It’s a sign of the wise to say, ‘I don’t know’Toledot, Genesis 25:19-28:9

It’s a sign of the wise to say, ‘I don’t know’Toledot, Genesis 25:19-28:9

There is much to glean from this week’s parsha. The generations of Isaac teach us a great deal about raising a family and the difficult challenges one may face.
But the lesson that I would like to highlight here is one that jumps out at us from the Rashi. We read in 28:5, “Isaac sent Jacob away: and he went to Padan-aram unto Laban, son of Bethuel the Syrian, the brother of Rebecca, mother of Jacob and Esau.” On this underlined phrase Rashi comments, “I do not know what it teaches us.”
Many commentators throughout the years have praised Rashi for his humility. I remember so well learning from Nehama Leibowitz (one of the great biblical scholars of our time) at Hebrew University that this represented Rashi’s literal fulfillment of one of the seven marks of the wise man outlined in Pirke Avot (5:8): “Regarding that which he has not understood, he says … I do not understand it.”
We have learned from Rashi on many occasions that any descriptive word or phrase added in apposition to a familiar and already fully defined term is not placed there for purely ornamental and rhetorical reasons. It is meant to teach us something new. In this case, Rashi could find no purpose in the closing words of this passage.
I am finding that with age and experience comes wisdom. Many of us have our own areas of expertise in our small corners of the universe. As a rabbi — with my own areas of expertise culled from my own years of experience — I am often called upon by those who may have lost their way, or those who are searching to understand the mysteries of the universe, or those who, like Isaac and Rebecca, need advice on raising their kids. Sometimes overwhelmed by my own sense of importance, I feel flattered that people would come to me and I am most gratified that often times the wisdom that I have attained over the years provides me with the insight to be of help to others.
But there are times when the words are not available and the answers are not evident. Many people make the mistake of trying to answer every question even when no answers are there.
We must learn from the example of Rashi, we must remember the adages from Pirke Avot. It’s OK to say, “I do not know.” In fact, it is preferable. There are many things in life — some trite, some more complex — that we cannot explain. It is the sign of a wise man who says about “that which he does not understand — I do not understand.”
Sometimes we learn much from reading beyond the text, and we are grateful that there are those like Rashi who have come before us to provide examples of wisdom from which we can learn. Shabbat Shalom.

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