Every Sidra in the Sefer Torah is demarcated from its neighbouring one by either a petucha or sertuma, an “open” space in paragraphing format or a “closed” gap equivalent to the space taken up by nine letters. With one exception.. Prior to the start of this week’s Torah reading we find just a token gap amounting to the space of a single letter. Why?
Rashi sheds light on the matter. The gap is closed off, he says, le-fi she-keivan she-niftar Yaakov Avinu nistemu eineihem ve-libom shel Yisrael mi-tsarat ha-shibud. The general understanding of this Rashi is that with the demise of Jacob the eyes and hearts (or minds) of the people were “closed”, i.e. deadened from – or because of – the bondage which began to take root. This state of being would appear similar to the kotser ruakh, the stress-related “shortness of breath” (Ex. 6:9) caused by the later slavery which prevented the people from listening to Moses.
I am troubled by this reading of the Rashi for the following reason: The previous Sidra Vayyigash ends: “Israel settled in Goshen, they took holdings [Rashi: they bought property] (the Midrash says that literally it means that the land captured – or gripped – them!) and they were fruitful and multiplied there” while the first verse of Vayyekhi states “And Jacob lived in Egypt 17 years and the days of the years of Jacob’s life were 147” (Gen 47:27-28).
If the hearts of the people were deadened, if their spirit was destroyed, it was only after the point where the two sidrot join, Why then is this deadening of the spirit symbolised by a closing-off at this point?
I would like to suggest the following novel rendering of the Rashi which might answer this question without in any way violating his words. “The eyes and the hearts (or minds) of Israel were closed from (i.e. oblivious to) the impending slavery”. A very different interpretation of Rashi’s words – but one that appears to harmonise with the verse introducing it. The land gripped them! The nascent nation of Israel was in Egypt’s thrall. They had had it good there and could not believe it wouldn’t be this way for ever! Even with Jacob’s death, and as the oppression began to take root, they convinced themselves that this inhumanity was a temporary aberration.
Chillingly familiar! Tragically it is a scenario of which all who survived the Germany of the mid-1930s will be aware – as will any student of Jewish history, both modern and ancient.
In 370 BCE, 70 years after the Babylonian conquest of Judea, the Persian king Cyrus issued a proclamation to the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple (Ezra 1:1-3). Not only that but –miracle of miracles – he returned all the vessels of the first Temple that Nebuchadnezzar had plundered (1:7-11). Yet only 42,360 heeded the call (2:64). The rest had been gripped by Babylon! As a result of this the small number of Jewish returnees were fair game for Samaritan bullying and false accusation (4:6) and construction was halted by royal fiat (4:23-24). Very shortly afterwards, Ahasuerus and Haman ascend to power in Persia and the Jews are very nearly destroyed. Those acculturated Jews who partook of the orgiastic feast that opens Megilat Esther (glatt kosher quite possibly, although the ambiance was not) were quite gripped by Persia!
In 19th century Germany, Berlin was declared by Reform Jewry “the new Jerusalem” (hence its designation of “Temple” to denote synagogue). Some traditional Jews were also gripped by Germany. Hence 70 or so years later on the cusp of Hitler’s rise to power many Jews were in ostrich-like denial about their future, or lack of it, in Germany, Poland and neighbouring countries. Incredibly today another 70 years on, in the wake of the Holocaust, some Jews still feel they have a future in these lands and are returning. Rising levels of anti-Semitism throughout Europe, including Britain, are dismissed by those Jews who are gripped by their adopted countries. That most American Jews are gripped by America is certain. Yet a country that can place “the right to bear arms” (Second Amendment) above the safety of schoolchildren cannot, in my humble opinion, be a safe bet for Jews for ever.
We shall surely merit Mashiakh when we appreciate our historic destiny in our historic homeland more than we value our acculturated lifestyles in the foreign lands in whose thrall we are gripped.