5/6 Nov: Toledot : Shabbat comes in 4:12 pm, ends 5:14 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.’