Saturday, November 26, 2011

Hayyei Sarah (Wanderings)

“And Yitzhak went out to the field”

One of the verses in this week’s parashah that has always intrigued me is ויצא יצחק לשוח בשדה לפנות ערב וגו': “And Yitzhak went out to converse/meditate/stroll in the field towards evening…” (Genesis 24:63). The traditional Rabbinic interpretation, cited by Rashi and others (Sforno, R. Saadya Gaon, R. Hananel), is that Yitzhak went into the field to pray at that time; hence, he is seen, in a Talmudic passage I have discussed several times in the past in the context of communal vs. individual prayers, as establishing the Minhah (Afternoon) Prayer, just as Avraham “established” Shaharit and Yaakov Ma’ariv (see b. Berakhot 27b, in the name of R Yossi bar Hanina). The passage in question interprets the verb לשוח, from the root שיח , as meaning “to pray” on the basis of its usage in the heading to Psalm 102: “The prayer of a poor man when he is faint [or: enwrapped, as in a prayer shawl] and pours out his discourse before he Lord (ולפני ה' ישפך שיחו).

Another group of commentators (most prominently Radak, Rashbam, and Ibn Ezra), often referred to as peshtanim for their emphasis on a straightforward, philological understanding of the biblical text and a rejection of the often fanciful associations found in midrash, say that he simply went out to walk in the field (BDB sees this as a variant of the root שוט), to meet an acquaintance in this particular place, or to inspect what was happening with the shrubs and trees (Radak, interestingly, reads לשוח as a verb derived from the noun שיח, “shrub”).

A third view, which I saw many years ago in a parashah sheet from Bar-Ilan University, suggests that לשוח derived from an Arabic root meaning to open oneself up, to meditate without any predetermined contents. In any event, whether praying, meditating, or aimlessly walking about by himself, Yitzhak appears here as a solitary figure, given to what the Romantics called ”communing with nature” (or perhaps, to avoid the pantheistic implications of that phrase, “communing in nature”).

All this elicits questions about the personality of Yitzhak. We see him here as a solitary, somewhat dreamy figure, rather than as a “mover and shaker” like his father. It has often been noted that a certain kind of passivity is a dominant strain in his personality: he plays a passive role in the Akedah, where he is saved at the last possible moment by angelic intervention; he does not actively court his wife nor, unlike Yaakov and Moshe, does he impress her with his masculine strength, courage and gallantry. Rather, she is brought to him by his father’s servant and, in an almost Freudian verse a few lines down, we are told that with his wife he was “comforted after his mother[’s death]” (ibid., v. 67). Yet again, in the final scene shown of his life, he appears as a feeble, blind old man easily deceived (or was he really? did he perhaps consciously and deliberately “play along” with the ruse?) by his powerful wife and stay-at-home son. All these facts suggest a passive, even feminine hue to his personality.

A third point is that, according to Kabbalah, Yitzhak is the archetype for the sefirah of Gevurah—of stern judgment, of a certain strictness, constriction and even harshness, just as Abraham is identified with Hesed—overflowing love and kindness and constant reaching out to others; of love of life; of seeing God’s presence in every blade of grass. This is stated explicitly in at least one biblical sequence: when Yaakov parts from his father-in-law Lavan, he twice invokes “the God of my father Abraham and the Fear of my father Isaac (פחד [אביו] יצחק)…” (Gen 31:42, 53). What, if any, is the relationship among solitude, passivity and fear? To answer this question, he must first understand the concept of “fear of God.” There is a tendency among many people today to emphasize love alone. Certainly, the new Jewish spirituality speaks of love, of warmth, of striving for joy and even ecstasy in prayer, and also of self-acceptance, as a sine qua non for religion for today’s world. This is perhaps especially so in Orthodoxy, where many have experienced the old-type Orthodoxy—the proverbial heder melamed who hit his pupils over the knuckles with a ruler whenever they made a mistake—who alienated a whole generation of Jews from observance. A gentler, more benign and benevolent approach certainly seems called for.

Yet Judaism speaks of ahavah and yirah, of the love and fear of God, as two sides of the same coin, as two attributes both of which are necessary, as complementing one another. I am reminded here of William James’ concept, in his masterly study The Varieties of Religious Experience, of “world-affirming” and “world–denying” religiosity.

What then is meant by fear? One definition is yirat ha-onesh: fear of Divine punishment, be it in this life or the next, for failure to perform the mitzvot or for active transgression, in the sense of performing a forbidden act. This is the “fear of God” taught by the fire-and-brimstone preachers of yore.

A second, more sublime level, is yirat ha-romemut, in which fear is understood in terms of awe, the sense of being overwhelmed by God’s majesty and transcendence, more reminiscent of Rudoph Ottos’ mysterium tremendum and the sense of God as being Wholly Other. This is the אימה ויראה רתת וזיע which the people experienced at Sinai; it is this which caused prophets to fall on their faces upon seeing the Divine Glory.

But there is also a third, more down-to-earth level: yirat het, “the fear of sin.” There are those who define it in terms of fearing the alienation from God that one might bring upon oneself through one’s own sinful acts. But I would suggest something much simpler. Fear of sin really means: fear of one’s own Yetzer Hara, of one’s own Evil Urge or Evil Inclination. The one who fears is aware of the complexity of human personality, of the multiplicity and ambivalence of every human being’s inner life; the propensity to sin, to mislead oneself. This is, perhaps, the source of Yitzhak’s solitude: I can imagine him spending long hours reflecting on his own actions, weighing them carefully, analyzing his motivations—in short, a kind of Nevarhadok Mussar-nik. This may also explain his passivity: excessive fear of sin may lead to indecision, even to paralysis of the will, because one worries too much about making the wrong decision. I am reminded of a certain person named Bava ben Buti who, according to the Mishnah at Keritut 6.3, brought an asham taluy—the sacrifice of atonement for a possible sin every day of his life: “perhaps I did something wrong.” Thus, rather than simply going out into the world with a happy, positive attitude, ready to embrace the world and to do what needs to be done, Yitzhak (and all those that share this temperament) was plagued by fear that, somewhere along the way, he might commit a misstep and fall into transgression.

But there is nevertheless reason to fear one’s own potential to sin. There are relatively gross and obvious forms of the Evil Inclination, which a person who has worked on himself may feel he ahs overcome in some fashion—such things as lust, gluttony, love of money and material wealth, anger, sloth—in short, the seven deadly sins of the Christians. But there are other, subtler temptations: the desire for honor and recognition from others; or, among some of those who may consider themselves Tzaddikim, the inverted form of pride involved in pretending to others—or even to oneself—that one is modest and humble. Many people delude themselves that their own motivations are good and true and holy, when they too are really motivated by other, concealed motivations.

I would like to conclude with an example from this week’s parashah, which I heard from Mickey Rosen, z”l, who said it in the name of R. Simha Bunem of Psyshcha’s Kol Simhah: In two separate places the servant says “Perhaps the maiden won’t go with me” (Gen 24:5; 39). What then? Rashi, upon the second appearance of this phrase, notes that the servant had an agenda of his own: in his heart, he secretly hoped that his mission would fail, so that Abraham would then choose his own daughter as Yitzhak’s spouse. But R. Simhah Bunem notes a subtle difference in vocalization between the two verses: in the former it is vocalized with a shuruk, and spelled אולי; in the latter, with a melapum or kubutz, and is spelled אלי—a word that may also be read as “to me”: i.e., the shiddukh will then come to me. But it was only once he realized that this was no longer a real option, and it was clear to him that Rivkah was in fact the destined one, that Eliezer realized that he had been carrying this unconscious wish that his own daughter become Avraham’s daughter-in-law.

Returning to Yitzhaks’ “meditation” in the field: perhaps the subject of his meditation was, first and foremost, a kind of constant soul-searching (heshbon nefesh). Indeed, there are those who advocate that a person review his actions every night before going to sleep, while reciting the bedtime Shema. There are those for whom a constant fear of wrongdoing, a pervasive sense of guilt, of the need to improve their behavior, or perhaps their very existential being, is the central motif of their religious life. In James’ terminology: these are world rejecting type, who see life as full of pitfalls – unlike Abraham, enthusiastic, loving ecstatic who is too full of joy and love, too busy doing mitzvot, to worry about pitfalls. “Judaism” as such has room for both. It does not, and perhaps cannot decide definitively in favor of one or the other, for the simple reason that these are temperaments which exist in every group of people. In the end, both are valid, simply because both types of personality exist.


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