And that’s all he says. Rashi’s question is on the במקום אשר דבר אתו; the first part of the pasuk, ויעל מעליו אלקים, he’s already commented on in the story of Avraham:
There are a number of places where Rashi declares his ignorance; it came up in פרשת תולדות:
Now, it is certainly a good thing to admit that one does not know something:
So the commentators on Rashi offer explanations:
We talked about the significance of המקום last week, and במקום אשר דבר אתו emphasizes the connection between this (holy) place and the way we relate to הקב״ה as המקום.
But what about Rashi? There are two sides to dealing with Rashi’s אֵינִי יוֹדֵעַ. We could look for explanations, as the Maharal and David Pardo do. But that leaves the bigger question: why didn’t Rashi think of those explanations? It’s possible that our חידוש is so innovative and brilliant, no one else could have come up with it, but I think we need a little humility.
And the answers given don’t really address the problem with the pasuk. The words are straightforward, and the implications of קדושת המקום are straightforward. But the same phrase, במקום אשר דבר אתו, is repeated in the next two psukim as well. Rashi’s question is, I believe, why the redundancy? Why connect במקום אשר דבר אתו to ויעל מעליו אלקים?
So I want to propose that Rashi has a specific goal in his commentary:
Like decorative gold buttons on a silver-plated vessel, so are words understood “basically” (אָפְנָיו literally means “on its base”). The פשט is the main part of the commentary, the כלים. The אגדה is the decorative תפוחי זהב. Rashi is trying to teach us the “basic” interpretation of the text, which will allow us to appreciate all the other facets of the Torah. פרוש רש״י is meant to be the פרוש to have when you’re having only one. It includes פשט (the text as understood as literature but without the תורה שבעל פה), משמעות (the literal meaning of the words), and the דרש that helps understand the message of the text. There are שבעים פנים לתורה, and all are worth learning, but Rashi will only bring a subset of them.
Rashi will explain the פשט, and bring the midrashim that he feels are appropriate.
In the מאמרי חז״ל we quoted, לומר איני יודע and לא שמעתי are two different things, and I would propose that Rashi is telling us both. He is admitting to two different forms of ignorance. He will try to understand פשט, the unadorned text, and here he is unsure what the redundancy tells us. That is איני יודע. He will bring מדרשים, the text as interpreted through the lens of תורה שבעל פה, but he will not create his own midrash. That is לא שמעתי. The מסורה of תורה שבעל פה belongs to חז״ל; there are places in his commentary where he says he does not have a good פשט explanation, but does have a דרש:
Here, Rashi has neither. There is no midrash that he feels is דָבָר דָּבוּר עַל אֳפַנָּיו. So he will say, אֵינִי יוֹדֵעַ מַה מְּלַמְּדֵנוּ. But I think there’s something more than Nechama Leibowitz’s “challenge to commentators”. Rashi is telling us that there is a deeper level of understanding the text, beyond פשט and דרש, that isn’t part of his goals with his commentary. At the level of פשט, the repetition is epistrophe, rhetorical emphasis, and bears no further comment. But the deeper level is there, and is worth looking into:
Rashi won’t bring explanations על דרך האמת, mystical concepts. But Ramban does, and I think that ties the two halves of the pasuk together: ויעל מעליו אלקים—במקום אשר דבר אתו.
The אבות were the מרכבה, the carriers of the שכינה in the world, simply by being who they were. With Yaakov’s return to בית אל, there is a change. בני ישראל are not capable of that level. We need המקום, the בית המקדש, to be the medium for our connection to the שכינה. But with that, with all of כנסת ישראל surrounding the בית המקדש, we too can be הם הם המרכבה. Rashi’s איני יודע מה מלמדנו tells us to look deeper, and discover the potential within ourselves.