HEART TO HEART
Rabbi David Walk
This week we are re-introduced to one of the most
enigmatic characters in our Bible. Yitzchak is already mentioned in
last week's reading, but he's just a passive participant in the
significant events of his birth, brit and almost execution. This week
he becomes as active a character as we're going to see out of him. We
don't really know what's going on in his mind. What does he think
when his older brother is banished because of Yishmael's negative
influence on him? We don't know. What does he feel when he father
ties him to the altar, and raises the knife to slaughter him? No
clue. How does he react to the death of his beloved and protective
mother? The Torah is totally tacit. Until he's forty years old and
preparing to marry he has no voice. No one has spoken to him; he has
spoken to no one. Abruptly, that all changes, when he is first seen
from the distance by his mail order bride, Rivka, arriving from
This scene is famous. Rivkah is traveling in style with
this impressive caravan of camels, possessions and servants. As the
journey nears its end, here's the scenario: And Isaac went forth to
converse in the field towards evening, and he lifted his eyes and saw,
and behold, camels were approaching. And Rivkah lifted her eyes, and
saw Yitzchak, and she fell down from the camel (Genesis 26:63 & 64).
Rivkah wants to know who this person is, and is informed by the
servant leading the way that this is his master, her future husband.
What was her impression of this man talking to himself in the meadow?
We don't know, but she did fall off her camel. I remember riding
camels, and it's a long way down, about seven feet. So, she was moved
by this sight, but favorably or not? Here's our first glimpse of
Yitzchak as an independent character, and he's davening in a way which
blows away the observer. We may have a hint of this amazing focus
during prayer at end of the story of the attempted sacrifice. There,
after Avraham has sacrificed the ram, the verse reveals that Avraham
returned to the young men who had waited below. Where was Yitzchak?
I believe that he was still in communication with God in that very
holy place, later to be the site of Solomon's Temple. I have this
feeling that Yitzchak felt right at home in this sacred environment.
This brings us to the great strength of Yitzchak who's
called the patriarch of Gevurah (courage or strength of character).
He is most comfortable with the divine. Don't invite him to a
cocktail party. Just as Avraham is the role model for kindness,
Yitzchak is the poster patriarch for worship. This concept of
learning from the example of a great zadik is very important,
especially in areas which don't come naturally to us, like prayer.
The story is told that Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Chaim Charlop visiting Jaffa
just before World War I saw Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen daven once,
and was hooked. He became, perhaps, his most important student.
Similar stories are told about many Chassidic leaders.
This brings us to the central question: What makes a
prayer experience spectacular? I believe that we can find the answer
to that query in the same incident of Rivkah encountering Yitzchak.
There are many words in our tradition for prayer (you know like the
Eskimos have a lot of words for snow, and Cub fans have a lot of words
for lose.). The Midrash (beginning of Va'etchanan, in both Sifre and
Raba) claims that there are ten, but the extremely significant term
used in our verse isn't even mentioned there. Here we're told that
Yitzchak went out to the field to converse (lo'suach) with God. The
best prayer from the best practitioner is a conversation. No prayer
can be spiritually moving unless the person really feels that he/she
is truly in communication with the Deity, otherwise the exercise is at
best an ethnic rite, at worst fruitless.
Okay, I've got to talk to God, but what do I say? I believe that the
words in the prayer book are merely a jumping off point, a list of
suggestions (except for Shema, which strictly speaking is not a
prayer, but a twice daily obligatory declaration of faith). Here's
the trick (I learned this from the Disney movie Aladdin): Be
yourself! There's a beautiful line from Psalms (69:14), which we
chant on holidays when we remove the Torah from the ark: And I am my
prayer (v'ani tefiloti). We have to feel ourselves engaged in our
prayer. Rav Yehuda Amital of Yeshivat har Etziyon relates the
following: A Chassidic story describes a chassid who came to the
Rebbe with the following complaint: "Rebbe, I have foreign thoughts."
"Foreign?" asked the Rebbe. "They aren't foreign at all. They're all
yours." The message is clear we must go with our instincts to make
the prayer experience meaningful.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1809) explained the situation in the
following words: Prayer originally began with each person pouring out
his heart before God in his own words and language. This is explained
by Rambam (Maimonides) in his Code of Torah Law (Prayer 1:4), where he
states that personal prayer was the main form of prayer prior to the
institution of the set prayers by the Men of the Great Assembly.
According to the law, even today the original form of prayer remains
primary (Sichat Haran #229). It's up to us, and we must allow it to
happen. Let it flow.
I think that it's significant that the Torah doesn't ell us what
Yitzchak said to God. We're not learning from this incident what to
say, but how to say it. This is important because our prayers define
us. At the end of Yom Kippur we say: You have separated humans from
animals in order to stand before You. We are human because we pray.
Ultimately, we are our prayers. Pour yourself into this endeavor.
It's worth it.
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