The Wisdom of the Wilderness

Hayyei Sarah By :  Lisa Gelber Posted On Nov 3, 2007 / 5768 | Torah Commentary | Natural World Prayer

When I lived in Seattle, I set aside one day each summer to visit Mount Rainier National Park and hike some trails there. Of all the entrances to the park, my favorite was one known as Sunrise. Driving toward the entrance, the snowcapped mountain spreads out, rising high above the ground. On a clear day, the blue sky, spotted with puffy clouds surrounding the mountain, is breathtaking; it is truly God’s glory manifested in the Pacific Northwest. As beautiful as the mountain often appeared, it was not merely the mountain I went to see, but rather the fields of wildflowers that emerged along the trails on that side of the mountain. The collection of colors made a magnificent carpet, home to a multitude of small creatures running, creeping, crawling, or flying. It was for me a perfect place to commune with nature, an exquisite location to take in God’s presence. I never failed to notice God on these outings, whether in a flower, the sound of the wilderness, or the comment of a friend.

What is it about the outdoors that seems so easily to welcome God’s presence? Why do so many of us feel called out into wide open spaces to be with God? As we learn in this week’s Parashat Hayyei Sarah, we come by it naturally. The reading begins with the death of Sarah and ends with Abraham’s departure from this world. Much of the core narrative of our parashah focuses on the search for a suitable wife for Isaac. Just as Rebecca and Isaac are about to meet, presumably unbeknownst to Isaac, the Torah tells us simply, “Vayeitzei Yitzhak la-suah ba-sadeh lifnot arev“—”and Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening” (Gen. 24:63). Interestingly, Isaac has just returned from the Negev and goes out for a stroll in the field. What was he doing? What was he thinking? Why does Isaac go out into the field to commune with nature?

Perhaps he was taking in his surroundings, perhaps he was clearing his head, perhaps he knew of his father’s plan to find him a partner in life and he was wondering what she would be like. Rashi, the eleventh-century French commentator, understands “la-suah” as “prayer.” The Rabbis of the Talmud seem to agree; Isaac goes out into the field “la’siah” to be in conversation with God. So convinced are they that Isaac was talking not with a friend or relative, but with God, they attribute the minhah(afternoon) prayer service, to Isaac (BT Berachot 26b).

Whether we offer our prayers to God as individuals or in community each (or any) afternoon, most of us do not go out into the field, at least not literally, to pray. What can we learn from Isaac’s late-afternoon walk in the field that can help inspire our prayer lives today? For some, minhah takes place in the midst of the afternoon, within the hustle and bustle of a busy day. Isaac reminds us of our need to stop what we’re doing and experience our surroundings in a different way. Take the time to stop, look, and listen to what is around us. In many communities, minhah is recited as the light begins to fade, a transitory time in which we need to connect with God, before the anxiety that accompanies the very end of the day, as darkness enters our world and we try to quiet our minds for sleep. Isaac models for us a willingness to invite God into conversation when our clarity might begin to fade. He doesn’t have a scripted liturgy; he merely opens his heart to what might be.

I’ve always had this vision of Isaac wandering through the field mumbling to himself. Perhaps that’s an invitation for those of us who wish to pray mid afternoon to stay contained in our offices for fear of the many odd looks we might engender from those around us. Yet, there is something to Isaac’s journey out into the field. Rabbi Ovadya ben Ya’acov S’forno (1470–1550), the Italian biblical commentator, emphasizes that Isaac turned away or deviated from the road in order to pour out his prayer to God. Like Isaac, we need to step aside from our normal routine in order to become prayerful; we need to go in search of God.

In the preface to his book The Wisdom of Wilderness: Experiencing the Healing Power of Nature, Gerald May writes,

Wilderness is not just a place; it is also a state of being. If happiness means being happy and sadness means being sad, then wilderness means being wilder. Look it up, and you’ll find that the primary meaning of wild is “natural.” In turn, natural comes from the latin nasci, meaning to be born. Words like natal, nativity, and native come from the same root, all referring to birth. Wilderness, then, is not only the nature you find outdoors. It can also refer to your own true Nature—the You that is closest to your birth. The inner wilderness is the untamed truth of who you really are. (p. xix-xx)

Perhaps that’s what Isaac was trying to teach us, as he learned it for himself. Quiet, pensive Isaac goes out into the field to meditate, to unburden his heart, to be amongst the grasses, to come close to his soul. Rav Nahman of Bratslav, a great grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, teaches, “As often as you can, take a trip out to the fields to pray. All the grasses will join you. They will enter your prayers and give you strength to sing praises to God” (Lekutei Moharan, II:1:1, Agudat Haside Breslov, 1968). If the blessings of nature can bring us strength, so, too, can our ability to honor who we are in our soul. It is our soul that we bring into prayer, by setting aside our computers, our cell phones, and our PDAs for a few moments and imagining ourselves in a field, literally or figuratively, meandering “off road,” setting aside our need to control our surroundings and our responses to them, and just opening the conversation—scriptless, without notes—enjoying the opportunity to be close to ourselves in the company of God.

May we all have the wisdom la-siah ba-sadeh (to meditate in the field), revealing our essence and breathing in deeply the miracle of life.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Lisa B. Gelber

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.