Mordechai Silverstein

The Very Human Need for Grounding

I imagine that Yitzhak was quite anxious for his father Avraham’s servant to return with news of whether he had found for him a spouse from among his distant family. He probably spent much time watching and waiting, scanning the distant approach to his family’s encampment. The Torah records just such a moment: ‘And Yitzhak went for a stroll (la’suakh) in the field toward evening, and raised his eyes and saw and, look, camels were coming.” (Genesis 24:63 – Alter translation)

The root of the verb “lasuakh”, is “samekh, vav, het” and its use in this verse is unique, making the determination of its meaning difficult and consequently, prompting a panoply of different interpretations. The above translation apparently follows that of Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, the famed 11th century Spanish exegete, known for seeking out the plain meaning of the biblical text: “He was strolling amongst the shrubbery (sikhim).” Rashi’s grandson, the Rashbam, an Ashkenazi sage, also known for his attempts to determine the texts plain meaning, came to a similar conclusion: “[He went out] to plant trees and to tend to his workers”. The preponderance of Jewish commentators, however, follow the rabbinic tradition which understood the word: “lasuakh” to be derived from the word “sikha” meaning conversation.  (See Rashi and others.)

This interpretation played an interesting role in a Talmudic debate over the origins of the Jewish practice of playing thrice daily.  One sage, Rabbi Yossi b’Rabbi Hanina maintained that the patriarchs were responsible for establishing the practice of praying morning, afternoon and evening while a second sage, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, argued that the practice was based the sacrificial order. According to Rabbi Yossi, our forefather, Yitzhak, went out into the field to converse with God or to give it a more Jewish flavor, he went out to daven minhah (the afternoon service). (See Berachot 26b)

One might ask the point of Rabbi Yossi’s seeming anachronism. Why posit that an obviously rabbinic ritual was created and practiced by one of the earliest ancestors of the tribe and tradition? It seems to me that we have a basic human need to anchor our identities and our practices in the past even if such associations are ahistorical and even fictional. Ironically, this gives us a sense of authenticity and allows us to maintain a sense of security as we face ever new circumstances. The words and actions of our ancestors open for us a window for how to approach God and the world and one can think of no more suitable role models than the matriarchs and patriarchs who brought us to this day.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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