In this week's Torah portion, Hayyei Sarah, I was struck this year by this little fragment of a verse:
וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב
"Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening." (Gen 54:29)
That's how Sefaria renders it. But lasuah doesn't mean walking. It means conversing. Who was Isaac talking to as he walked at twilight? According to Talmud, he was talking to God, and in this moment Yitzhak established minhah, the afternoon service. (And Avraham established shacharit, morning prayer. And Jacob coming "upon a certain place" and stopping for the night, established ma'ariv.)
Are these associations between patriarchs and our standard three prayer-times in the plain Torah text? Of course not! But with this interpretation (which hangs on Hebrew wordplay) Talmud is signaling what our rabbinic forebears thought was important. Prayer is an enduring tool in our spiritual toolbox. It's part of our inheritance, and it's been a part of Jewish life since the days of the patriarchs.
About 500 years later, Rashi (11th c. CE) agreed that lasuah means "to meditate" or "to pray." Ibn Ezra (12th c.) offered that it might mean "walking among the trees to meditate." Notice how now there's a nature component. The Sforno (16th c.) says that Isaac had detoured from his regular path to stroll in the fields on that day so he could pour out his heart to God. Maybe he needed solitude.
Centuries later, Reb Nachman (d. 1810) taught the practice of hitbodedut, walking in the forest or the fields and speaking out loud with God. Reb Zalman z"l used to imagine Shekhinah in the passenger seat of his car, and as he drove, he'd speak out loud to God. (When I'm alone in the car, I do too.) In the forest God feels lofty and grand to me. In my car, it's more like pouring out my heart to a friend.
In this week's Torah portion Sarah dies, and her family comes together to bury her. And later Avraham dies, and the family comes together again to bury him. And Isaac gets married, and it seems clear that the generations will continue, even with the matriarch and patriarch gone. There's sadness, and also continuity and joy. These are all big moments with a lot of emotions in any family, then or now.
And in the midst of all of these big emotional moments, Isaac talks to God alone in the fields. Torah is reminding us that we need space for quiet and for spiritual practice, whatever those words mean to us. This could take a lot of forms. Daily prayer services, sure. Or a walk along a dirt road, a forest, a field. Or yoga or meditation, or gazing at the stars or the moon, or walking our synagogue's labyrinth...
This is true whether or not we "believe" in "God." Even if we're just naming what we feel and listening for that still small voice within, that practice can make a difference. Life is marked by big lifecycle events: births and deaths, marriage and divorce, becoming b-mitzvah. But it's also made up of all the tiny moments in between. And those small everyday moments can also be holy.
May our spirits be nourished by the forest and the fields, the twilight and the trees,
and the time to take them in, this Shabbat and always.
This is my d'varling from Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Photo by J. A. Woodhouse.