No Break

If you have ever seen a Torah scroll, you know that it contains paragraph breaks. Some paragraphs are longer than others, but at the end of the paragraph, there is usually a break, especially at the end of a portion. There are very few portions that are not preceded by an open space in the Torah scroll. This week’s Torah portion, the last one in Genesis, is one of them.

Noting this anomaly, the famed Torah commentator Rashi1 reflected, “Why is this section [completely] closed? Because, as soon as our father Jacob passed away, the eyes and the heart of Israel were ‘closed,’ (i.e., it became ‘dark’ for them) because of the misery of the slavery, for they (the Egyptians) commenced to subjugate them.”

The way Rashi saw it, every anomaly in the Torah is instructive. If the break is missing, there is a reason. Yet, when we examine the particular lesson that Rashi drew from the missing break, we wonder about the connection. The words with which this portion begins are “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years,” but the subjugation of the Jews in Egypt began only after Jacob’s passing. Does this lesson not belong later in the text, when Jacob’s passing is recounted?

The question becomes even more remarkable when we consider the teaching of our sages that the best years of Jacob’s life were the last 17 years that he spent in Egypt. The Torah portion begins with a description of Jacob’s best years, yet Rashi would have us believe that the Torah chose this point to state that seventeen years henceforth, the Jews would be miserable. Why does the Torah make that point here? What lesson can we glean from it?


In typical Jewish fashion, we will answer the question with another question. When King David prayed for the redemption, he wrote, “Make us happy, as many as the days that you afflicted us and as many as the years that we have seen evil.” The obvious meaning here is that David prayed that our happiness last as long and be as intense as our affliction was. But why did David write about “the years that we have seen evil” rather than the years that we have experienced evil?

There is a difference between experiencing suffering and perceiving that experience as suffering. Suppose your car breaks down and you are told that the repair bill will be $10,000. You are brought up short and wonder where the money will come from. But suppose that the day before your car broke down, your roof caved in and the repair bill was $50,000. Suddenly, your $10,000 repair job doesn’t seem as daunting.

This is why people who have sunk so far into debt think little of increasing their debt. They are so far in the hole that they cannot hope to extricate themselves anyway. How much more damage can another $10,000 cause?

Suppose further that the day before your car broke down, your doctor informed you that your life is, G‑d forbid, at risk. In that case, the $10,000 wouldn’t at all feel like a problem. The smaller problem would be entirely dwarfed by the larger one. When you are worried about life, of what value is money? Even $10,000’s worth of money.

This is why King David asked that our happiness be as intense as “the years that we have seen evil.” We might experience many years of evil, but it is only at the start of our suffering that we actually perceive our suffering as terrible. After a while, we become inured to it and are no longer anguished.

King David wanted our happiness to be as intense as the suffering that we experienced before we were numbed to it. He wanted G‑d to grant us a level of happiness that would cause our hearts to hum with gladness, to the same extent that they stirred with anguish when we were strangers to suffering.

We now reexamine Rashi’s explanation for the closed beginning to our Torah portion. Rashi wrote that “as soon as our father Jacob passed away, the eyes and the heart of Israel were ‘closed,’ because of the misery of the slavery, for they (the Egyptians) commenced to subjugate them.”

When the subjugation began, the eyes and hearts of Israel were closed with misery. Because the Jews were exceedingly comfortable in Egypt during Jacob’s life, the initial subjugation triggered such misery. Had they suffered throughout Jacob’s 17 years in Egypt, they would not have been so miserable with the increased suffering that befell them after his passing. Precisely because they were happy during his lifetime, the marked contrast caused them such misery.

This explains why their misery is highlighted by the Torah at the point that describes the best years of Jacob’s life, the 17 years that he spent in Egypt. It is only because those years were so good that the suffering that followed was so difficult.

The Lesson

This discussion yields a fascinating insight. The human spirit is remarkably adaptable. When suffering becomes our norm, we adapt and learn to cope. Anguish is the experience of exceptional suffering. When we experience anguish, we are sure that our lives are completely miserable, but ironically, the opposite is true. If we are experiencing anguish, it is a sign that our lives are largely worry-free. The present hardship is an anomaly for us, which is why we are so anguished by it. Had all of life been miserable, we would have adapted.

Ironically, the experience of anguish is a wonderful sign. It tells us much about our quality of life.

Another ironic fact is that understanding anguish helps to dissipate anguish. When anguish is seen from this light, its sting and harshness is softened. It no longer hammers against our heart with relentless intensity; it hums a soft, reassuring tune in the gratitude compartment of our brain.

Yet we cannot allow ourselves to be content with suffering merely because we aren’t anguished by it. Our nation has suffered in exile for nearly 2,000 years. By now, many have grown familiar with it and no longer feel the pain. On occasion, we experience terrible tragedies and the anguish of exile flares up. But for the most part, many have grown accustomed to the suffering.

We cannot be content with exile and must continue to pray for redemption. We must yearn for the coming of Moshiach, for our return from exile and for the building of the third Temple. We must always pray for the messianic era, a time of world peace and holiness. A time when our sole interest will be the pursuit of the knowledge of G‑d. May that time come speedily in our days. Amen.

(Based on Kesav Sofer, third teaching to Genesis 47:28.)