To Speak Is To…

Hayyei Sarah By :  Samuel Barth Posted On Nov 19, 2011 / 5772 | Torah Commentary | Prayer

After the many narratives that explore deeply the life of Abraham and his family, we find in this portion an interlude in which the focus is upon Abraham’s elder servant—not named in our text, but often assumed to be Eliezer (mentioned in Gen. 15:2). Eliezer has been charged by Abraham to find a wife for Isaac—not from the local (Canaanite) population, but from Aram, the place of Abraham’s birth.

Let us pass over the deep and troubling questions of broad context: Why does Abraham not do this himself? Why does he not engage directly with Isaac—perhaps the two of them might make the journey together? In fact, the Torah records no occasion after the binding of Isaac on the mountain when father and son are together—until Isaac and Ishma’el come together to bury their father.

After accepting the task from Abraham, Eliezer prepares and sets out on the long journey, arriving at the city of Nahor (Gen. 24:10). And then we reach a moment (Gen. 24:12) when he…

My own writing pauses, for here we have a small puzzle of language, and religious behavior leaps across the millennia to our own challenges and inner life. The Hebrew word is vayomar, which would normally be translated as “and he said.” This is what we find in the contemporary translation of the JPS version (in our humash Etz Hayim) and in a number of other translations. But in the translations by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and a number of others, the word vayomar is rendered as “and he prayed.”

The rendering is not unreasonable if we look at the rest of the passage:

And he said/prayed: “YHVH (Adonai, Lord), God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham. Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels,’ let her be the one whom You have decreed for your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.”

Now, there have certainly been moments when Abraham spoke with God—most famously in the impassioned debate about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah—but there is no moment that it would occur to us to say that Abraham “prayed.” Jacob, when on the run from the vengeance of his brother, Esau, makes a vow to offer God a 10 percent “deal” (tithe) on any wealth that he might accrue if his life is spared (Gen. 28:20). Most famously, Moses cries out to God when his sister, Miriam, is afflicted with disease: “O God, please heal her” (Num. 12:13).

And yet there is no word in these biblical narratives uniquely reserved for the phenomenon that we call prayer. Perhaps we have over-compartmentalized our language, and now we feel that there is a special kind of language, a special kind of speaking that is reserved only for the moments when we reach out to the Divine. It seems that our ancestors in the Bible spoke to, bargained with, and cried out to God more naturally than is the case for many of us. Later in the Bible (the prayers of Hannah, Solomon, and the psalms), there is a more structured context of prayer—but little or no identifiable fixed liturgy.

It is hard to recall, but true, that Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Ruth, David, and Jeremiah (to name a few) never attended services in a synagogue; they never met a rabbi or hazzan (these had not yet been invented); and the form of organized service of God that they knew was principally based upon the offerings and rituals of the Temple, carried out by the kohanim (priests). Nobody ever told them to “turn to page 73 and stand.”

Heschel has suggested that we know where to go for the various purposes of our lives. We go the library for books, to the museum for art, to the bank for money, to the university for learning, and to the concert hall for music (whether rock and roll or symphonic). Has the synagogue come to be seen as the place we go to seek the Divine—and the only place to undertake that quest?

For many among the contemporary Jewish community, I believe that this is in fact the case. Talking to God is seen as the mission of the synagogue and its staff. But the ease with which Eliezer takes a moment to speak/pray to God, the natural language with which Hannah expresses herself, the intricate and profound existential pleas of the psalms, and the short, urgent cri de coeur of Moses on behalf of his sister remind us, and call us all, to bring the conversation with God into the events and course of our lives, wherever we be.

The Hasidic sage Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav urges every person to undertake the practice of hitbodedut (private conversation), each day, with God. He goes to some lengths to insist that this not be in Hebrew, but in each person’s mother tongue, the language of their most comfortable communication. Many people report that undertaking this free-form, undefined prayer has supported the opening and flowering of the soul, deeply enriching the experience and depth of the fixed liturgy in synagogues.

Eliezer knew that he needed help, and he prayed for it in the greatest detail. Not short on chutzpah! We are reminded of the story of the young child who prayed to be given a bicycle for the upcoming holiday. Later observing the absence of a bicycle, a relative asked if the prayer had been answered. “Of course,” replied the child. “The answer was no.” There are those who claim that we live in a time when God is absent or eclipsed; many in contemporary times are challenged to find the encounter with the Divine Presence—in their private lives or in synagogues. But the encounters of Abraham and Eliezer inspire us, and the words of God, as conveyed by Isaiah, urge us onward:

I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask;
I was ready to be found by those who did not seek.
I said, “Hineini, hineini [Here I am, here I am]”
To a nation that did not call My name.” (Isa. 65:1)

The Divine awaits us all, in our moments of fear and challenge, of joy and exultation, and inside the doors of our own synagogues.

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