I DON'T KNOW
Rabbi Binyomin Friedman
Near the end of this week's Torah portion, we come across a most outstanding comment by Rashi, the father of all Biblical exegetes. The Torah tells us that Isaac sent Jacob to live with Laban, "brother of Rebecca, who was the mother of Jacob and Esau" (Genesis 28:5).
Near the end of this week's Torah portion, we come across a most outstanding comment by Rashi, the father of all Biblical exegetes. The Torah tells us that Isaac sent Jacob to live with Laban, "brother of Rebecca, who was the mother of Jacob and Esau" (Genesis 28:5). The difficulty in this verse is obvious. Why does the Torah find it necessary to repeat that which we surely already know, namely that Rebecca is the mother of Jacob and Esau? Strangely, Rashi comments on this verse, "I don't know what this teaches us." Such a remark is even more perplexing than the verse itself. Why did Rashi feel compelled to share with us his confusion? Rashi does not comment on every verse in the Torah, and as the adage goes, if you have nothing to say, then don't say anything.
To answer this question, we must first determine what role Rashi serves in our study of the Torah. His commentary was the first and is still the most significant and famous commentary on the Chumash (Pentateuch). While in reality "Rashi" is an acronym for his name Rabbeinu (our rabbi) Shlomo Yitzchaki, some offer an alternative understanding of the acronym, based upon the indispensable nature of his commentary: Rabban shel Yisrael, teacher of Israel. Rashi is the teacher par excellence of the Jewish people, and a good teacher never misses an opportunity to convey a lesson to his students. Rashi was bothered by a question. Had he not acknowledged the question, we might of mistakenly assumed that it was not a good question at all. Therefore, Rashi tells us that it must be teaching us something, but "I don't know what it teaches us."
Nevertheless, his comment remains puzzling. Surely Rashi learned something from this verse. This is far from the thorniest passage in the Torah. Ramban, Maharal, and other commentaries drew insights from this verse. Couldn't Rashi come up with anything?
To understand Rashi's perplexing comment, we must first understand Rashi's methodology. The Torah may be expounded on four levels, known by their acronym PaRDeS. Pshat -- straightforward, Remez -- allusions, Drush -- homiletics, and Sode - mysticism. Rashi dedicated his commentary to the task of explicating Pshat, the straightforward base meaning of the verse. In many ways, Pshat, generally viewed as the simplest level, is really the most profound. Pshat is the basic truth of the Torah. There can be many allusions or homilies for any verse, but there is only one Pshat.
Therefore, Siftei Chachamim, one of the countless commentaries dedicated to elucidating Rashi, explains Rashi's comment as follows: "In truth Rashi had many insights and explanations on this verse. His problem was that he was not sure which one was the Pshat." Rather than offer a Drush or a Remez, and instead of remaining silent, Rashi seizes the opportunity to teach. He writes, "I don't know what this teaches us," meaning that I haven't yet arrived at the base understanding of the Torah's intention in this verse. Until I have established a clear Pshat, I cannot address allusions or develop homiletics. They will all be meaningless because I have not established the basic truth of the Torah to use as a frame of reference. Once I have confirmed the true Pshat, I can apply the same rigorous standards to the other methods of Torah exegesis.
One may develop his own homiletic explanation, but one must also be able to prove that it is in accordance with the overall emet, truth, of the Torah. Rashi teaches us that until we are certain that our interpretation is true, it is wiser to say "I don't know what this teaches us." Rashi is truly the Rabbi of Israel -- the teacher who speaks volumes even when he says "I don't know."
Rabbi Binyomin Friedman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ariel and a card-carrying member of the Atlanta Scholars Kollel.
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