Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Vayikra (Leviticus 1-5)
(Being as we are less than two weeks away from Passover, a short idea about one of Passover’s core messages will be presented at the end of this dvar Torah.)
Set a Margin so Life doesn’t Just Barge In
Margin/märjən/the edge or border of something. Although margins are important for books, we don’t talk enough about the need to leave space for margins in life. In The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients, Irvin Yalom, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford, says that he never schedules back-to-back appointments. He leaves space between patients so that he can process the session in which he had just been a part of. Dr. Yalom’s idea is not new—margin as a tool for thought processing and more thoughtful living was mentioned thousands of years ago.
Although an authentic Torah scroll has no punctuation marks, it does have spaces between sections serving as dividers indicating a new subject. But why are these breaks necessary; it would have been just as efficient to have written the Torah with punctuation marks and paragraphs beginning on a new line?
Rashi (1:1) addresses this point by telling us the background of how Moses physically wrote the Torah. When G-d dictated a paragraph (or sometimes many paragraphs) to him, He gave Moses an interval (pause/break) of time to consider and contemplate what was just said.
These breaks are preserved in the Torah. Rashi makes a logical deduction from this: If the great Moses needed time to absorb what had just been said, all the more so for the rest of us. Whenever we hear a significant idea or learn something new, we ought to give ourselves time to process what we hear. Rashi’s insight is perhaps the world’s first reference to the necessity of creating margins in life.
Margins in a book aren’t simply blank spaces, their value is apparent by how carefully they are chosen. Here is how one publisher’s website describes the importance of margins.
White space is part of the paper you choose not to print on. If your primary consideration is to get the most for your money, you would have as little white space as possible. Ample white implies that you own the entire page but don’t need to consume it… (https://www.bookmakingblog.com/search?q=margins)
Whether you call it the Moses concept or the margin concept, leaving space in your day for reflection is so important, that an entire book has been written on the subject. In Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard Swenson, M.D. articulates how crucial this concept is.
Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating…
If we were equipped with a flashing light to indicate “100 percent full,” we could better gauge our capacities. But we don’t have such an indicator light, and we don’t know when we have overextended until we feel the pain. As a result, many people commit to a 120 percent life and wonder why the burden feels so heavy. It is rare to see a life prescheduled to only 80 percent, leaving a margin for responding to the unexpected that G-d sends our way.
Margin does not just happen; one has to fight for it, and the amount of margin necessary will change according to the circumstance in which we find ourselves. Abraham Lincoln famously said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Imagine having a conversation you have been avoiding with a spouse, parent, child, friend, or some other person significant in your life, about an awkward or painful topic. If you want to maintain an emotionally healthy relationship, you will need time to think it through beforehand and also time to process what was said after the talk. This idea isn’t complicated but one of life’s major challenges is implementing it.
The Torah is the Almighty’s instruction book for a life of pleasure. It contains life-altering ideas, many of which require reflection after hearing them. Moses needed to leave himself a margin to process ideas that would transform humanity and be the foundation of much of Western democracy. If an intellectual and spiritual giant of Moses’ stature needed time to process what he was hearing, all the more so us. Instead of shooting for 120 percent and getting worn out in the process, let’s strive for 80 percent and leave time to process the context of what we have heard and who said it. We look at the complete person, not just someone who misbehaved in this circumstance. The more margin in life, the more we demonstrate that we have taken ownership of lives rather than letting its curve balls consume us.
May we all create margins in our lives.