Au Naturel

The great silver lining of the massive storm cloud called Covid is outdoor minyanim. I really like davening in a park, surrounded by nature and trees, and, during Mincha, kids. Of course, I’m writing this before the winter rains arrived here in Jerusalem. But when that happens, I’ll be like Gene Kelly, Dav’ning in the Rain, just without his dance skills. More to the point, it’s like Rebbe N’s prayer: May it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass – and there may I enter into prayer, to talk with the One to whom I belong. May all grasses, trees, and plants – awake at my coming, to send the powers of their life force into the words of my prayer.

Rebbe Nachman didn’t invent this idea. It was our Patriarch Yitzchak’s custom, and it happened in our Torah reading. First, let me set the scene. Rivka is coming from Aram Naharayim towards Be’er Sheva with Avraham’s servant (probably Eliezer), and she sees Yitzchak emerging from the vegetation. Here’s the text: And Yitzchak went forth to pray in the field towards evening, and he lifted his eyes and perceived (HINEH) that camels were arriving (Breishit 24:63). The most famous Rabbinic conclusion from that verse is that Yitzchak instituted Mincha (‘towards evening’), but there’s more.

The term translated (on as ‘to pray’ is LA’SU’ACH, however it’s not obvious that this is what it means. The first time that term appears in TANACH is: All the wild shrubs (SI’ACH) of the fields had not yet sprouted (2:5). Accordingly, many translations (including the Ibn Ezra) prefer ‘walking’ or ‘inspecting’ in the field. Probably, the most popular translation is ‘to meditate’. Rav Ya’akov Mecklenberg beautifully suggests ‘to clear his mind from the day’s activities’.

The Kli Yakar, on the other hand, is more focused on the time frame. Yiztchak would pour out his heart to God as the sun was setting, because he wanted a life partner (Rivka) before the sun had completely set on the memory of Sarah, his beloved mother. Thus, providing another opportunity to emphasize how Rivka is the replacement (in the Kabbala, the reincarnation) of Sarah Imeinu.

The Chizkuni, and others, can’t decide to go with the vegetation approach or the prayer/meditation route. He, therefore, initially goes with ‘to plant trees and to inspect how they are getting on’. Then he notes that there’s another issue (DAVAR ACHER). This second matter is ‘conversation: to speak to a person that one must talk to’. In other words, the term SICHA, as conversation, denotes a certain necessity or urgency. The Chizkuni sees two possibilities, and they remain two discrete options.

But Rebbe Nachman has no problem synthesizing the two alternatives. He suggests: That his prayer was in harmonic resonance with the vegetation of the field. That each plant in the field turned their force (KOCHAM) and combined them into his prayer, and so it appears to me that it (the prayer) was their (the vegetation’s) root (Likutei Moharan II 1:11 & 17).

Wow! Talk about symbiosis. Yitzchak, who seems to have been a wanderer since the Akeida. Remember, the verse seems to inform us that Avraham returned to the lads alone from that trial, 22:19. During this difficult period he learned to draw on all the forces around him to help focus his prayers towards their heavenly target. Sometimes, we feel too small and adrift to calibrate our KEVANAH, spiritual aim, in such a way that we feel in synch with the Divine. Sometimes davening with a minyan helps in this endeavor, especially if it’s a serious group. On other occasions, recalling the prayers of parents and mentors helps us get into our prayer concentration. Our Patriarch found the motivation in nature.

Yitzchak must have been an inspiring sight, drawing all this natural and psychic power to this TEFILA task. No wonder that the next verse (24:64) seems to hint that Rivka fell from her camel at this awesome apparition.

In these difficult days, when the invisible air around us seems to have become a lethal enemy, calling on the spiritual inspiration of the shrubs and grass of our garden synagogues, seems like a stroke of creative genius. Perhaps, our Father Yitzchak can teach us to utilize our natural settings to help us defeat this air- borne scourge. Prayer is potent when we learn to focus it correctly.

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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