Praying like a prophet: Chayei Sarah 5773
D'var Torah delivered at the Riverway Project's Soul Food Friday, November 9, 2012
The life of Isaac is filled with unusual moments. The major ones get all the attention-- from his miraculous birth, which elicits from Sarah the very laughter that gives Isaac his name, to the Akeda, the binding of Isaac, which we read last week. Undoubtedly the binding of Isaac is the most traumatic event in the lives of our patriarchs.
And then there's Isaac's later life, when his physical blindness makes him vulnerable to the deceit of his wife and son Jacob, to steal the blessings and birthright that was due to Esau.
These three events--his birth, his near death experience, and his mistaken bestowal of birthright and blessing upon the wrong son-- define Isaac's life. And they paint him in a particular way…. as the most passive of our ancestors. Isaac is the one who is acted on, things are done to him rather than by him, and the story of his life is defined by those who surround him-- by his father, by his servant, by his wife, by his sons. And the question lingers throughout history-- who is Isaac, and what does he really teach us?
But there is a moment in Isaac's predominantly passive life story which we stumble upon this week in Parashat Chayei Sarah…. It is in fact one of few active moments of Isaac's life. He actually does something.
The text reads: Vayeitzei Yitzchak lasuach basadeh--Isaac went out lasuach in the field. Lasuach, this is a complicated Hebrew word. It can mean meditate or contemplate or converse. The root for lasuach is still found within modern Hebrew, the word sicha is a conversation. Who was Isaac conversing with, what is he meditating on?
The Rabbis interpreted Isaac's sicha as prayer. Isaac prays! While the Rabbis were trying to endorse their own particular prayer structure, their reading nevertheless draws insight into the character of Isaac, and more relevantly for us, the nature of prayer itself.
In the Bible there is no singular word for prayer-- there are plenty of words.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain teaches that there are "two distinct spiritual traditions in biblical Judaism." Two ways of understanding the nature of prayer itself. One is the way of the prophets (including the patriarchs and some matriarchs—those who communicate with God) and the other is the way of the priests.
Knowingly or not, we're somewhat familiar with the prayer of the priests. When the Temple was destroyed the Rabbis organized our prayers around the sacrificial system. From then on we would pray 3 times a day, calling our worship shacharit, mincha, and maariv, according to the morning, afternoon, and evening offerings of the priests in the context of the sacrificial cult. Sometimes we’d offer God some extra sugar, the musaf or additional offering. We still use these terms to describe our services today. So in terms of our own institutional understanding of prayer, we might say that the priests won the day. We even call our services, services in English (Avodah in Hebrew). Prayer is worship.
But here's the problem. Prayer is not only worship. Not if we're praying like prophets, that is those who in our biblical text are communicating directly with God.
Praying like a prophet is an entirely different practice. According to tractate Berachot 26a of the Babylonian Talmud, each of the patriarchs had their own distinct kind of prayer, and a distinct verb for praying. Abraham, in Genesis 19:27, "arose early in the morning to the place where he had stood." Abraham stood-- laamod, Amida. Abraham's prayer, his communication with God, was early, it was bold, and it was confrontational.
We already discussed Isaac. Isaac the introvert was a lasuach basadeh kinda guy. He would find himself wandering in a field, meditating in the afternoons. Lasuach-- Sicha, prayer as meditation, as contemplation and conversation. And Jacob in Genesis 28:11, vayifga bamakom, he came upon a certain place…put his head on a rock and had a celestial dream, with angels climbing up and down a ladder to heaven. He woke up in that place and say, "Surely God is in this place, and I had no idea!" Vayifga bamakom, he stumbled upon a place, or as Sacks translates it he bumped into God. P'giah, a surprising encounter! Amida (standing up), Sicha (conversing/meditating), P'gi'ah (encountering). Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob-- all praying differently.
The Rabbis of the Talmud intuited what was ingrained in the mind of the biblical authors of Genesis: Everyone prays their own way. In different locations, different life circumstances, with different words, through different verbs. We don't stand up and sit down all together at once-- not in the prayer of the prophets. Why would we do that-- we're all different!
In fact, we've inherited both traditions. But frankly, in our own worship as a Jewish community today, one has prevailed over the other. What we're starting to see, however, is that human spirit finds its own way to pray. The spirit doesn't care whether the Jewish establishment is ordering its prayers sufficiently or adequately-- people find their own prayer, whether it looks Jewish or not, and whether they call it prayer or not—and they usually don't.
Raise your hand if you've found spiritual fulfillment in a form of movement—yoga, running, exercise. Keep your hand up.
Add your hand if you've felt uplifted or transcendent while expressing yourself artistically-- through song, through poetry, writing, etc. Keep your hand up.
Raise your hand if you have found shalom in meditation or silence. Everyone who's hands are up, switch hands so you can keep them up.
Raise your hand if you've found holiness in study or contemplation, or through a conversation with another human being. If you will, we can read these forms of expression as authentic prayer-- as Jewish prayer. (hands down)
Perhaps we'd best be served by no longer assuming that to pray means to pray like a priest. Because most of us already are praying like prophets. Each of us, in our own way. For some through stillness and others through movement, through percussion or through melody, in harmony or in silence.
So here’s a question-- lasuach basadeh, to discuss in your nearby vicinity, with the person next you or at home. Where and when do you feel most prayerful? Where do you pray like a prophet???