Our Clergy’s Thursday Thoughts

Passover in December

Posted on December 29, 2021

By Hazzan Jacob Sandler

In this week’s parasha Va’eira we read of the first five plagues brought down upon Egypt. Who needs Christmas in July when we can have the Passover Story in December, right? With each plague, we get closer to redemption, and yet we simultaneously read that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart. I’ve always found this really troubling. Far be it from me to limit G-d’s ability, but how can I fully blame Pharaoh for our suffering if it was G-d that hardened his heart? As one who dabbles in creative writing, I understand that I’ve allowed and even encouraged poor behavior of my characters in order to illustrate a lesson or build the conflict–it wouldn’t be a compelling narrative if it was all easy. However, in the grand story of life, and the story of our people, can I dare to hold the Author accountable? 

It’s a reasonable question, and none of us are inherently heretics for asking it. Maybe it was a necessary step in solidifying the faith in G-d as our redeemer. Maybe it was all part of the divine recompense due for years of slavery that occurred prior to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. I’m actually less concerned with why G-d did that, and more interested in whether G-d still does it from time to time. 

Has G-d hardened my heart? Or yours? Did we know when it was happening? How did it affect us? And, as someone who believes in free will, could we have refused? 

Reading about the plagues hits differently than it used to. Now that we’ve spent nearly 2 years in a plague of our own, I’ve had some difficult questions. Is this a divine punishment? Do I really believe in that? What did we do, and how can we fix it? Is this meant to teach us something? Did we learn it? Have we forgotten the lesson already? And how are our hearts doing? Are they hardened by a stubborn desire to return to normal? I know folks who are so done with masks, but with a new variant that spreads quickly, we simply aren’t done yet. I know folks who won’t get vaccinated. Have their hearts been hardened by systems that leave them unable to trust in institutions? 

And perhaps I’m optimistic, but maybe this is just how redemption works. Maybe these challenging times–these plagues–are meant to give us a needed shift in perspective that only radical change can provide. And some of us will pivot, and grow, and be redeemed. Others will harden their hearts, and let the sea consume them. My prayer for all of us as we continue navigating this plague, is that we continue to reflect on the world around us, allow our hearts to remain soft and open, and do everything we can to be G-d’s partner in the redemption that surely awaits us on the other side of this pandemic.

Solstice, Sunrise and Shemot

Posted on December 22, 2021

by Hazzan Barbara Barnett

Today is the winter solstice. The day with the fewest hours of sunlight in the calendar year—the longest, darkest night. As I stood this morning above the shore, as I often do, to capture the sunrise on my camera, it struck me—this profound interplay of light and dark, of day and night, of water and sky. Not quite day, not quite night. The moment of creation—a new day is born. In the days and weeks ahead, minute by minute we will inch into the light—earlier in the morning and lasting later into the evening.

It impossible not to be awed by the power of this moment, which unfolds each day—mundane in one sense, but far from it in appreciation and “wow” of observing the sun creep over the water, this morning a magenta-red impossible to capture in the limitation of the camera lens, much like the impossibility of capturing so much of the brilliance of G-d’s creation: the mountains, the glaciers, the sea, a thunderstorm, a rainbow. They must be experienced first-hand—no photograph (no matter how many filters or wizardry I might employ in trying) come close.

I imagine as we cross from the promise of the end of book of Genesis, finished last Shabbat into the shadows of the early chapters of Exodus, which we begin this Shabbat. Rescued from famine and settled in Egypt, reconciled with Joseph, the B’nai Yisrael conclude Act I of our story with great promise in the land of Goshen. But where the story picks up four centuries later, there “arose in Egypt a new Pharoah who did not know Joseph.” Our ancestors are in their darkest days without even the barest glimmer of light, of hope as they cry out to G-d from within the depths of slavery.

Moses, having fled from Egypt, tends sheep, far afield from prince of Egypt he had been and equally far from the leader he will become later in the story (I’m sure I’m not divulging any big spoilers here!). Moses is distracted as he tends to his sheep, caught by the sight of the bright, inexplicable light of a bush afire, burning, yet not consumed by the blaze.

From within the brightness and the flame emerges G-d’s voice calling upon Moses to be his partner in freeing the B’nai Yisrael from the horror of slavery. For Moses to come—reluctant as he is, unqualified as he believes himself to be—from the shadows and shepherd his people to freedom. Bring them from the darkest day and into dawn of freedom.

Parashat Vayechi – ‘May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menasheh’ (Who are those guys anyway?)

Posted on December 15, 2021

Rabbi Alex Freedman

On Friday nights, Jewish parents bless their girls that they should be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. OK, that makes sense because these are our Matriarchs.But what’s the story with the boys?We would expect to invoke the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But that’s notwhat we say. Instead we speak about two men we don’t know much about at all – Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menasheh. What do these two – who were born and raised in Egypt – have that the illustrious Avot (Patriarchs) do not? The Etz Hayim Humash commentary offers two possibilities.

1. They were the first children to maintain their Jewish identity in a foreign land, as the earlier generations all lived in Israel. These two spent their life in Egypt, but nonethelessfelt a connection to being Jewish and continued the traditions onward. For diaspora communities throughout history, this was an inspiring model. If Ephraim and Menasheh could do it, we can do it too.

2. These were the first brothers to get along peacefully. Most unfortunately, it took many generations to see siblings who were not rivals. Cain and Abel’s relationship ended in murder. Isaac and Ishmael’s ended in banishment. While Jacob and Esau reconciled as adults, for many years Esau wanted his brother dead for stealing his father’s blessing. Joseph’s brothers left him to die in a pit before making a shekel while selling him down to Egypt. By contrast, since Ephraim and Menasheh had no strife between them, this was great progress! Even when Jacob switched the birth order and gave preference to the younger over the older, they still did not go after each other.

For our children and ourselves, let’s not aim for fame or notoriety, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Instead, let’s aim for peace and harmony within our families and our world. Let’s aim to be like Ephraim and Menasheh.

Healing with Tears

Posted on December 8, 2021

by Rabbi Josh Warshawsky

You may have noticed that there’s a lot of crying in this week’s Torah portion. Most of it is coming from Joseph. In fact some commentators call Joseph “ba’al bechi,” “the master cryer.” And they are in awe of Joseph for how expressive he is with his feelings. And there is one particular instance that sticks out that the commentators focus on. It is when Joseph first reveals himself to his brothers and he and his brother Benjamin embrace for the first time.

וַיִּפֹּל עַל צַוְּארֵי בִנְיָמִן אָחִיו וַיֵּבְךְּ וּבִנְיָמִן בָּכָה עַל צַוָּארָיו

And he fell on his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept as well.

They’re weeping tears of joy at being reunited, but also tears of sadness for all that they have lost and for all that they have missed. Rashi gives what seems like a strange commentary to this verse. He says that Joseph is weeping for the two temples that will be destroyed that will be in Benjamin’s future territory, and that Benjamin is weeping for the Mishkan in Shiloh that will be destroyed that will be in Joseph’s future territory.

And the rabbis are confused by this! Reb Yechezkel of Kozimir says, “This doesn’t make any sense! At a time of reunification and brotherhood, why would they be crying about these things that will happen in the future? And all the more so, why are they crying about these things that won’t even be happening to them, but will be happening in a territory that is inhabited by the other one’s tribe?” And the answer is this. Benjamin and Joseph knew that the reason that they were separated by their brothers was because of Sin’at Chinam, senseless hatred. They saw the future destructions that would befall the Jewish people, and knew that these also would be because of senseless hatred. It is for this reason that they wept.

As I thought about this beautiful idea, I noticed yet again the words from the Psalms in our Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy: “Ohavei Adonai Sin’u Ra,” “Those who love the Divine, hate evil.” And this is what it is talking about. In a world of increasing divisiveness, it is so important that we recognize hatred and call it out. Joseph and Benjamin give us the answer to hatred. It is embrace. It is love. It is holding each other and crying together. If we can be true in our hearts, we can bring more light and joy to this world. Or zarua latzadik ul’yishrei lev simchah. Light is planted through righteousness, and joy comes to those who are true of heart. This can only happen together. It can only happen with love.

Shabbat Shalom

 

Bringing Light To Darkness

Posted on December 1, 2021

by Rabbi Michael Schwab

Hanukkah is one of my favorite holidays, though not solely for the reasons most people would guess.  Yes, I enjoy latkes, sufganiyot (donuts), dreidel and gifts.  However what I love most is the lighting of the Hanukkiah, both the experience of kindling lights together with blessings and song, as well as the symbolic message the act of lighting represents.

Hanukkah is celebrated as a holiday of joy specifically and purposefully at the darkest time of the year.  As well, the historic aspect of the holiday celebrates the victory of our people and our tradition during one of the darkest times of our existence.  Therefore, the lighting of the candles on Hanukkah is both literally and figuratively about bringing light to the darkness and hope to the despondent.

 

Light, in Judaism (and in many other cultures), is linked to many wonderful qualities.  Light reveals what is hidden, allowing us to discover truths and treasures that would have otherwise remained obscured and hidden.  Light guides us like a beacon in the night, or a flashlight which can illuminate the path so we can move forward safely and with confidence.  Light draws us near, providing a rallying point with its brightness and warmth.  And light dispels darkness, keeping what is threatening at bay while illuminating the blessings that constantly surround us.

 

On Hanukkah we each get a chance to kindle light.  The unique Jewish law is that lighting should be done by each person and should ideally be done at home.  We are not to rely on representatives, or other exalted leaders, to kindle for us. We do not have to go to a designated special place to do it. The message is that all of us have the power to bring light into the world and doing so starts at home.  Hanukkah celebrates the spiritual fact that we each have light to share and that the world needs all of our individual lights to thrive.

What is more, just think about the way we light our candles.  We do not take a match to the Hanukkah candles themselves.  We first light a shamsah, the facilitator candle that lights all of the others.  The symbolic meaning of the use of the shamash is that we are to see ourselves as not only possessing the power to bring our own light to the world but that we also possess the power to ignite the light of others.

 

So, as we light our Hanukkiah this Hanukkah, let us remember our mission to bring light to darkness and be inspired to know that we each have a role in sharing hope and goodness in the world, as well as the ability to inspire so many others to do the same.  In that way we truly celebrate the Festival of Lights.  Happy Hanukkah!

Dreams…What do they Mean?

Posted on November 24, 2021

By Hazzan Jacob Sandler

This week we read from parashat Vayeshev which begins and ends with dreams. A 17-year-old Joseph, donned in his signature technicolor coat, begins sharing his dreams with his resentful brothers. In his first dream all his brothers’ sheaves of wheat bow to Joseph’s sheaf. And in his second dream, he sees the famous 11 stars (referenced in the passover song, “Who Knows One?”) as well as the sun and moon bowing to his star. The brothers’ resentment grows into full hatred of Joseph, setting in motion a plot to get rid of him. In the end, Joseph ends up in a jail cell in Egypt, where he interprets with uncanny accuracy the dreams of a cupbearer and baker. 

I’ve always been really fascinated with dreams. They seem to be one of life’s unsolvable mysteries. The Rabbis of the Talmud are also quite divided regarding the nature, significance and veracity of dreams.The Gemara relates: Shmuel, when he would see a bad dream, would say: “And the dreams speak falsely” (Zechariah 10:2). When he would see a good dream, he would say: And do dreams speak falsely? Isn’t it written: “I speak with him in a dream” (Numbers 12:6)? This apparent contradiction is resolved by Rava who states, there are different kinds of dreams. 

It is said that dreams are one sixtieth (1/60) prophecy. It is written with regard to the verse: “The prophet that has a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that has My word, let him speak My word faithfully. What has the straw to do with the grain? says the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:28), the Gemara asks: What do straw and grain have to do with a dream? Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai: Just as it is impossible for the grain to grow without straw, so too it is impossible to dream without idle matters. In this approach we see that even a dream that will be fulfilled in the future contains some elements of nonsense. The Rabbis use Joseph’s dream of the 11 stars, sun and moon to illustrate this point. The moon represents Joseph’s mother, who had already passed away. The dream was fulfilled, but not in its entirety. 

Elsewhere, Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani said that Rabbi Yonatan said: A person is shown in his dream only the thoughts of his heart, evidenced by what Daniel, the other great dream interpreter, said to Nebuchadnezzar, as it is stated: “As for you, O king, your thoughts came upon your bed…that you may know the thoughts of your heart” (Daniel 2:29-30). According to this interpretation, dreams are simply a revelation of one’s own subconscious thoughts and feelings. Much can be learned about oneself from dreams, but they don’t necessarily tell the future. 

Who can tell the difference between a dream which is internally revealing and a dream which has a prophetic element? Daniel states “[God] gives wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to they who know understanding” (Daniel 2:21). 

In my opinion, whether a dream holds some great word of God to be shared, or a potential clarity in the matters of one’s own heart, it is worthwhile to interpret dreams. As Rav Ḥisda said: “A dream not interpreted is like a letter not read.” However one should be cautious when having their dreams interpreted. The gemara relates a story: “There were twenty-four interpreters of dreams in Jerusalem. One time, I [Rabbi Bena’a] dreamed a dream and went to each of them to interpret it. What one interpreted for me the other did not interpret for me, and, nevertheless, all of the interpretations were realized in me, to fulfill that which is stated: All dreams follow the mouth of the interpreter.” I believe this has to do with the power of persuasion and confirmation bias. When an interpretation is given, the dreamer is more likely to notice elements of the interpretation being fulfilled because it has been brought to the forefront of their mind. The great commentator Ibn Ezra warns vehemently against this, claiming that all interpretation belongs to Hashem, because God can see the future and humans cannot. 

So what do we do with our dreams? Do we allow them to fade into obscurity? Do we seek out interpretations like the baker and cupbearer? Do we separate the grain from the straw in order to learn some deep mystery about the world? Do we reflect on the context of our lives, and attempt to gain a clearer understanding of our own hearts? As you can see, two Jews means three opinions, and it’s ultimately up to each of us how we answer these questions. But if you’re a dreamer like me, and do not know what your dreams mean the sages offer this advice: “One who saw a dream and does not know what he saw should stand…during the Priestly Blessing and say the following (in Hebrew below):

‘Master of the Universe, I am Yours and my dreams are Yours,

I dreamed a dream and I do not know what it is.

Whether I have dreamed of myself, whether my friends have dreamed of me or whether I have dreamed of others,

if the dreams are good, strengthen them and reinforce them like the dreams of Joseph.

And if the dreams require healing,

heal them like the bitter waters of Mara by Moses our teacher, and like Miriam from her leprosy,

and like Hezekiah from his illness, and like the bitter waters of Jericho by Elisha.

And just as You transformed the curse of Balaam the wicked into a blessing,

so transform all of my dreams for me for the best.’

And he should complete his prayer together with the priests so the congregation responds amen both to the blessing of the priests and to his individual request. And if he is not able to recite this entire formula, he should say:

‘Majestic One on high, Who dwells in power,

You are peace and Your name is peace.

May it be Your will that You bestow upon us peace.’” (Brachot 55b)

 

“רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם, אֲנִי שֶׁלָּךְ וַחֲלוֹמוֹתַי שֶׁלָּךְ, חֲלוֹם חָלַמְתִּי וְאֵינִי יוֹדֵעַ מַה הוּא. בֵּין שֶׁחָלַמְתִּי אֲנִי לְעַצְמִי וּבֵין שֶׁחָלְמוּ לִי חֲבֵירַי וּבֵין שֶׁחָלַמְתִּי עַל אֲחֵרִים, אִם טוֹבִים הֵם — חַזְּקֵם וְאַמְּצֵם כַּחֲלוֹמוֹתָיו שֶׁל יוֹסֵף. וְאִם צְרִיכִים רְפוּאָה — רְפָאֵם כְּמֵי מָרָה עַל יְדֵי מֹשֶׁה רַבֵּינוּ, וּכְמִרְיָם מִצָּרַעְתָּהּ, וּכְחִזְקִיָּה מֵחׇלְיוֹ, וּכְמֵי יְרִיחוֹ עַל יְדֵי אֱלִישָׁע. וּכְשֵׁם שֶׁהָפַכְתָּ קִלְלַת בִּלְעָם הָרָשָׁע לִבְרָכָה, כֵּן הֲפוֹךְ כׇּל חֲלוֹמוֹתַי עָלַי לְטוֹבָה״

 

“אַדִּיר בַּמָּרוֹם, שׁוֹכֵן בִּגְבוּרָה, אַתָּה שָׁלוֹם וְשִׁמְךָ שָׁלוֹם. יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ שֶׁתָּשִׂים עָלֵינוּ שָׁלוֹם״

Dot…Dot…Dot

Posted on November 16, 2021

by Hazzan Barbara Barnett

This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, is fascinating, deep and textured on so many levels. In it, Jacob famously wrestles with what is described as an “ish” (man). Is it really “a man,” or is it a heavenly being? G-d? Or a struggle within himself?

After this struggle, G-d changes Jacob’s name to Yisrael, “for you have wrestled with G-d, and with people, and prevailed.” The name can be deconstructed as Yisra-el, the first part of which stems from the word “to struggle” and “el” referring to G-d.

This face-to-face encounter with G-d, panim el panim, as the text says, precedes another face-to-face encounter with his twin brother Esau, this encounter is one that Jacob fears, and for good reason. But rather than run away from what might be a disastrous meeting, Jacob is ready to face Esau. He does not go naively into their meeting but prepares well, keeping his growing family protected—just in case Esau is out for revenge, still seething after Jacob usurped his birthright.

The first meeting between the estranged brothers is interesting. After Jacob approaches cautiously and humbly, prostrating himself seven times at Esau’s feet, The text continues, “Esau ran to meet [Jacob and his family]. He hugged [Jacob], and throwing himself on his shoulders, kissed him. They [both] wept.”

Taken on face value, the text suggests that the years have faded the bitter memory of the stolen birthright from Esau into some sort of acceptance, and rather than bitter, one reading of the Hebrew text suggests some sort of reconciliation—a hug to “forgive and forget.”

But above the text for the word “kissed” dance a series of dots (one on each letter), a scribal oddity, a unique formation that appears only few other times in the Torah scroll. is ambiguous, and as suggested by the scribal uniqueness of the word “kissed,” Above the word וַׄיִּׄשָּׁׄקֵ֑ׄהׄוּׄ (vayi’shakei’hu—”kissed him”) you might notice all the tiny dots.

The meaning of the dots themselves wherever they appear suggest that there is something more than meets the eye within the word or words beneath these dots. Perhaps the spelling of the word is not as originally intended (a scribal version of a typo?).

Rabbis and scholars have pondered the meaning of these dots since the time of the Talmud, positing the dots suggest Esau’s kiss was ambivalent at best, or even that it wasn’t a kiss at all, but an attempt to bite (!) Jacob in the neck.

Hmm. So, is “Vayisha’kei’hu    וישקיהו (and he kissed him) really supposed to be “Vayisha’kei’hu    וישכיהו   and he bit him?” Quite a different meaning, eh? The words sound the same, but one of the verb’s consonants is different (noted in bold), and vastly changes the meaning of the passage

One letter entirely alters Esau’s sentiment (and the direction of his heart) from a kiss of reconciliation after years of estrangement, to the betrayal of vulnerability and friendship instead.

The truth is, we don’t know for certain (and that’s often the fun of parsing Biblical text).

To me, those dots above the word suggest Esau’s ambivalence toward his brother, but for this inevitable meeting, he is willing to bury the past, if only for the moment, and later in this portion, to bury, together, their father Abraham. And that all got me thinking about Thanksgiving, gatherings, and getting together with family members with whom we may have (or had) rivalries, bad vibes, and vehement differences of opinion.

This year as many of us venture out beyond the Zoomscape next week to gather in person for Thanksgiving feasts, we’ll undoubtedly meet up with those in our intimate circle for whom we don’t, let’s say, have the kindest of feelings—especially these days. How will we greet them? Yeah, you may be inclined to bite them (metaphorically with a sarcastic snap), but you won’t, and instead embrace (or bump fists or elbows), not wholeheartedly, but in the interest of keeping peace, maintaining civility, and enjoying the moment. Imagine, and then set aside, the dots, letting them fade from relevance, if only for a day.

From our family to yours, a meaningful and joyous Thanksgiving.

The “I” Gets in the Way

Posted on November 10, 2021

by Rabbi Josh Warshawsky

Sometimes we are our own worst enemy. In this week’s parashah, Vayeitze, Jacob runs away from Be’er Sheva, away from his brother Esau, and comes upon a certain place and stops for the night. There he has a famous dream of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels going up and coming down. When he wakes up, he exclaims, “Achen yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh va’anochi lo yadati!” “Surely the Holy One is present in this place, and I did not know it!” Our sages teach us that every single word in the Torah is intentional and there is some meaning behind it. Rav Shimshon from Ostropol taught us to look at the last letters of each of these words: “אכן יש ה’ במקום הזה” The last letters spell the word “נשמה,” “Soul.” Even though the whole world is filled with Divine Glory, the central essence of the Divine is in the soul. 

But the key is “Va’anochi lo yadati,” “and I did not know it!” Rabbi Dov Bear, the Maggid of Mezritch, teaches about the verse, “אָנֹכִי עֹמֵד בֵּין-ה’ וּבֵינֵיכֶם (Devarim 5:5),” “I stand between the Divine and you,” I-ness, ego, self-centeredness, is the screen that separates between human and the Divine. If we are able to see through the screen of the ego, of our own self, we open ourselves up to the rest of the world, to what is greater than the self alone. 

It’s not easy to see through the screen, to turn down all of the noise of everything else in our lives and find a moment of deep connection. That’s what Shabbat allows us to do if we find a time to truly allow ourselves to enter into it. This Shabbat, I pray that we find our way past the screen of “i-ness,” to find a moment of rest, a moment of divinity, a moment of true Shabbat. 

Shabbat shalom.

 

What Makes Isaac Special?

Posted on November 4, 2021

by Rabbi Alex Freedman

Among the Patriarchs, Isaac often stands out as the third wheel. His father Abraham leaves everything he knows to journey to Canaan in pursuit of his relationship with God. His son Jacob has a fabulous dream, wrestles with an angel, and fathers 12 sons and a daughter – the children of Israel. And then there’s Isaac. He gets far less of the Torah’s attention – and verses – than Abraham and Jacob. But Isaac achieves something neither of them can claim: he never leaves Israel.

When Abraham faces a famine in Canaan, he goes down to Egypt to ride it out until things improve. Later, when Jacob’s family endures a famine in Canaan, they too descend to Egypt to live under Joseph’s care. But Isaac has a different destiny. He too confronts a famine in Canaan, but God has different plans for Isaac. Facing the famine, Isaac leaves his home and goes to Gerar – still in Canaan – seemingly about to leave the land. God says: “Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land which I point out to you. Reside in this land, and I will be with you and bless you” (Gn. 26:2,3).

The Midrash answers our question as to what makes Isaac unique here. The Midrash says: “Rabbi Hoshaya said, ‘God told Isaac, “You are a perfectly unblemished sacrificial offering. Just as sacrifices become ritually unfit if they leave the Temple confines, you too will become unfit if you leave the land of Israel.”’”

To fully understand this teaching, we must remember that animals designated for Temple sacrifices must remain in the sacred space of the Temple. Otherwise they are ritually disqualified. The Midrash claims that Isaac was special, just like a sacrifice is elevated spiritually. Isaac too must remain in the sacred zone, this time the land of Israel.

Isaac does what he is told and remains. He is then blessed by God for his loyalty and devotion. And he is credited for living his entire life in Israel and not leaving for a minute. None of the other Patriarchs and Matriarchs can say the same.

The association of Isaac with sacrifices is intentional. Recall that in Genesis 22, he is physically bound to the altar as part of the Binding of Isaac. It seems that the rabbis take that image and status most seriously and map it onto the rest of his life. Recall that while Abraham is the one who binds his son, Isaac is equally the willing partner, for this grown man allows himself to be bound up.

Interestingly, the site where the rabbis imagine the binding of Isaac occurring is the mountain that would become the Temple Mount – the very same sacred space where animals would be sacrificed to God later on.

Many of us imagine that the trauma of the Binding of Isaac affects him negatively for the rest of his life. I read God’s instruction to him to remain in Israel as a way of God telling Isaac, “You are special and uniquely devoted to Me. It is only fitting that you live out your days in this special and unique land, the land of Israel.”

 

Isaac’s Unique Meditative Practice

Posted on October 27, 2021

 

by Hazzan Jacob Sandler

Once, when I was in high school, I missed the bus home. My sister had after school activities, and my parents were working late so nobody could pick me up to drive me. This perfect storm inspired me to make the ten minute drive home on foot. It took me an hour and half, and there weren’t enough sidewalks, but I really enjoyed the experience. I ended up choosing to walk home about once a week just for fun.

What I loved about walking home was that it provided the time to talk to myself, think aloud and reflect on any number of things going on in my life at that point. I would think about anything and everything, and this proved to be one of my earliest spiritual experiences. I’d often direct my monologuing toward God, who I believe was a deep and thoughtful listener. When a particularly novel idea came to me, I attributed that inspiration to God and my walks home proved to be a deeply meditative exercise.

In this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, we have an instance of a word, which is used only once in the entire Tanakh, “לָשׂוּחַ” (la-suach). It appears in Genesis 24:62, the verse reads,  “וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה גְמַלִּ֖ים בָּאִֽים׃” — “vayeitzei Yitzchak la-suach basadeh lifnot arev, vayisa einav vayar v’hinei g’malim ba’im.” — “And Isaac went out walking* in the field toward evening and, looking up, he saw camels approaching.” In our Eitz Chayim chumash la-suach is translated as walking. However, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan asserts that this is actually “the very first reference to meditation in the Bible.” He relates the root of שׂוּחַ (suach) to שׂיחַ (siyach) and its derivative שׂיחה (sichah) meaning conversation. We can therefore interpret the Hebrew to mean, “And Isaac went out, to meditate in the field…” Naturally the Hebrew holds both meanings at once, whereas the english translation is forced to choose. I don’t imagine Isaac sitting pretzel-style in the fields, breathing deeply as one might imagine someone meditating today — that is just one form of meditation. I picture Isaac’s experience as looking and sounding more like my meditative walks home from school, conversing alone and with God. This is a great model for individual prayer as well. I encourage you to give it a try! Go out, like Isaac, take a walk and “suach” meditate and see what meaning and inspiration it yields for you.