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.

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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 parashah, and what it implies about the state of the Jewish people. Is the lack of space between Vayigash and Vayehi 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 parashah of Vayehi 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.

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.