Between the Lines—Hayyei Sarah

Insights from Midrash with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Genesis Rabbah 60:14

ויצא יצחק לשוח בשדה לפנות ערב אין שיחה אלא תפלה שנאמר (תהלים קב) תפלה לעני כי יעטוף ולפני ה׳ ישפוך שיחו וכן הוא אומר (שם נה) ערב ובוקר וצהרים אשיחה וגו׳

And Isaac went out 'la-suach' in the field toward evening . . . (Gen. 24:63): By 'sichah,' prayer is meant, as it says, A prayer of the lowly man when he is faint and pours out his plea before Hashem (Psalm 102:1); and thus too it says, Evening, morning, and noon, I plead and moan . . . (Psalm 55:18).

Uncertainty presents one of the greatest psychological challenges we face in life. The ancient Rabbis addressed ambiguities in the Torah and in life by seeking wisdom from connections between those worlds. This midrash reveals how they understood prayer as a cathartic response to the travails that test our faith and how such an outpouring can transform our reality.

The infinitive verb la-suach appears only once in the entire Hebrew Bible, and even today scholars debate how exactly to translate it. While some contend that it means "to walk," others (such as the anonymous Sage behind this midrash) suggest that it means "to meditate," basing their opinions on inferences from similar terms found in devotional contexts such as those quoted above. Combining those two definitions offers insight into this Rabbinic view of Isaac's plight and ours.

Isaac went out walking/meditating literally at dusk and figuratively towards darkness. After meeting Rebekah there, the Torah notes that "he found comfort after his mother's death" (Gen. 24:67). Whether or not Isaac entered the open space of "the field" seeking consolation, he meets his beloved in that place and returns with her to begin their new life together. As a result of the physical and spiritual act of leaving a place of mourning, Isaac has an encounter that changes the course of his life. That explanation, though, lacks the drama that the verses from Psalms add to this Rabbinic interpretation.

In searching the entire Tanakh for terms similar to la-suach, the Sage who composed this midrash chose the two instances in which sichah refers to a plea for help and for deliverance from crisis. This midrash, however, does not quote key parts of those parallel texts, perhaps in order to invite the reader to look more closely at what they describe.

Each psalm depicts the wrenching cries of a desperate soul whom God protects from mortal danger. Verses 2–3 of Psalm 102 illustrate the lament of one who is feeling God's great distance: "Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry reach you. Do not hide your face from me in the day when I am in trouble; incline your ear to me; answer me speedily in the day when I call." The subsequent passage demonstrates the efficacy of such a plea: "As for me, I will call upon God; and Hashem will save me . . . He has saved my soul in peace from the battle that was against me" (Ps. 55:17, 19).

With this expanded reading of Isaac's walking/meditation, the episode of meeting Rebekah in the field at dusk becomes one paradigm for the rabbinic understanding of prayer. I present this interpretation as a rabbi living in the twenty-first century, knowing full well that God did not answer the prayers of parents whose children I watched die. I present this interpretation not because I believe God responds with a "yes" to every request uttered but because I have felt God's embrace when I have summoned the strength to cry in moments of agonizing pain. And from paralysis and deepest fear, I emerged. Thank God!