Friday, November 13, 2020 /26 Heshvan, 5781
Parashat Hayei Sarah Genesis 23:1–25:18
I recently had a conversation with a man who described himself as “spiritual.” While he had trouble connecting with Shabbat services, he was developing a meditative practice. “That’s not really Jewish,” he said, “Right?”
In this week’s Torah portion, we learn just how Jewish meditation and other contemplative practices truly are.
Now that Isaac has reached marrying age, Abraham sends a servant to find the perfect wife for his son. He is fortunate to find a kind, generous, and compassionate woman named Rebecca, who agrees to meet Isaac. As she approaches, the Torah says, “And Isaac went out walking (lasuach) in the field toward evening and, looking up, he saw camels approaching.” (Genesis 24:63) The sages ask what Isaac was doing in the field by himself in the middle of the day. While there is no complete consensus on the meaning of the word used for walking in the field, lasuach, most sages agree that it is significant. The Talmud teaches that Isaac was engaging in a form of prayer so important that it established afternoon (mincha) worship. The JPS commentary explains that Isaac was meditating in the field. Isaac was a quieter character in the Torah. He demonstrated the importance of contemplation in a worship experience that is quite different but no less meaningful from today’s current prayer services. Abraham Ibn Ezra was even more specific. He connected the word lasuach to the Arabic word sacha, which means “to travel.” Isaac was engaged in walking meditation, strolling among the trees, Ibn Ezra explained.
Isaac’s walk in the field inspired generations of meditative worship, which would take on various forms. In the first and second centuries, Jewish mystics meditated on visions of Ezekiel and the chariot, which gave birth to a tradition known as Merkavah mysticism. The Talmud explains a practice in which sages would meditate for an hour or two before worship in order to bring their full attention to the prayer service. Some Jews meditate on Hebrew letters, follow visualization exercises, contemplate God’s different aspects or chant. Nachman of Batzlav advocated for a practice called hitbodedut, which involves walking in nature and speaking to God as if speaking to a friend. Every one of these practices offers another way to meaningfully engage with Jewish tradition, and to connect with something beyond ourselves.
Shabbat worship is central to the Jewish experience, but contemplative practice is as well. This Shabbat, may we all be inspired to follow in Isaac’s footsteps. Whether you attend Pam Tarlow’s phenomenal meditation class tomorrow at 5 pm, take a walk in nature, do private meditation, or take time for contemplation, I hope that this Shabbat is restorative and spiritual for us all.
Rabbi Cassi Kail