Making Love in the Field: Hayei Sarah 5781

Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening. He raised his eyes and saw camels approaching (Gen. 24:63). This scene, this moment before Isaac and Rebecca first meet, is dramatic and full of mystery. The two protagonists have come physically close, but remain each in their own world, and that never really changes. True, they will soon occupy a tent together, and Isaac will love his wife,  but just now Rebecca is alone on her camel, and Isaac too is alone in his field. Each seems psychologically wounded. We don’t know much of Rebecca’s background—her parents are ciphers, but her brother Laban is a piece of work. He takes advantage of her, and will do worse to her son. She wastes no time leaving home, as her one word answer אלך, “I’ll go” makes clear. As for Isaac—mourning his mother’s death, and not so close to Abraham since Mt Moriah, he is alone in the dark.

To meditate. What was he thinking? Could the ambiguous verb לשוח relate to the shoots or shrubs growing in the soil? If so, then he was taking advantage of the cool time of day to inspect his crops, a symbol of renewed vitality. Or does the verb truly mean to meditate, as the rabbis insisted in B. Brakhot 26b when they said he was praying Minhah? Meditate? That’s an after the fact translation. The verb means to speak, but with whom? Is Isaac speaking with God? If so, then what is he saying?

In the field. A promising place to meet one’s partner, a place of fertility. It is also a place of concentration, as I often experience when outdoors in a quiet space. In mystical thought, “the field” refers to Shekhinah, the divine presence, and this time of day, Minhah, is when “judgment is dangling toward dusk,” as the Zohar states. Isaac himself is a symbol of divine judgment or gevurah, and so this evening scene is tense and potentially dangerous. The field is a place of encounter—but will it be a struggle, an embrace, or both? The same ambiguity will recur during Jacob and Esau’s reunion in the field. Is Isaac preparing for battle, or is he battling against judgment itself, seeking an opening for compassion? Hasidic writers imagine Isaac engaged in an exalted campaign—to “sweeten judgment,” not only for himself but for the world.

This is the sense of a Hasidic insight shared in the name of Rabbi Shlomo ha-Kohen of Radomsk in his book Ohel Shlomo. I have long cherished this comment in an abridged form found in Itturei Torah: “Toward evening” is a symbol of exile, so Isaac is seeking to prepare his descendants to greet the messiah. He may even be trying to prevent their future exile, if the verb לפנות can be translated as “to cast out” the darkness. But he worries, what merit could accomplish this epic task? The camels are coming. Camels (גמלים) hint at the word for acts of kindness, גמילות חסדים. Isaac goes into the field to bend his judgmental self towards compassion, so that he can make room in his heart to love Rebecca, and be comforted for his mother Sarah. Doing so, he sets an example for his descendants. In times of anger, cast out the dark, and let in the love.

It is a very nice drashah, but the original text is even better. It took me some time to track it down, but the full text is found below. Ohel Shlomo associates “the field” with those Jews who live in remote villages where there is no minyan. An entire year might pass without them able to say the prayers of kedushah. How can they survive without this communal nourishment? It turns out that their isolation can also be their redemption. They have the ability to welcome wayfarers, to house and feed the vulnerable, and through the practice of hospitality, they can draw holiness into their isolated villages.

This is Torah fit for a lockdown. We too are isolated in this period, each out in our own field, separated from others, unable to form a physical minyan. But even here we are not truly alone. There is always the possibility of practicing kindness, of caring for the physical and emotional needs of others, even when we cannot safely welcome visitors in our homes. This drashah is not so far from the reality of Isaac as he runs to welcome Rebecca. Nor is it distant from her own conduct when she greets Abraham’s servant and draws water for him and his camels. These characters are tough types, but they are generous when it matters most.

We are living in a time of tension and harsh judgment. The new month of Kislev begins Monday night, bringing darkness and the memory of ancient oppressions. Yet we are not frozen with fear. When we realize the power of compassion, when we recognize the strength of our own resources, then like Isaac and Rebecca we can turn judgment to mercy, making room for love, life and renewal.

בראשית פרשת חיי שרה פרק כד פסוק סג

וַיֵּצֵא יִצְחָק לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶה לִפְנוֹת עָרֶב וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה גְמַלִּים בָּאִים: 

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף כו עמוד ב

יצחק תקן תפלת מנחה – שנאמר ויצא יצחק לשוח בשדה לפנות ערב, ואין שיחה אלא תפלה, שנאמר תפלה לעני כי – יעטף ולפני ה’ ישפך שיחו 

זוהר כרך ב (שמות) פרשת ויקהל דף רו עמוד ב

במנחה בשעתא דדינא תליא לעידן ערב

עיטורי תורה, כרך א’ ע’ 200.

לפנות ערב–בעקבתא דמשיחא יצא יצחק לעיין באיזה זכות יתקיימו בני ישראל, וירא והנה גמלים באים–בזכות צדקה וגמילות חסדים.

ספר אהל שלמה, ע’ ז.