks in the written script stand out conspicuously. The ancient text contains neither vowels nor punctuation, only words arranged in passages of different sizes defined by their context and set off by gaps in the writing.

These breaks are of two sorts: one occurs within the line and is enclosed on both sides by the final word of the passage that precedes and the first word of the passage that follows. The size of the space is the equivalent of nine letters. The other break is unenclosed on the left side (remember Hebrew goes from right to left), leaving the line open. That is, the next passage begins on the following line on the far right. The book of Genesis, for example, contains a total of 91 such breaks, 43 enclosed and 48 open on the left side.

The first of the Torah’s two creation stories shows clearly how this method of demarcation works. Each of the seven days of creation is treated as a distinct literary unit set off by an open space that completes the line. According to this arrangement, God’s resting on the seventh day culminates the creation of the cosmos, and together the seven passages constitute a single narrative unit followed by an open space before the Torah shifts to the Garden of Eden, where the story unfolds without interruption until God informs Eve and Adam of their respective punishment.

Today, we reference biblical passages by chapter and verse. While the division of Scripture into verses is of Jewish provenance dating from the period of the Talmud, the breaking into chapters derives from the Church. In the 13th century, manuscripts of the Vulgate, the accepted Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible, edited by Jerome, began to appear divided into chapters. A century later, that division showed up in Hebrew manuscripts and was adopted by Daniel Bomberg in Venice in 1516-17 in the first printed edition of the Hebrew Bible with Hebrew commentaries (Mikraot Gedolot).

Yet, despite its unwieldy nature, the ancient Hebrew system of demarcation is often closer to the content of the text. Such is the case with the example cited above. For some unknown reason, those responsible for the division by chapter saw fit to sever the institution of the Sabbath on the seventh day from the other six days and make it the opening three verses of chapter two, the Eden narrative (Genesis 2:1-3). By contrast, the division in our Torah scroll in this instance perfectly matches form with content. To their credit, standard printed editions of the Haumash in Hebrew preserve the ancient format with spaces marked either by the letter “peh” signalizing an unenclosed space (petuhah– open) or the letter “samekh,” an enclosed one (stumah-closed).

One final comment before my midrash. The Torah is organized not only into smaller units, either open or closed, totaling 669, but also into 54 longer portions to be read weekly in the synagogue. On occasion, the two are coterminous, as in parashat Miketz, which means the Hebrew text is unbroken for the entire length of the parashah, a nightmare for Torah readers who need to find their spot after each aliyah.

The midrash turns on the anomaly that no space of any sort distances the end of the last week’s parashah, Va-Yiggash, from Va-Yehi. In fact, this is the only time in the Torah that two sequential portions are not set apart by intervening space. The feature prompts the midrash unexpectedly to observe that Jacob on his deathbed intended to share with his sons a glimpse of things to come, but was denied the vision. The noteworthy absence of any defining space in the Torah scroll at the beginning of Va-Yehi suggests to the rabbinic imagination that the prophetic insight granted Jacob momentarily near the end of his life quickly evaporated (B’reishit Raba 96:1). A close reading of the words supports this fanciful notion. The first two verses of the deathbed scene seem unduly repetitive: “And Jacob called his sons and said, ‘Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come. Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father (49:1-2).'” Jacob sounds tentative, almost stalling for time. The illumination is darkening, the vision fading, and Jacob ends up talking about past hurts instead of future blessings: “Reuben, you are my first born … unstable as water … For when you mounted your father’s bed (Genesis 35:22), you brought disgrace (49:3-4).”

But what means this poignant all-too human episode? We too yearn for moments of light to illumine the unredeemed world in which we live. At times of terrifying transition – from life to death, from one millennium to another – we peer desperately ahead into a beclouded future. This delicate midrash strikes a sober note which is part of a larger rabbinic agenda, not to speculate about things far beyond our ken. Even a figure as close to God as Jacob on the threshold of life eternal could not penetrate the veil that conceals what awaits us. We are better served by reflecting on the lessons of things past. And so Jacob slips into pondering the import of his family’s turbulent history.

In this spirit of emotional restraint, R. Yochanan ben Zakkai, who witnessed the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, urged his countrymen not to mourn excessively. The doing of good deeds has the same redemptive power as the offering of sacrifices (Avot de R. Nathan, ed. Schechter, p. 21). Similarly tempered, he opined that if you were about to plant a sapling and news came that the messiah had arrived, finish your planting and then go out to greet him (same p 67). The failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 C.E. only intensified this anti-cataclysmic state of mind. In Babylonia, Samuel posited that the one difference between the present and the days of the messiah will be the end of Jewish degradation (B.T. Berakhot 34b), while in Palestine his contemporary, R. Yonatan, generally excoriated those who wasted their days trying to figure out when the messiah would come. Each miscalculation only adds to our despair (B.T. Sanhedrin 97b).

A note of sobriety on the eve of an inebriating passage of time. Better to look backward than forward, on what is perfectly clear and not frustratingly obscure. If we could avoid the horrific crimes against humanity that overwhelm the achievements of the 20th century, our future in the new millennium would be immeasurably brighter.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-y’hi are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.