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The Omission of a Blank Space in the Torah Captures the Story of a People

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

    2557 views
  • December 5, 2019
  • |
  • 7 Kislev 5780
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Class Summary:

There are only two portions in the Torah which lack any space to breathe. Vayeitzei and Miketz. Unlike all other portions, in the Torah scroll, these two portions lack any blank spaces to indicate a break.

This is strange. Our portion is long—it contains 148 verses and covers twenty full years in the life of Jacob, years consisting of diverse encounters, experiences, and tribulations. Why is there not a single space in the entire portion?

It was the Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Altar, the second Rebbe of the Ger dynasty, who offered a marvelous explanation, capturing the story of our people over 4000 years.

Dedicated by Rivka Saks and family in loving memory of Tzvi Yehuda ben Yitzhak Elchonon, on the occasion of his 14th yahrzeit, on the 14th of Marcheahvan

The Blank Spaces

This essay will not dissect a portion of the Torah, nor a chapter, verse, sentence, or word. We will not even focus on a letter or a syllable in the Torah. We will explore a glaring omission in this week’s portion.

Any person who has been called up to the Torah, or those who had an opportunity to gaze at a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) will note that it does not contain the familiar kind of punctuation used in books. There are no periods, exclamation points, or question marks; no commas, colons, semi-colons, or hyphens.

But there are two forms of punctuation in the Torah to indicate (at least in many instances[1]) the beginning of a new topic—and they are blank spaces between words, marking the end of one “Parsha,” or theme, and the beginning of a new one.

[There are two types of spaces in a Torah scroll, one is called “setuma,” which means closed; the other is called “pesucha,” which means open. When a topic in Torah comes to an end, and a new topic is about to begin, the words stop before the end of a line, the remainder of the line is left open. Then the new topic begins only on the next line. This is called a “pesucha,” or an open-ended line. However, when a new, yet related, topic begins, the line is not left open at the end, but a space the length of nine letters is left empty between the words, and the next topic begins on the same line. This is called a “setuma,” or a closed-ended line. They are indicated in every printed Chumash with a Hebrew letter “pei” (פ for pesucha) or the Hebrew letter “samach” (ס for setuma).]

Here is an image of a few pages in the Torah scroll containing both types of spaces, a “pesucha,” then a “setuma.”

Two Exceptions

All portions of Torah are filled with numerous such blank spaces. Take a look at any portion in your printed Chumash and you will see at every new topic a letter “pei” (פ) or a letter “samach” (ס).

There are two exceptions—this week’s portion, Vayeitzei, and the portion of Miketz. Vayeitzei contains 148 verses; Miketz—146 verses, and they both lack these breaks. The entire portion is written as a run-on sentence, with no “space” to breathe.

This is strange. Vayeitzei is one of the longer portions in the Torah and it covers twenty full years in the life of Jacob, years filled with diverse encounters, experiences, and tribulations. Why is there not a single space in the entire portion?

Leaving Home

It was Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Altar, the second Rebbe of the Ger dynasty, known as the Sefas Emes, who offered a marvelous explanation.[2]

The portion begins with these words: “And Jacob left Be'er Sheba (where his parents lived in the south of the Holy Land) and traveled to Charan.” Harran was a city in ancient Mesopotamia, located today in Southern Turkey, on the border of Syria and Iraq. Jacob leaves the cocoon of his parents, an environment infused with the Abrahamic vision of life, and travels to Harran, where he would live with a deceitful father-in-law, Laban, and would endure many a trial. The portion ends, two decades later, with Jacob leaving Laban and returning to the Holy Land: “And Jacob went on his way and Divine angels encountered him.”

What allowed Jacob to maintain his moral and spiritual equilibrium throughout his two decades in exile? Why did the first Jewish refugee not assimilate and forfeit his spiritual identity?

The answer is hinted in the Torah by the omission of any space throughout his journey from the Holy Land and back there. From “And Jacob left Be'er Sheba,” in the opening of Vayeitzei, through “Jacob went on his way and Divine angels encountered him,” at the end of Vayeitzei, there was no chasm. Geographically, Jacob left Be'er Sheba in the Holy Land, he departed from Isaac and Rebecca and their Divine-centered world; but in his mindset, there was no gulf between the two. He knew he is on a journey, he was sent on a mission, and he will return.

Jacob never lost touch with where he came from, and thus never got lost in the vicissitudes of his exile life. "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how," Friedrich Nietzsche said. When you know who you are and the task that lay before you, the changing circumstances do not override your inner anchor. There is a uniform serenity that pervades your life.

The Secret of Longevity

This portion captures the long drama of Jewish exile. Jacob is the first Jew to leave his parents’ cocoon and recreate Jewish life on foreign soil; his descendants would be forced to do so numerous times throughout their history.

What is the secret of the descendants of Jacob to be able to endure millennia of exile and yet remain firmly etched in their identity as Jews?

The Mission

The late astrophysicist, Professor Velvl Greene, who worked many years for NASA, once related the following story.

Many years ago, Dr. Greene shared, a noted scientist delivered a lecture at a Space Science Conference on the broader aspects of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Program in the USA. Among other things, the lecturer drew a parallel between the problems which will face space explorers in the future and our current conditions on earth.

Using a hypothetical manned voyage to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, as an example, he emphasized the remarkable engineering, biological and sociological problems that would be encountered during the execution of this enterprise. Since the star is 4.3 light-years away, a spaceship traveling at 1,000 miles per second would require more than 800 years to get there and another 800 years to get back. Any original crew we launched would not survive for even a fraction of the mission's duration. Instead, we would have to "man" the capsule with men and women who would have children who would carry on the mission. These children would themselves have children, continuing this for 1,600 years. Ultimately, after many generations, the remote progeny of the original crew would complete the mission.

This interstellar spaceship would have to be completely self-sustaining and self-supporting. But the lecturer pointed out that the engineering and technical problems are only one side of the coin. In the spaceship, the crew would have to learn to tolerate each other, generation after generation. They would have to learn, and learn quickly, that you don’t blow up only part of a spaceship.

And then the speaker touched on a key topic: Would the fiftieth generation, after a thousand years, still share the aspirations of their pilgrim fathers who set out from earth so long ago? How, indeed, can you convey to a generation still unborn the basic information about where they came from, where they are going, why they are going there, how to get there, and how to get back?

One of the scientists stood up, and to my surprise and delight, declared: “If we could figure out how the Jewish people managed to survive these thousands of years, we’d have our answer!”

The scientist was on target. To a Jew, this story is no mere fantastic flight of imagination; it captures our millennia-long narrative. Almost four millennia ago, Abraham heard a call to become a blessing for all mankind. Over three thousand years ago, at Mount Sinai, we were launched with specific instructions and suitable maps. And we were told that we ought to transmit this mission to our children and grandchildren, for generations to come. The task was to bring healing and redemption to the world. 

We were charged with the mission to reveal that the universe has a soul, that humanity has a soul, that each of us has a soul. That we are living in G-d’s world, and our mission is to transcend our superficial shells and reveal the infinite oneness that unites us all. 

For more than a hundred generations we knew where we came from, where we were going, why we were traveling, who was the Project Officer, and how to get back. We had no real difficulty in transmitting this intelligence unbroken from generation to generation—even to generations who were not physically present during “take-off” at Sinai. How? Because the Torah, our Divine logbook, contained macro and micro guidance. Notwithstanding all challenges, this logbook has met the only real criterion of the empirical scientists—it worked. Our presence demonstrated that it worked.

As long as we did not allow an interruption in the transmitting of the Torah from generation to generation, the mission and the people remained intact.

The Challenge

But somehow, not too long ago, a “space” emerged in the middle of this long and incredible journey. A generation of "astronauts" arose who decided that they could write a better logbook. They thought the original was old-fashioned, restraining, complicated, and irrelevant to the problems of modern times. They lost their "fix" on the celestial reference points.

Many of them know something is wrong, but they could not pinpoint the malfunction and get back on course. Our mission today is to teach by example how there is indeed no gorge and no gulf between Sinai and modernity. It is one continuous uninterrupted chain, and—unlike with Darwinism—there is no missing link. The glorious narrative of our people is that we never allowed for an inter-generational gap. The same Shabbos our grandmothers celebrated 3000 years ago, we still celebrate. The same tefillin my great grandfathers donned in Georgia 300 years ago, I still wrap today in New York. The same texts Jewish children in Florence and Barcelona were studying 700 years ago, my children study today.

Abraham began the story, Moses consolidated it, and we will complete it.

To watch a full class by Rabbi YY on this theme, please click here.

_________________

[1] Sometimes it is unclear to us the purpose of the break at a particular location of the text.

[2] Sefas Emes Vayeitzei 5650 (1899). In his own words:

שפת אמת ויצא תר"נ: בסדר ויצא לא נמצא שום פרשה פתוחה וסתומה. וכ"ה בספרי מסורות כי לא יש סדר כזה בתורה זולת ויצא. ונראה דהרמז שלא פסק אבינו יעקב ולא הוסח דעתו מיציאתו לחו"ל עד שחזר ויפגעו בו מלאכי כו'. וז"ש וישבת עמו ימים אחדים שהיו כל הימים באחדות ודביקות בשרשו. [ויתכן ג"כ כי זה פי' הפסוק ויהיו בעיניו כימים אחדים באהבתו אותה כי ע"י אהבה זו הי' דבוק באחדות. וידוע כי אהבתו ברחל הוא סוד השכינה.] וזה הי' עיקר הנדר והבקשה אם יהי' אלקים עמדי בו' שלא יתפרד מן הדביקות ע"י לבן הרשע ותחבולותיו כנ"ל.

Please leave your comment below!

  • MM

    Menachem Mendel -2 years ago

    shalom why are there no spaces in miketz

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • S

    Sara -4 years ago

    Thank you for this beautiful gift.

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • S

    Shlomtza -4 years ago

    What  a breathtaking  piece of work!

    Yaarsher  koach!
    Good shabbos!

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • I

    Isaac -4 years ago

    miketz?

    And Miketz?

    And why does Sefas Emes say this is only Vayeitzei? Did he not know about Miketz?

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • Anonymous -4 years ago

    Thank You

    A Git Vuch!

    I really enjoyed this weeks D'Var Torah, actually most (sometimes there's a repeat) weeks D'Var Torah. This weeks D'Var Torah made me sit up straighter and taller like I got a pat on the back. Thank you for the inspiration week after week. 

    Mrs. S.

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • C

    Chaim -4 years ago

    amazing insight

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Essay Vayeitzei

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • December 5, 2019
  • |
  • 7 Kislev 5780
  • |
  • 2557 views
  • Comment

Dedicated by Rivka Saks and family in loving memory of Tzvi Yehuda ben Yitzhak Elchonon, on the occasion of his 14th yahrzeit, on the 14th of Marcheahvan

Class Summary:

There are only two portions in the Torah which lack any space to breathe. Vayeitzei and Miketz. Unlike all other portions, in the Torah scroll, these two portions lack any blank spaces to indicate a break.

This is strange. Our portion is long—it contains 148 verses and covers twenty full years in the life of Jacob, years consisting of diverse encounters, experiences, and tribulations. Why is there not a single space in the entire portion?

It was the Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Altar, the second Rebbe of the Ger dynasty, who offered a marvelous explanation, capturing the story of our people over 4000 years.

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