Praying in the Fields

For Isaac, praying in nature was a crucial element of worshipping the Divine.

Commentary on Parashat Chayei Sara, Genesis 23:1 - 25:18

Since Isaac went to the field to pray in this week’s Torah portion, the world has not been the same. The Talmud offers two sources for our requirement to pray three daily prayers; one is the prayers of the three forefathers of the Jewish people. Abraham is credited with instituting shaharit, the morning prayer; Isaac grants us minhah, the afternoon prayer; and Jacob gives us ma’ariv, the evening prayer.

The Talmud cites a verse from the Book of Genesis to establish each prayer. For Isaac, on whom we will concentrate, it is written (Brahot 26b):

“Isaac instituted the afternoon prayer service, as it is said, ‘And Isaac went out to suah in the field before evening’ (Gen. 24:63); and there is no sihah except prayer, as it is said, ‘A prayer of the afflicted man when he swoons, and pours forth his supplications (siho) before God’ (Ps. 102:1).”

Si’ah and Su’ah

The Sages saw these verses as being connected in the linguistic similarity of the word siah, and they saw in them that what Isaac was doing was praying. However, this claim is made on the seemingly ambiguous meaning of su’ah found in the verse related to Isaac. From where does this connection come?

One Talmudic commentary, Tosafot, suggests that the reason this word is used in both places is that while one might have thought that Isaac simply went out to speak with someone in the field, he actually went out to pray.

However, the term evokes a striking similarity to a word of the same root found earlier in Genesis: “Now all the trees (siah) of the field were not yet on the earth and all the herb of the field had not yet sprouted, for God had not yet sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to work the soil.” (Gen. 2:5)

The use in our verse relating to Isaac may now take on an additional dimension–it seems there may have been an agricultural element to Isaac’s outing in the field. Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam) suggests that what Isaac was actually doing in the field was planting trees as well as checking up on his agricultural efforts.

What was it that the Talmudic sages saw in our verse to understand that Isaac was praying? Is it possible that the Torah would make sure to tell us that Isaac was engaged in mundane agricultural activities?

The connection between these two verses in their use of this same word is deeply meaningful when one considers that on the second verse–“Now all the trees (siah) of the field were not yet on the earth and all the herb of the field had not yet sprouted, for God had not yet sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to work the soil”–Rashi, the eleventh century medieval scholar, comments:

“For what is the reason that God had not yet sent rain, because there was no man to work the land and there was no one to acknowledge the goodness of the rain, and when man came and knew that they (the rain) are a need for the world, he prayed for them and they came down, and the trees and grasses sprouted.”

The use of the term in this verse may be about agriculture, but the verse is telling us that human beings are needed in order to pray!

But that is not all. The verse preceding the above one states: “These are the products of the heaven and the earth when they were created on the day that God made earth and heaven.” (Gen. 2:4) There is a direct connection between God’s creating of the si’ah and to the tending of the si’ah done by man. In other words, God created the earth in order for man to tend to it. Being involved with the earth is an act whereby one connects with God’s handiwork.

Prayer Space

In line with this, Rabbi Yohanan, the late third century Talmudic sage, said that one may not pray in a house without windows (Brahot 34b). According to Rashi, Rabbi Yohanan said this because looking outside causes one to focus towards heaven, and one’s heart will be humbled in this way. More than just simply focusing towards heaven, however, one will be able to see the natural landscape–God’s handiwork. By praying in a house without windows, one would be surrounded by man’s handiwork, which does not strike one with as much awe and appreciation for God.

Rebbe Nahman of Breslov instructed his followers to engage in hitbodedut–to speak with God in the field for an hour every day. In explaining Rebbe Nahman’s teachings, Rabbi Natan Greenberg stated that real prayer involves conversation with the natural world around a person. Indeed, the strength of prayer comes from the Divine, spiritual energy flowing from nature. A person needs all the spiritual energy of the earth to give strength to his or her prayer.

Isaac first manifests this type of prayer through his connection to nature. He comes to prayer because he finds it difficult to relate to the world around him. He wants to be in a simple world, God’s world, so he walks and prays in the field.

For Isaac, praying to God in nature was a central part of his Divine service, and it can be for us as well. As Rabbi Mordechai Friedfertig wrote,

“It is interesting that in this week’s parashah, when it is reported that Isaac davens (prays) Minhah, it says, ‘Vayetze Yithak lasu’ah basadeh‘–Isaac went out to supplicate in the field. He left behind all of his worries, and put everything aside so that he could focus on Hashem. And we must do the same–not only every day, to daven Minhah–but throughout our busy, busy lives. We must find the time to leave our worldly cares behind, and venture out into the fields where we will encounter Hashem.”

The natural world is an excellent setting for praying to God. While the Sages call for daily prayer within the walls of the synagogue, Rebbe Nahman calls for daily conversations with God in nature, also leaving open the possibility of occasional prayers to God beyond the walls of the prayer hall. By both our going out and working with God’s creation, and by praying within this creation, we seize the opportunity to grow closer to God.

Our ability to connect to our Creator in the world He created is an indication of our ability to live in balance with that natural world. A primarily urban, post-industrial Jewish people that is alienated from God’s Oneness as manifested in the natural world will certainly misuse that which God has given us.

The litany of ecological problems in Israel–from air and water pollution to species extinction and urban sprawl–testify to the Jewish people’s disconnect from the natural environment which God gave them. Reconnecting to the inspired outdoor prayers of our forefathers can help us regain a sense of the grandeur of God’s world and of our responsibility to live in balance with it.

Provided by Canfei Nesharim, providing Torah wisdom about the importance of protecting our environment.

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