Torah | The eternal search for meaning between the lines


Genesis 47:28-50:26

I Kings 2:1-12

In my first column for J., I wrote about my obsession with parshanut, the tradition of Torah commentary that forms a unique genre of Jewish literature. This week, I want to describe one of that literature’s subgenres: Midrash.

What is Midrash? Well, the most basic definition is that it is “rabbinic interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.” By “rabbinic,” I don’t mean that it is written by any old rabbi, but specifically that it was composed in the Rabbinic Period (approximately, the first to fifth centuries), by the same group of sages who composed the Talmud.

But the real question is: What do I mean by “interpretation”? Because the rabbis of the Midrash have a style of interpreting the Torah that is all their own, and it smashes all of our preconceptions about what it means to read and understand the Bible.

First of all, they love wordplay. They are always scrambling to find matching words that will connect two separate verses, willing to flip a letter or two to change the meaning of a word, or punctuate the verse differently to change the meaning of the verse entirely.

Secondly, they work with the assumption that nothing at all in the text of the Torah is arbitrary. So every word, every letter and every vowel is there intentionally — and if something seems extra, it is fair game for interpretation. Likewise, if something seems missing — a word is spelled without its usual vowel, for example — that isn’t just shorthand, there must be a deeper reason.

It isn’t just words that merit the attention of midrashic interpretation. Even the spacing of the text, from one paragraph to the next, is carefully scrutinized. You might say that these rabbis literally read between the lines.

And sometimes, they even read into spaces that are not there.

That’s what we see in the beginning of this week’s Vayechi, which recounts the death of Jacob. Vayechi, by tradition, is not properly spaced apart from the end of the previous reading, as are most new portions of the Torah. It is written “closed,” or smushed together. And the rabbis want to know why:

“Why is this this portion ‘closed’? Because since Our Father Jacob died, the eyes and hearts of Israel were closed by the pain of enslavement that began. Alter-natively, because Jacob asked to see the end of days, and it was closed off from him” (Genesis Rabbah 96:1).

So they give two reasons for the closed spacing. And this brings me to the last thing I want to say about the interpretive style of the Midrash: The rabbis are totally comfortable with multiple answers to the same question, answers entirely different from one another, existing simultaneously and all equally valid.

In this case, the two explanations suggest directly opposite reasons for the same closed space. The first opinion is that it is meant to represent a closing of the eyes of the future generation. The alternative opinion is that it represents the closing of Jacob’s own ability to see — the closing of the eyes of the old generation.

Two totally different meanings given to the death of Jacob, but each says something powerfully true about the passing of history through the generations. There are things that future generations will know and understand about the world that we will never see. But it is also a foundational principle of our tradition that there is a profound worldly wisdom that our ancestors possessed, things they knew intuitively that we often have trouble grasping.

Who better to teach us this lesson than the authors of the Midrash? For they were directly engaged in the project of seeing new things in the Torah, suggesting new interpretations that no one before had ever heard. But they were also committed to the notion that there was deep wisdom buried in these ancient texts about ancient people, and that we ought to do everything in our power to search for it.

In fact, the word “Midrash,” literally means “search.” The rabbis of the Midrash were searching: in every line of the Torah, every word, every letter — and even in the hidden spaces. They were on a search for meaning. And that is a search that continues, throughout the generations.

Rabbi David Kasher is the senior rabbinic educator at Berkeley-based Kevah. Follow his blog on the weekly Torah portion at