When looking at a Torah scroll, there are many components that make it distinct from other ancient texts. One of the most obvious of which are the spaces found before and after paragraphs. Being as a Torah scroll is written without vowels or Cantillation marks (the special indicators of the accent and tune), it seems strange that there are spaces strategically placed in the text to indicate a break. These breaks serve as dividers between subjects or topics. The question is, 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 in the beginning of this week’s Parsha tells us the significance of the breaks. G-d would dictate a paragraph to Moses, or sometimes many paragraphs, and then give him an interval of time to consider and contemplate what was just said. These breaks are preserved in the Torah and Rashi says a logical deduction can be inferred from them. If Moses, with all his greatness was given a chance (by G-d) to absorb what he had just been taught, “all the more so for an ordinary person who learns from another ordinary person.” The rest of us—ordinary people—should take note and apply this when we learn Torah or hear an idea that can impact our lives in any way. We need to give ourselves time to process what we hear.
When I was looking over this week’s Parsha and came across Rashi’s comment, it struck me that this most basic piece of ancient wisdom is commonly used today; it’s called ‘margin.’
Every book has margins. They are not simply blank spaces, they are consciously chosen. Here is how a publisher’s website describes the importance of margins in a book.
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 as little white space as possible. Ample white implies that you own the entire page but don’t need to consume it… (http://www.bookmakingblog.com)
Margins are not just crucial for books, they are crucial for 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.
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 dreading a conversation with your spouse, parent, child, friend, or some other person significant in your life, about an uncomfortable matter that you have been avoiding. You need time to think it through and time to think about what was said after the talk if you want to maintain an emotionally healthy relationship. This idea seems so simple but one of life’s major challenges is implementing it.
The Torah is G-d’s instruction book for a life of pleasure. Moses was the first person exposed to it and he needed margin to process its profound ideas; ideas that would be the foundation of much of Western democracy. Rashi insightfully noted, if Moses needed time to process the material he was learning, this applies all the more so to us.
May we all create margins in our lives.