Exile–The Absence Of Jewish Context

The descent into Egypt and Jacob's death left his family in an alien culture, forced to find a context for their traditions within themselves.

Commentary on Parashat Vayechi, Genesis 47:28 - 50:26

Vayechi is the last portion in Genesis. In it, Jacob blesses his sons before dying, and Joseph, before his death, promises his brothers that eventually God will remember them and take them out of Egypt and back to Israel, and asks that at that time they take his bones with them, for final burial there. Thus, the Book of Genesis ends, with the stage set for the beginning of the enslavement of the next generation of Israelites.

An Interesting Opening

The portion opens with an interesting anomaly. As you know, there is no punctuation in the Torah; the words are written as a string of letters, with no separation of any kind [only one small space appears between any two words]. The only exception is a paragraphing system. The Torah leaves spaces in between paragraphs — called parashahs — and in between the five books of the Bible.

Weekly portions always are demarcated; they begin either on a new line, or after a space large enough to have nine letters written in it. Vayechi is an exception, in that there is no space at all between the end of last week’s portion, Vayigash, and the beginning of Vayechi–the last letter of Vayigash is followed immediately by the first letter of Vayechi.

Rashi quotes two Rabbinic explanations of this unique phenomenon:

Why is this parashah ‘stumah‘ [closed, or sealed, i.e., written immediately after the end of the preceding parashah with no space in between]? Because once Jacob died, the eyes and hearts of the Israelites were closed by the oppression of their subjugation, for it was then that they [the Egyptians] began to subjugate them. Another explanation is that Jacob wanted to reveal the future to his sons, and it was closed to him.

This Rabbinic explanation sees the lack of empty space as a kind of pun; the word that describes this lack of empty space is ‘stumah.’  Stumah also describes, in two ways, what will happen to the Jewish people by the time the portion is over — their hearts and eyes will be sealed by the pressures of servitude, and Jacob himself will have the knowledge of the future denied–closed–to him, and he will be unable to reveal it to his children.

The pun works on a visual level as well — the portion is called ‘closed,’ and also looks closed, so that the physical arrangement of the start of the portion also stands as a kind of a symbol of the ‘closedness’ that will be experienced by Jacob and the Jewish people in Egypt.

The image that the pun conjures up, of the eyes and hearts of the Jewish people being closed by subjugation, is an interesting one. It paints subjugation as first and foremost and interior event, one that occurs within the person. The victim is limited, robbed of his or her ability to feel and see, that is, to relate to and interact fully with the world in which he or she lives. Jacob’s inability to see the future is part of the same syndrome–in this foreign land, Jacob literally can see no future for his children, only subjugation and servitude–non-future.

Jacob’s Death & Slavery

The obvious question, asked by many commentaries, is this: When Jacob died, the enslavement of the Jewish people was still a long way away–they would not be enslaved until after the deaths of Joseph and all his brothers and their entire generation. Why does Rashi connect the death of Jacob with the closing of the eyes and hearts, the subjugation of his family?

To answer this question, I think we must try to understand more fully the message behind the ‘closedness’ of the opening of our portion, and what it implies about the state of the Jewish people. Is the lack of space between Vayigash and Vayechi simply a visual pun, which works because the word ‘stumah’ can describe both what is going on on the page and what is going on for the Jewish people?

Nachmanides (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman–the Ramban, 13th-century Spain and Israel), in his preface to his commentary on the Torah, quotes a Rabbinic source which describes the Torah as having predated the creation of the world. This primordial, spiritual Torah was written in fire, black fire on white fire, and serves as a kind of mystical prototype for the actual, physical Torah, which is written in black ink on white parchment.

According to this image, the margins of the Torah, the empty parchment, the space which surrounds the written words, is also made of divine fire, and, therefore, also has a sanctity. It follows, therefore, that the parchment, the margins of our physical Torah, is not simply blank space, but, rather, like the letters, has some kind of sanctity, some kind of part to play as ‘Torah.’ If this is so, the lack of empty space at the beginning of our parashah actually represents the absence of this aspect of the Torah.

What is the nature of the sanctity of the white fire, the parchment, the white spaces in the Torah? It would seem that the notion of a divine margin would perhaps indicate that, in addition to the words, which convey the specific message of the Torah, there is also a context, a setting, holy as well, in which the Torah resides.

A relationship with the Torah is not only a relationship with the specific literal message of the text; it also includes a relationship with a setting, a context, in which one is able to relate to the Torah and its message. The black fire represents the sanctity of the Torah’s words; the white fire represents the sanctity of the Torah’s setting.

By starting the portion of Vayechi with no margin, with no white fire, the tradition is telling us something about the situation of the Jewish nation in Egypt, in exile. When the Jewish people left Israel for Egypt, they left behind their natural context; the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the land where they became a people, where their relationship with God and his covenant was initiated, and would ultimately be played out.

Losing the Link

However, as long as Jacob was alive, he served as a link to that setting, to that context, and prevented them from losing touch with it. Once he passed away, that link was lost, and, although the Egyptians did not yet begin to actually oppress the Jews, their existence became narrower, more straitened, without margin, context, and background.

When they looked around them, what they saw was an alien culture, an alien setting, which they had to close their eyes to, to shut out, in order to remain faithful to their inner vision. When they let themselves feel, what they felt was foreign, not their own, and ultimately threatening, so they stopped themselves from feeling, in order to remain true to their inner feelings. Jacob, therefore, could see no future in Egypt for his children, as their future was, in fact, not really there, but elsewhere, in an interior landscape to which they were forced to retreat.

I am reminded of my own grandfather, who, for me, also served as a kind of Jewish context in a non-Jewish American setting. Calling him Zayde (Yiddish for grandfather), seeing him reading the Yiddish newspaper, studying the weekly Torah portion, going with him to the small Hasidic shul he prayed in, created a backdrop for me when I was growing up that placed me somewhere other than my immediate American surroundings. He served as a kind of white fire, a setting for the black fire of the words I studied in my Jewish day school, words which, I think, would have felt totally unrelated to the life I was living were it not for Zayde’s presence.

Jacob’s children, with his death, were left context-less–adrift in a foreign land and culture, still in possession of the black fire of their specific traditions, but lacking the white fire of a familiar, personal, Jewish context. This is the tragedy and challenge of exile, symbolized by the lack of a margin, of space, at the beginning of Vayechi–to be condemned to live a life which can access the specifics of Jewish tradition, but without a truly Jewish context in which to live them.

Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.


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