The greatest commentator in Jewish history was a man named Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, but most of us today know him by the acronym, reish, shin, yud, or Rashi. Rashi was the rosh yeshiva of his community in Lorraine. And not only was he the rosh yeshiva, the greatest instructor within the community, he was also a prolific writer and thinker.
He wrote sprawling commentaries on the TaNaCh, the Hebrew Bible, as well as on 30 masechtot, 30 tractates or books of the Talmud. And just for reference, reading one page front and back of Talmud every day, just reading it, takes 7 and a half years to complete. He also wrote hundreds of tshuvot, halachic decisions, and in his spare time? He helped raise three daughters, and worked as a winemaker.
To say that Rashi was brilliant is a dramatic understatement. And there is no doubt that the Judaism we know today, the scholarship, the innovation, and the passion for learning so integral to our culture of Torah is thanks in no small part, to him.
But the greatest gift that Rabbi Shlomo Yitchaki ever gave us is one that we often take for granted, and one that even causes us frustration if we don’t take the time to slow down to appreciate it.
Throughout the TaNaKh and the Talmud, where a question of definition, theological import, or even simple narrative structure exists beyond his understanding, Rashi picks up his quill, dips it in ink, and puts to parchment for all of his students, and for all of us who have learned from him after his passing, the words … “aini yodeah.”
I … don’t … know.
The greatest scholar of all time goes out of his way to say to us … I don’t know what this means or what this is trying to teach us. I don’t know.
He doesn’t have to do this. The history of Torah commentary is pretty consistent with the idea that the Torah, being our central sacred text, is intentional with every word, every lack of word, and every seeming inconsistency within the text. It would be beyond the scope of any one scholar to find the mashmaut, the meaning, the significance in every textual curiosity.
But Rashi doesn’t stick only to those for which he has an answer. He doesn’t gloss over the ones that challenge him. Every single one gets the attention that it deserves. Even when sometimes, that attention is a short and humble declaration of … Aini Yodea … I don’t know.
These are my favorite contributions from Rashi. They are also, I believe, the least understood of his thousands upon thousands of comments. And quite frankly, they are so foreign to us today in our world and our mindset that they often go unnoticed or intentionally ignored.
Because, not knowing something in our day and age, is, for all intents and purposes, akin to stitching a scarlet letter onto our clothing. Maybe a capital I for ignorant. Or, even worse, in 2021, a capital U for “undecided” on a specific topic. In our time, we are expected not just to have an opinion, but to have one so firmly established that no conversation, no data, no alternative interpretation should be able to budge it.
All of us are experts on everything. You name it, we’ll give you an opinion on it, and if we don’t have one ready yet, we’ll watch a couple of videos on YouTube or read a Facebook post and then within minutes we too are credible sources of information, analysis, and criticism.
And, my friends, the subjects in which we’re experts ... we should all have honorary degrees. Because, today, in addition to whatever subject we studied in school, every single one of us also seems to hold a PhD in economics, foreign policy, class structure, racism, American history, the electoral process, and epidemiology.
And because we have billions of experts on every topic imaginable, all of those pesky societal and environmental problems, like hunger, poverty, climate change, and regional political instability have finally been solved, right?
But kidding aside, this really is a moment for us. We are living in an age when limitless information is at our fingertips. With the click of a button, we can sit in the lecture halls of Harvard or Yale. With the advancements of video conferencing services, we can interact with some of the most brilliant minds of our time no matter where we or they are in the world. And with an online library membership, there is literally no public book or article in print that isn’t available and accessible for us to read.
The point of the matter is that there is so much for us to learn, for us to digest, for us to understand, and yet, for many of us, our self accredited expertise comes not from hours of dedicated learning, but from kishkes. From our gut emotions. On which topics are we experts? On the ones that make us the angriest. Or the ones that scare us the most.
Which is so fundamentally anti-Rashi, and likewise so fundamentally contrary to who we are as Jews.
Judaism, in its essence, is a celebration of what we don’t know and wearing that humility as a badge of honor. While Rashi is the paragon of illustrating this point, we have different allusions to it throughout our tradition.
When we complete a masechet of Talmud, we say a prayer called the Hadran, which is essentially asking God to allow us to stay alive long enough so that we may return to the masechet’s text and study that same masechet again, because there is no way we could have even come close to unpacking all of the wisdom and beauty therewithin.
On Pesach, we designate an entire section of the seder to the asking of questions, and rather than having a set answer, we have haggadot upon haggadot offering different perspectives based on thousands of different themes and ideas.
And, this one is my favorite, we even have a blessing introduced in masechet Berachot for when we see a giant gathering of people. A blessing, the Sages tell us, that is meant to remind us that in that mass of people there are minds that differ from one another just as there are faces that differ from one another. And the greatest part? The blessing is Baruch atah HaShem Elokeynu Melech Ha’Olam Chacham Ha’razim
Blessed are You, HaShem our God, Ruler of the Universe, Knower of secrets.
When we approach life with curiosity rather than hubris, we open ourselves up to the blessings that can only come from wonder. When it comes to our relationships with others, wonder is what allows us to get close to one another, to feel connected to one another, and to share in compassion, empathy, and love with one another.
Wonder breaks down the impersonal exterior labels behind which we hide ourselves out of the fear that comes with personal vulnerability. It allows us to transcend social constructions and see the other in relation to ourselves. Not I and it, not I and them, but I and You. When we encounter one another with wonder, we see the soul, not the Facebook posts, yard signs, or bumper stickers. Peace, respect, and true friendship can only come from the willingness to learn someone else.
And within our most intimate of relationships, it is wonder that sustains our hearts and guides our communication. The most beautiful of relationships are those that continue to learn new things about the other throughout a lifetime, because people, in all of their beauty and complexity, change, grow, and respond to a world that is in constant motion and evolution.
Wonder is what allows us to give the ones we love the benefit of the doubt, to approach arguments, disagreements, and moments of intense emotion not with predetermined ideas of what is acceptable or quote unquote normal, but with a deeper understanding that when a response seems out of character, that there may be a world of information going on within that deserves, that desperately needs to be processed. That’s what love is. Responding to the people we care about the most with an unwavering curiosity and a drive to know as much about them in every moment as we possibly can.
And when it comes to our spiritual lives, what we don’t know shouldn’t be a stumbling block; it should be magic. Not because it keeps us from pain or burden, but because it creates the potential for profundity in every moment. If we know everything about Jewish ritual, if we know everything about Akedat Yitzchak, the Torah portion for this morning, if we know everything about the liturgy we use during these Days of Awe, then what incentive do we have to pray, to study Torah, to light candles, to say kiddush, or to hear the blast of the shofar?
But if we come before the Divine in supplication, then what we get in return should never fail to surprise us. And it is that surprise that we call prayer. If we open our hearts and our minds when we light our Shabbat or Yom Tov candles, when we bless our cup of wine, or when we put that ancient garment called a tallit over our heads and shoulders, then that openness has the potential to invite in meaning, significance, and deep almost cosmic power, beyond all expectation.
And if we open and expand our sense of holiness and spirituality beyond our set times and spaces, then we welcome God into everyday moments, and then all of a sudden, nothing, nothing is mundane. And the magic that surrounds us at all times becomes clearer, brighter, awe inspiring.
That is the gift that we have been given with Rashi’s commentary and with our tradition b’gadol. And it is a gift that is begging for us to use it, to try it on, to apply it. Because while the world around us preaches individual opinion as sacrosanct and indisputable, Judaism knows and understands that that tactic, that approach to life, is not an expression of strength and courage. It’s a defense mechanism, an act of hiding from the things that scare us most. And nothing is more dangerous or detrimental to our relationships, our society, and our values.
Ben Zoma Omer, Eizehu Chacham? Ha’Lomed Mi’kol Adam.
Ben Zoma taught, “Who is considered wise? The one who learns from every individual.”
If I may be so bold as to expound on one of our great sage’s teachings, I’d like to adjust the statement just a little bit. Who is considered wise? The one who learns from every individual, from every situation, from every moment, whose curiosity opens their heart and their mind. Who is considered wise? The one who lives in wonder.
How long will this pandemic keep us physically distant from one another? When will the rifts and the divisions in our society heal and how can they heal? When will we finally learn to love one another and build our world from that love?
Aini yodeah. I don’t know.
But this morning, other things I don’t fully understand took my breath away. I watched the sun come up, painted in brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges. I saw my son thank his mama for giving him his breakfast, and I sang and prayed with my synagogue family and new friends whose very presence made our prayer different, stronger, more sincere, more magical.
Those wonders bring tears to my eyes. And not those alone.
There is so, so much I don’t know. So many moments of Aini yodea.
And this morning, it is those moments I am most thankful for. This morning, I don’t ask to know. I don’t ask for strength, for mazal, for parnasa, or hatzlacha. I make one request to the One Who spoke and the world came into being, Hineni – bati l’amod ulhitchanen lefaneicha.
Here I am; here we are; standing before You in supplication, asking for one thing, and one thing only. We ask for wonder. We ask for wonder.