‘Trapped white space’ has special meaning, Behar-Bechukotai, Leviticus 25:1-27:34

‘Trapped white space’ has special meaning, Behar-Bechukotai, Leviticus 25:1-27:34

“Trapped white space.” Those were the last three words a member of the high school yearbook staff wanted to hear after completing, without the use of a computer, a layout. “Trapped white space” was the term for a block of unused space in the middle of a spread of photos, and in the infinite wisdom of our yearbook advisor, it needed to be avoided at all cost.
Our adviser gravely cautioned us that the eye of the reader would have nowhere to go, and would be drawn immediately and dangerously toward that dreaded white space. My father, who as a journalist, worked skillfully in the field for many years, never heard of “trapped white space.” But no matter, we students avoided creating it, and when we failed, we hastily re-did the page (manually, remember), usually only minutes before deadline.
I learned the yearbook advisor’s lesson so well that when, years later, I came across the space in between two books in the sefer Torah, I immediately thought, “Oh no! Trapped white space!”
At this point, let me suggest that if you have never seen a Torah scroll up close, you can ask your rabbi or cantor to show you one as soon as possible. It is a powerful experience and one open to every Jew. The space I am talking about, the space between books, is maybe two or three inches wide and allows the reader to quickly distinguish where one book (for example, Vayikra, or Leviticus) ends and the next one for example, Bamidbar, or Numbers, begins.
This week we complete the reading of Vayikra, and we will find ourselves in that blank space between books.
In Ashkenazi congregations there is ritual that takes place each time we complete the public reading of a book of Torah. After the Torah reader reads the last words of a book in the Torah, before the recitation of the final blessing of the person doing the aliyah, the entire congregation, followed by the reader, recites aloud, “Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek — Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened.”
The origins of this custom are not known, but there is a strong link between it and the words spoken to Joshua and to the community by Moses on the last day of his life. Twice on that day Moses charged Joshua, “Be strong and courageous.” (Dt. 31: 7 and 23) Moses spoke to the people using the same expression — but in the plural form. Moses’ death was a time of profound change. As the mantle of leadership was passed from Moses to Joshua, the people were likely to have felt vulnerable. It was a time when the rules weren’t necessarily clear and there was uncertainty about what the future would bring. Moses’ words, “be strong, and [together] we will be strengthened,” brought comfort and support to a fearful people.
The white space at the end of one book of Torah and the beginning of another is a moment of transition. By reciting the words, Chazak — be strong — we remind ourselves that Torah is always with us. In times of transition, especially, Torah and Jewish tradition give us strength.
The last phrase of the formula — “v’nitchazek,” may we be strengthened — is of critical importance. We are important sources of strength for one another in times of uncertainty and transition.
As we move from one book of Torah to another, as we move into and out of spaces of uncertainty and transition, may we always recall the charge Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek. Our tradition makes us strong, and we make one another stronger.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)