Chayei Sarah - Of Time and Space
By Rabbi Aron Tendler
The Talmud in tractate Berachos explains that one of the reasons for
praying three times daily is because of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov.
Avraham ordained Shachris (morning prayers); Yitzchak ordained Mincha
(afternoon prayers); and Yakov ordained Mariv (evening prayers).
In past issues I have explained that the timing of these three prayer
sessions in relation to the specific Av (father) reflects a number of
important concepts regarding Tefilah (prayer).
The morning is a time of optimism. Awaking from the semi-death of sleep,
the light and warmth of day promises rebirth, renewal, and success. Avraham
was the epitome of optimism and success. As G-d had promised him, Avraham
earned a international reputation. His world acclaimed him as teacher,
warrior, and statesman extraordinaire!
Avraham specifically prayed in the morning because his life reflected the
life of the Jew as he will enter the Messianic era of awakened passions,
determination, and glory. As it says in last week's Parsha, "Avraham woke
up in the morning to the place where he had stood."
Yitzchak was a much more private individual than his father. Whereas
Avraham had traveled throughout the Middle East and Egypt engaging kings
and peasants alike, Yitzchak, as the "almost Korban (offering)," was
forbidden to leave the borders of Canaan. At best, Yitzchak interacted with
the local inhabitants; otherwise, he kept to himself. Although
exceptionally successful in all his endeavors, Yitzchak's focus was
introspective and intense. Representing perfection in all aspects of Divine
service, Yitzchak left no room in his life for mistakes or compromise. He
lived within the strict judicial framework of right and wrong. Yitzchak
lived a life of "Din - judgment." Just as he had been judged worthy of
being offered on the Mizbeach (alter) so did he live his life in
preparation for that moment and in growing beyond it.
Mincha is prayed toward the end of the day. It is the moment when a person
should reflect critically on the past day in preparation for being judged
that night. We are told that as we close our eyes and leave the conscious
world our souls ascend before the heavenly tribunal and are judged whether
worthy or not of waking up the next morning. Yitzchak's life reflected that
constant assessment, judgment, reflection, and resolve. He represented the
perfected Jew in the World To Come - the era following the final judgment
and beyond our world of free choice. The end of the day was Yitzchak's
moment for prayer. As the verse says in this week's Parsha, "And Yitzchak
went out toward evening to meditate."
Yakov is the prototype of Jewish trial, struggle, and survival. Whereas
Avraham and Yitzchak engaged their worlds and remained unscathed and
untouched by their encounters, Yakov lived a life of tragic separations,
animosities, concerns, and exile. Although identified by the Rabbis as the
"Chosen of all the Forefathers," Yakov's life was pain-filled and lonely.
Maybe he was titled Chosen among the Forefathers because his life was not
as "charmed" as his father and grandfathers' lives had been and yet his
service and devotion was as unwavering and intense as their own.
Yakov's life reflected the fears of night, the insecurities of darkness,
the yearning for redemption, and the first rays of the morning light.
Yakov's life is the life of the Jew as he struggles though this world and
hopes for the coming of Mashiach. That is why Yakov chose to pray in the
evening. As it says in the Parsha after next, "And he encountered the place
because the sun had set."
The verse in last week's Parsha detailing Avraham praying in the morning is
sandwiched between the destruction of Sodom and the related story of Lot
and his two daughters.
The verse in this week's Parsha detailing Yitzchak praying toward evening
precedes his first encounter with Rivkah and the record of their love for
The verse detailing Yakov davening at night introduces his first recorded
prophecy, the famed vision of Jacob's Ladder.
The three verses quoted were selected by the Talmud as the source for how
we know when each of the Forefathers prayed; however, it is not explained
why the Torah placed each of the three verses in the specific context where
they are found. Allow me o explain.
At first glance, the individual verses are not "out of place." They each
fit into their immediate story line. Avraham, having argued unsuccessfully
in defense of Sodom and accepting the judiciousness and compassion of G-d's
decision to destroy the five city-states, saw the smoke rising from the
destruction. As he prepared to pray Shachris he knew that G-d had done as
He said He would do.
Yitzchak, having spent the previous three years immersed in the study of
Torah while mourning the death of his mother, happened to be praying Mincha
as Rivkah appeared in his life for the first time. Her arrival and their
subsequent marriage completed their individual stages and prepared them for
the next stage of Jewish history.
Yakov, fleeing from his brother Eisav, leaving the protection and inherent
sanctity of the Promised Land, and journeying into the unknown dangers of
his uncle Lavan's influence and power, decided that it was timely to pray
to G-d on top of Mt. Mariah for continued protection and success.
However, I believe there is more to the placement of each verse and their
relationship to prayer than the literary convenience of the storyline.
The story of Sodom and its destruction is preceded by G-d "sharing" His
intentions with Avraham. G-d states, "I must first tell Avraham that which
I am about to do because Avraham will teach his children to follow My ways
to do righteousness and justice."
Righteousness and justice must stand upon the bedrock of absolute adherence
and subjugation to the word of G-d. Any other criteria render righteousness
and justice as arbitrary, reflecting the time bound perspective of human
limitations rather than the absolute truths of Divine timelessness. This
distinction between human and divine arbitrary and absolute was the vast
yet subtle difference between Avraham as a "Prophet of G-d" and Avimelech's
noble but failed attempt at creating a society where "there was no fear of
G-d." Avraham's truths could be trusted to protect and enhance human
nobility and greatness because they were founded upon subjugation to the
word of G-d. Avimelech's relative truths could not be trusted, and if not
for Divine intervention would have disastrously degraded Sarah, the noblest
of all those created in G-d's image.
Sodom represented the worst in human failure. They were an evil that could
not be refined and therefore were "removed from the midst of humanity."
G-d offered Avraham insight into "His ways of justice" by giving him the
chance to defend them. Avraham attempted to find righteousness within the
five doomed cities but in the end was told by G-d Himself that only evil
remained. The human beasts of Sodom and Gomorrah had consumed all vestiges
of goodness and justice. Repentance and rehabilitation were impossible and
they had to be destroyed.
The next morning Avraham awoke with a heavy heart. He knew that within
eyesight of his tent G-d's justice would have been done; however, he also
knew that the destruction was the essence of justice and righteousness. He
knew that left up to his own limited perspective and knowledge Sodom would
have been mistakenly and tragically spared; instead, he trusted that "all
the ways of G-d are straight sand ultimately pleasant" and accepted G-d's
decree. He understood that his regular morning prayers at the place and
time when he would "stand with G-d" would be profoundly more meaningful. He
had been catapulted into a greater degree of humility, trust, and
acceptance of G-d's justice. He was now ready to become the father of a son
that would attain perfection of service to G-d within the Divine framework
of righteousness and justice. Avraham's failure at saving Sodom was
actually his greatest victory.
Following the Akeidah (binding of Isaac), Yitzchak entered the second phase
of his life. His mother was gone. She had accomplished the mission of her
creation by raising a son to be the "perfect offering." At 127 Sarah
merited perfection of being and completion of purpose.
Yitzchak found himself alone in all of history. No one else had attained
his level of profundity in service to G-d; therefore, there was only one
thing he could do. He had to immerse himself in the unlimited depth and
vastness of Torah study and exploration.
Entering the academy of Shem and Ever (Noach's son and
great-great-grandson), Yitzchak discovered the next level of his humility
and service. He realized that personal perfection was only a preparatory
stage to sharing his life with another. "It is not good for the human to be
alone." He realized that he had to marry.
Yitzchak emerged from the cocoon of Torah study to see the sun setting on
his aloneness. He "went out into the field to meditate" on the ways of G-d
with the resolve of sharing his life with another in search of further
perfection. The first stage (day) of his development had ended. He had been
judged worthy of being the progenitor of the next Jewish generation. The
evening (beginning of his new day) would soon approach with greater
discoveries and awareness than ever before. He was ready to be completed as
an individual and as a servant of G-d. It was time to close out the past
and begin the future. It was time for him to meet and marry Rivkah.
Emotions of loneliness and love are among the signposts along the pathway
to G-d. With newfound humility and understanding Yitzchak poured out his
heart to G-d in "the field and at the time" that he usually stood with G-d.
As he prayed, Rivkah crested the horizon to see a living angel framed by
the setting sun. She knew that her life was about to begin and Yitzchak
knew that his prayers had been answered. "He brought her into the tent of
his mother Sarah, loved her, and was comforted."
Yakov was 77 years old when he left the academy of Shem and Ever. For 14
years he hid from Eisav within the confines of the Bais Medresh (study
hall). It was time to continue his journey. Yakov's journey would be very
different than Yitzchaks' or Avraham's.
Avraham's journey was external. His mission was to perfect the external
Jew, the social Jew, and bring "blessing to all the families of the land."
It was Avraham who was to become a "light onto the nations." He was the
foretelling of the messianic era when all Jews will interact with the other
nations as teachers and guides. He was the embodiment of the national
mandate to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."
For 75 years Avraham extended his Chesed (kindness) within the social
paganism of Ur Kasdim by proclaiming the goodness of the single Creator of
heaven and earth. Refined in the furnaces of Mesopotamia, Avraham could
mingle with "This World" and remain untouched by its base animalism. After
accomplishing the "souls that he had made in Charan," G-d sent Avraham to
take possession of the Promised Land where His presence is most manifest
and realized. Mostly, it was because of Yitzchak that Avraham and Sara had
to go to the land of Canaan.
Yitzchak's journey, on the other hand, was internal. Yitzchak's job was to
perfect the internal Jew. The internal Jew is the Jew who sanctifies the
physical body in service to the soul. In so doing he renders the physical
as secondary and eventually irrelevant. The internal Jew is the Jew who one
day will loose all vestiges of his outer shell and release his inner
divinity into the spiritual eternity of "The World To Come."
The internal Jew is also able to fully enjoy the physical world because it
remains pure in its service to G-d. That is why it is Yitzchak and Rivkah
who will be described in next week's Parsha as "playing and laughing" with
each other. That is why Yitzchak will insist that Eisav first hunt and
prepare a meal, "as he loves." For the "blind" Yitzchak the physical world
had returned to the pristine state of Gan Eden. Wherever he was he could
smell the fragrance of Paradise. That is why Yitzchak could never leave
Canaan. No other place on earth could support Yitzchak's internal
perfection. He truly lived life as "a reflection of the World To Come."
Yakov's journey was to be exiled from the Promised Land and not only remain
the same Jew he was for the first 77 years of his life, but continue to
grow and develop and become even greater as a person and as a nation. In
that way he would infuse in his children the ability to do more than
survive. He would gift them the ability to grow and eventually return.
In every regard the success of Avraham's and Yitzchak's missions was
dependent on Yakov's success. If he failed, the entire nation failed, if he
succeeded they all succeeded. To succeed, Yakov required 77 years studying
G-d's Torah day and night, "never slumbering and never sleeping". In the
being of Yakov had to be fused the generosity, compassion, and kindness of
Avraham with the strength and discipline of Yitzchak. He had to integrate
the external Jew with the internal Jew, the Chesed (kindness) of Avraham
with the Gevurah (strength) of Yitzchak. Yakov had to become the embodiment
of Emes - truth. He had to have clarity of purpose, belief in self,
awareness of social falsehood, and the strength to survive and grow. He had
to become the Chosen One among the Forefathers because he had to give birth
to the Chosen People.
Arriving at the summit of Mt. Mariah, the eventual site of the Bais
Hamikdash (Temple), Yakov looked back on his 77 years of devoted study and
personal development knowing that the day had ended. The past had been a
foretelling of the distant future when G-d's children would assume their
rightful place among the family of man. At that time they would awaken the
soul of humanity to their spiritual greatness and prepare for that world
"that is only good." However, his immediate future was long and dark. He
was about to enter the nighttime of human history. He was about to leave
the Promised Land in order to insure that his children could return whole
and without blemish to the house of his father.
"And he encountered the Place because the sun had set." Yakov tturned to
G-d with the fused strengths of Avraham and Sara, Yitzchak and Rivkah, and
prayed that his mission, the mission of G-d's chosen children, the mission
of humanity and the purpose of creation, would be realized. "And behold a
ladder with its head reaching the heavens, and angels of G-d leaving and
returning - going up and going down." His dream was of exile and rreturn,
challenge and perfection.
Copyright © 2003 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.