On the Edge of a Mythological Abyss / Parashat Hayei Sara

What is the meaning of Isaac’s meditation before evening falls? The Torah is cryptic here and does not elaborate.

When Abraham’s slave, returns with Rebecca to his master’s home, they encounter Abraham’s son, Isaac: “And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide; and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, there were camels coming” ‏(Genesis 24:63‏).

What is the meaning of Isaac’s meditation before evening falls? The Torah is cryptic here and does not elaborate. Onkelos, the renowned translator of the Torah into Aramaic, renders the words, “And Isaac went out to meditate in the field” as “unefak Yitzhak letzalaa bechakla” ‏(that is, Yitzhak set out to pray in the field‏), and his translation is based on a discussion in the Talmud.

In Tractate Berachot, in the discussion about the nature and times of the various prayers recited during the day, a dispute is interjected: “Rabbi Yossi, citing Rabbi Hanina, said, ‘The patriarchs established the daily prayer service.’ Rabbi Joshua, son of Levi, stated, ‘The prayers were established as substitutes for the burnt offerings of the morning and evening that were daily offered in the Temple’” ‏(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot, p. 26b‏).

The routine of prayer − three times a day, in accordance with a set order ‏(morning, afternoon and evening‏) − was molded and had meaning attributed to it by the sages; it is that routine that’s discussed in Tractate Berachot. In the middle of their creative discussion, the sages begin discussing the historical sources of the three daily prayers. According to Rabbi Yossi, citing Rabbi Hanina, these prayers were established by the three patriarchs − Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But Rabbi Joshua, son of Levi, argues that the prayers were established as a substitute for the sacrifices that were offered in the Temple in Jerusalem when they could no longer be offered, following the destruction of the Temple.

The truth is that there is no real disagreement here: Rabbi Yossi, citing Rabbi Hanina, is speaking about the personal identity of the creators of the prayers, while Rabbi Joshua, son of Levi, talks about their symbolic function. Summing up their conversation, the Talmud states, “The patriarchs established the prayers [that is, the daily prayer service] and the sages juxtaposed them to the sacrifices.” The thrice-daily ritual was created by the patriarchs during the era of the Book of Genesis, but after the destruction of the Temple, the sages juxtaposed the prayers with the burnt offerings that had once been presented in the Temple in Jerusalem − with the prayers serving as a verbal “substitute” for sacrificial ritual.

The sages’ presentation of evidence that the prayers were established by the patriarchs is the result of the intricate work of deciphering of the biblical text: “Abraham established the morning prayer service [Shaharit], as it is written, ‘And Abraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood [before the Lord]’ ‏(Gen. 19:27‏). The verb ‘to stand’ invariably refers to prayer, as it is written, ‘Then stood up Phinehas, and wrought judgment [lit: prayed]’ ‏(Psalms 106:30‏). Isaac established the afternoon prayer service [Minha], as it is written, ‘And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide’ ‏(Gen. 24:63‏). The verb ‘to meditate’ invariably refers to prayer, as it is written, ‘A prayer of the afflicted, when he fainteth, and poureth out his complaint [lit: the result of his meditation] before the Lord’ ‏(Ps. 102:1‏). Jacob established the evening service [Arvit], as it is written, ‘And he lighted upon [or, came upon] the place’ ‏(Gen. 28:11‏). The verb ‘lighted upon’ invariably refers to prayer, as it is written, ‘Therefore pray not thou for this people, neither lift up cry nor prayer for them, neither make intercession [the same Hebrew verb as ‘light upon’] to me’ ‏(Jeremiah 7:16‏)” ‏(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot, ibid.‏).

The sages cite three verses in the Torah where the patriarchs are mentioned in connection with a specific time of day. Abraham gets up early in the morning to look at Sodom after its devastation. In this week’s reading, Isaac sets out “to meditate in the field at the eventide.” And at the beginning of Parashat Vayetzeh ‏(Gen. 28:10‏), Jacob stops for the night to sleep in a place where he will see the famous dream of the ladder. In these three verses, there are three verbs − to stand, to meditate and to light upon. In order to decipher the verbs, the sages use the Bible as a kind of dictionary. They locate three other verses in other parts of the Bible where the three verbs in Genesis appear in a grammatical structure that allows them to be interpreted as meaning “to pray.” With this “dictionary,” the sages explain the actions of the three patriarchs in the aforesaid verses in Genesis as connoting prayer.

Needless to say, a literal reading of these three verses in Genesis does not necessarily allude to prayer. What the sages are doing is to spread over the stories in Genesis a “net of coordinates” that express the sages’ interpretations in terms of halakha ‏(Jewish religious law‏). Using that net, the sages read the stories of the patriarchs as narratives that explain how their very own religious world was founded. In other words, according to the sages, the

“patriarchs established the daily prayer service.” However, it is actually the sages who establish the patriarchs as the creators of the prayer service: By means of a virtuosic reading of the stories in Genesis, the sages create the myth of how it is established.

According to the conclusion of the discussion in the Talmud, the patriarchs established the daily ritual while the sages juxtaposed the prayers with the sacrifices offered in the Temple in Jerusalem before it was destroyed. And yet, from the historical standpoint, it would seem that what really happened is the precise reverse of the above conclusion: The prayers were a result of a processing and an adaptation of the sacrifices to the reality that was created after the Temple’s destruction, and the sages then juxtaposed the prayers to the stories of the patriarchs.

The result is a multi-layered architectural, textual structure in which the stories of the patriarchs serve as foundation myths that attribute meaning to the daily routine of prayer, providing it with context and color. One may imagine Abraham’s emotional state as he stands early in the morning viewing the burning Sodom valley, or the excitement and expectation in Isaac’s heart when he sets out to meditate in the field in anticipation of the slave’s return with Isaac’s future wife, or the confusion and fear that Jacob experiences as he spends his first night alone on the mountain, away from his parents’ home. By juxtaposing the stories in Genesis to the daily prayers, the sages provide that ritual with emotional and mythological depth.

This is a good solution for the grayness of the daily prayers; however, the foundation stories in Genesis that provide the prayers with meaning have an additional effect. Not only do they add a blessing to the three-fold ritual: They also serve as a kind of collective subconscious underlying the “conscious” awareness of the reality of halakha. This is a subconscious that is not part of the law, and which is not fixed. The prayer in this subconscious layer − if it exists at all − does not strictly fit in with the mold created by the sages. It is instead an underground layer where waters flow mightily. And these waters transform the conscious awareness of Jewish religious law from a dry ritual to the vivid experience of walking on the edge of a mythological abyss, which could at any time flood the expanse of the conscious awareness of religious law and utterly change the nature of it.