Toledot: Extra! Extra!

[To listen to this D'var Torah, click here /Portals/45/Toledot_1.mp3] According to Jewish tradition, the Torah contains no unnecessary words.  But what about Genesis 28:5 in this week’s portion, Toledot?  It mentions Isaac, Jacob, Laban, his father Betu-el -- and Rebekah.  It’s perfectly obvious from previous chapters who Rebekah is; yet, the Torah identifies her here as “Rebekah, mother of Jacob and Esau.” Why are we told what we already know?

My answer: I don’t know.   

My ignorance shouldn’t surprise anyone … but I’m in excellent company.  Rashi, [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105] Judaism’s preeminent teacher of Torah and Talmud, didn’t know either.   He simply said: “I do not know what this comes to teach us.”  Nor is his frank acknowledgement of ignorance unique to this verse.  According to Rabbi Berel Wein, Rashi says this, or a variant of it, seventy-seven times in his Bible commentary and forty-four times in his Talmud commentary! 

Rashi didn’t comment on every Torah or Talmud verse.  So, as Rabbi Joseph Telushkin notes, when Rashi found that he couldn’t offer an explanation, he could have just said nothing.  But had he done so, all future Jews who sought to learn from him would assume that he had found no problems with any of these many verses. Telushkin suggests that Rashi’s admissions may have reflected more than humility and intellectual honesty; he may have wished to motivate his students to seek answers.

“Knowledge is Power,” goes the adage.  It’s also a source of income, employment, esteem, self-respect, and many other benefits.  These provide us powerful incentives to avoid appearing ignorant.  We’re often reluctant to say “I don’t know” to our boss, our employees, our students, our clients, our children … to just about anyone.

But if we don’t freely and honestly acknowledge our ignorance, we may be guilty of arrogance, dishonesty, and of misleading others, especially if we guess at or invent an answer without saying so.  Perhaps worst of all, we may discourage or stifle curiosity that would otherwise lead to an important discovery. 

When we're puzzled, let's say so!  Let’s not let our egos and fears take control when we don’t have an answer. That's a “no-know!”  

Shabbat shalom.

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb