20/21 Nov : Toledot : Shabbat comes in 3:50 pm, ends 4:55 pm
Parashat Toledot – I Do Not Know
‘And Isaac sent Jacob away, and he went to Padena-Aram, to Lavan son of Bethuel the Aramean, brother of Rebecca the mother of Jacob and Esau.’ – Genesis 28:5
It is accepted by most Torah commentators that the Torah does not waste words. Any seemingly-superfluous information is understood to have a secondary meaning. In this verse, it might seem superfluous to explain that Rebecca was the mother of Jacob and Esau, because the whole narrative of Parashat Toledot is exploring that relationship. This leads the eye of the reader from the text of the Torah to the commentators. The most famous of all Torah commentators, Rashi, has the following to say on this text:
‘I do not know what this teaches us.’
It’s an astounding comment, both because it is startlingly honest, and because it seems unnecessary to add. Rashi does not comment on every word of Torah; surely we should be happy to assume that sometimes, Rashi does not know the answer. But here, Rashi appears to be modelling for us the advice of the Talmud (B’rakhot 4a): ‘Teach your tongue to say, “I do not know.”’
Much later, other commentators returned to this verse, interest piqued by Rashi’s admission, and wove other commentaries around it. Perhaps the text is reminding us that Lavan is also family to both sons in order to teach that Lavan will understand Jacob’s predicament (Bertinoro), or to tell us that it did not look like a punishment (Ha’amek Davar); perhaps we need a reminder that Rebecca is a mother to both sons, in order to teach us that sending Jacob away was protection for them both (Em Lemikra).
Whatever the text actually means, Rashi’s commentary provides insight into his character. May we all teach our tongues to say, ‘I do not know’.
So in terms of a punishment for the people of Noah’s time, the flood and the destruction of all living things does seem a bit extreme. One of my rabbis, Rabbi Brad Artson argues, that is exactly the point the Torah is trying to make.
Destruction, even when it comes from the God who is “slow to anger and abounding in kindness” bursts beyond any manageable or fair limitations. Even punishments, originally intended to be measured and reasonable, provoke unanticipated suffering and hardship.
Rabbi Paul Arberman.
Abraham Joshua Heschel believed that Adam’s sin was primarily in hiding from God and from himself. This is not, in Heschel’s eyes, an abstract idea; we all hide from God and from ourselves. Heschel expresses it thus in the third verse of his poem I and Thou:
” Often I glimpse Myself in everyone’s form,
hear My own speech – a distant, quiet voice – in people’s weeping,
as if under millions of masks My face would lie hidden. ”
Heschel is describing a personal experience in which he has hidden from himelf, his essence absorbed within society. His face is masked, hidden from view, making the idea to “know thyself” impossible.
I’m not sure why we hide from ourselves so well when we are young — or perhaps we just don’t take the time to think through who we are — but I can say definitively, that one of the great joys of getting older is the unmasking — getting to know yourself — what you actually enjoy or don’t enjoy doing.
Written by Rabbi Paul Arberman