Friday, November 30, 2012

Parshat Vayishlach: What "I do not know" teaches us

Gen 35:13-14. And God went up from him in the place where He had spoken with him. Now Jacob had erected a monument in the place where He had spoken with him, a stone monument, and he poured a libation upon it, and [then] he poured oil upon it.

Rashi comments on the phrase “in the place where He had spoken with him” saying “I do not know what this teaches us.”

This is one of several places where Rashi says “I do not know what this teaches us.” Nechama Leibowitz taught* that this shows 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.”

Yet why does Rashi point out here, exactly here, that there is something he doesn’t understand? Something in the text has caught Rashi’s attention. He points to the repeated statement “in the place where he had spoken to him.” He draws our attention to this phrase. He arouses our curiosity. He makes us examine it more closely. What hidden treasure did Rashi glimpse here? By saying he doesn’t know, Rashi points us in the direction of valuing the question itself, of valuing the direct experience of Torah. Follow Rashi’s example. With a sense of awe and not knowing, contemplate this phrase. Visualize the place where Israel and God spoke. Imagine Jacob’s veneration of that place. Find the place where you return, again and again, to speak with the Source of Being. See whether “I do not know” can be a springboard for wonder and discovery.

May we hold our “not knowing” with awe, seeing how questions draw us ever closer to the Source.

*Nechama Liebowitz according to Rabbi Chuck Diamon. see:

Friday, November 23, 2012

Parshat Vayeitzei
Gen 28: 17 And he was frightened, and he said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."

Gen 32:2-3 And Jacob went on his way, and angels of God met him.  And Jacob said when he saw them, "This is the camp of God," and he named the place Mahanaim.

In his early adulthood, before he has married and established a household, Jacob has a religious vision and names the place the house of God (Beth El). Later, when he is moving his now large and wealthy household of wives, children, camels, goats, sheep, tents, he meets god’s messengers and calls the place the camp of God.  Why does he call the first place a house and the second place a camp? A house implies more permanence than a camp. Early in his life, he is seeking – and perhaps thinks he has found – an enduring way to encounter God. He names this experience a “house” to connote it’s permanence. Twenty years later, he realizes that even insights and encounters with God have a fleeting nature.

May we be blessed to hold even our insights lightly, realizing that with grace, they may be constantly renewed and refreshed.