The Book of Genesis is full of movement, of entering and leaving. Àdam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden, Abraham and Sarah enter the Land of Canaan, and leave and enter again; Jacob leaves and then returns, only to leave once more — this time with his whole family. Rebecca, too, in this week’s parsha, begins her life of drisha (Gen. 25:22) — of seeking, inquiring — and travels from afar to join Isaac. Only Isaac stays put, never leaving the confines of the land eventually named “Yisrael” after his son. As Rebecca approaches her new home, she encounters Isaac, seeing him first from a distance — a dot in the beige-brown expanse of the Negev — studying him as she gets closer, analyzing what she sees: “Who is the man over there that is walking in the field to meet us?” (Gen. 24:65).
“And Isaac went out ‘lasu’ah’ in the field toward evening” (24:63).
The verb lasu’ah is a hapax legomenon, a term that appears only once in the entire Bible. It is therefore a veritable field-day for etymologists and exegetes alike. Some (e.g., Rashi, following Hazal) say lasu’ah derives from the noun si’ah or siha — conversation, musing, meditation — and conclude that Isaac was praying. Others (such as Rashbam) interpret lasu’ah from the alternate meaning of si’ah, a shrub or plant, and conclude that Isaac was out planting in his field. Some modern translations (see Fox, Alter) suggest (based on an Arabic cognate or a slight change of the text, or perhaps influenced by Rebecca’s question) that he was simply out for a stroll.
As we continue to stroll among the interpretations, however, things begin to get interesting:
Another group of commentaries (take a look at Ibn Ezra, Radak, Rabbenu Bahya) suggest that Isaac was out strolling among his plants — combining the two possibilities: planting and strolling. Seforno, on the other hand, explains: Isaac veered from the main road into the field to pray. Here, the walk is not merely wandering for the sake of diversion or refreshment, as suggested by some of the others (and, really, what could be nicer than a walk in a field at sunset?), but to find an ideal place to pray, where he would not be bothered by passers-by. So suddenly walking and praying are paired together – and planted specifically in a field. Lastly, the Netziv, sets the ideas of working in a field and praying in a field side by side. In contrast to Seforno, he does not see a field as an ideal place to pray (he chooses to interpret “field” metaphorically), but nevertheless he extensively explores the play between the two meanings of the word avoda — work and worship — seeing the necessary twinning of the two — and not work alone — as critical for livelihood which is, he says, the essence of Isaac.
While, clearly, the word lasu’ah has only one peshat — one actual meaning — it is fascinating how the different possibilities are interwoven, overlapping. This is true all the more so when one considers that the different ways of understanding the verse reflect not just different linguistic interpretations, but also different aspects of Isaac’s character. We do not have many stories where Isaac is the active player — he is often dismissed (unfairly, in my opinion) as less significant than his more dynamic father, son and wife. But the two things Isaac pursues actively are praying and planting — and he is actually very successful in both of these endeavors. When Rebecca is barren, he prays and is answered — seemingly straightaway (the similarity of the words va-y’etar and vaya’ater in Gen. 25:21 suggest immediacy and a closeness between the prayer and the Answerer of prayer) – and he and Rebecca are doubly blessed, with not one but two children. Later, Isaac plants in his fields, and again his success exceeds expectations — this time a hundred-fold (Gen. 26:12) — arousing at first the envy, but eventually the respect and admiration of those around him. So, either by happy coincidence or by clever design, the vagueness of the verb lasu’ah encourages different interpretations, the combination of which paints a picture of Isaac, which is complete in a way that a single interpretation is not — even if lasu’ah, etymologically speaking, can only have one meaning.
I imagine Rebecca seeing the different aspects of Isaac as she approached, as she drew closer — each glance revealing a different possibility of what he was, or perhaps what he was meant to come to symbolize. Perhaps she saw him planting and praying at turns — lifting first his plough and then his voice in prayer. Maybe his planting informed his praying — prioritizing his needs and his dreams; perhaps the si’ah of the sadeh — the whisperings of wind strolling across the field, which he heard as he strolled among his plants, inspired his own si’ah ha-sadeh — his meditations on the field (see Genesis Rabbah 13:2). Perhaps his planting becomes a metaphor for prayer, for connection to God — something that needs to be cultivated and nurtured, something that can strengthen ones roots while enabling one to grow and reach greater heights. Or maybe, conversely, prayer is a metaphor for his work. After all, Isaac’s labor of setting down roots, of making the land his own, of walking along its paths, of re-digging wells of deeply running water, was his divinely appointed task, his connection to God, through which he shows that purpose can elevate the work of one’s hands while at the same time elevating one spiritually — whatever one’s field. It was not by chance that Isaac’s prayer was uttered in the afternoon — understood by the sages as the template for the Mincha service, the prayer that we say when we are in the thick of our workday, or just as we are winding it down.
How appropriate that Isaac — the embodiment of the promise to Abraham that his descendants would dwell in his land — would be the one to provide meaningful models of how to do so.
This intersection of praying and planting in the field, however, did not begin with Isaac, but is part and parcel of human existence.
“No plant of the field (si’ah ha-sadeh) was yet on earth…” (2:5)
In this introduction to the creation of humankind, the Torah explains that the world was different before the arrival of people in that there was no si’ah ha-sadeh (note the similarity to lasu’ah ba-sadeh) — no plants of the field. The reason for this, the verse continues, is twofold — there was not yet rain to water the field, and there were not yet humans to work the land. Rashi (building on Hullin 60b) pulls this all together: “And what is the reason that God had not caused it to rain? Because there was no person to till the ground, and there was, therefore, no one to recognize the utility of rain. When Adam came, however, and he realized that it was necessary for the world, he prayed for it and it fell.” Rashi interprets si’ah ha-sadeh according to the peshat — “plants of the field,” but hidden within his interpretation is the midrash which plays with that phrase interpreting it as “the prayer of the field” (Genesis Rabbah 13:2). Interestingly, Rashi’s scenario of Adam’s initial prayer must have only come about once Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden — when they no longer lived in a place where food was provided by trees watered regularly by rivers, where it was not necessary to work and toil for sustenance (Gen. 2:9). Only then, post-Eden, when Adam (like Isaac later) felt the struggle of extracting fruit from the land (and Eve, like Rebecca, the struggle of carrying and extracting fruit of the womb) would he have been moved to pray, thereby filling the world with both the prayers and the plants of the field.
Isaac, who only knew life in the land “which soaks up its water from the rains of heaven,” in contrast to Eden-like Egypt (Deut. 11:11, Gen. 13:10), and who experienced the most human of worries — praying in the field for both food and a family — is not only the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, but also the realization of the Torah’s archetype for all humanity. Isaac serves as a model not just for his children, but for all of humankind.