Friday, November 14, 2014

Parshat Chayyei Sarah: The Answering of Our Prayers Before We Speak them—Especially Outdoors

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

Connections. Everything is about connections. Connections across space. Connections across time. Connections in thought and spirit. Connections between. Connections among. Just connections, nothing else. That's what prayer is about. That is what faith is about. That is what life is about.

In this week’s parashah, Chayyei Sarah, “Isaac went forth to [lasuach] in the field toward evening.” (Gen 24:63) The rabbis teach us that lasuach has the meaning, “to pray,” and they provide a connection to Psalm 102:1, which begins, “A prayer for a poor man when he enwraps himself [lishpoch sicho] to pour out his heart before the One.” Isaac was pouring out his heart, pouring out his words, his conversation (sicho) to G!d.; he was praying.

As Isaac prayed a deep heart-felt prayer, the medieval commentator, Sforno, says that “he turned away from the public path so as not to be interrupted by wayfarers, and went into the field to pray, even though he had already prayed in Be'er lachai-ro'i. But before he prayed he was answered.”

What!? Yes, Sforno is saying that Isaac's prayer was answered even before he spoke it. Wow! What is the basis for this ancient teaching? What does this mean? Could our prayers also be answered before we speak them? 

The answers begin with a connection to the previous verse, “Isaac was on his way, coming from Be'er lachai-ro'i” (Gen. 24:62). Just prior to his wandering in the field, Isaac had been in a place whose name, according to another medieval commentator, Rashi, (Gen. 16:14), means, “a well upon which a living angel appeared.” The name by which Hagar calls G!d in the previous verse, Gen. 11:13, is El Ro’i, “the G!d of seeing,” connecting thus the name of the well also to the Divine Presence. This place through which Isaac passed is the same place where Hagar’s prayers were answered, where she experienced G!d seeing what was happening to him, and where G!d told her that she would conceive and give birth to a son, Ishmael. (Gen. 16:11) 

Is there something special—magical almost—about this well? Is Be'er lachai-ro'i a place to go to when we want our prayers answered? Maybe. After all, since prayers were answered for Hagar, the rabbis reasoned that therefore prayers could be answered in the same place for Isaac, too.  And maybe for others as well?

The sages cite other evidence that Isaac's prayer could already have been answered—evidence from other people for whom this happened. They remember the prophet Daniel, who reported on his vision: “And he said to me "Fear not, Daniel, for since the first day that you set your heart to contemplate and to fast before your God, your words were heard;” (Daniel 10:12) They cite Isaiah, “Thus G!d said to Isaiah that it will one day come to be:  ‘And it shall be, when they have not yet called, that I will respond; when they are still speaking, that I will hearken.’” (Is. 65:24) If prayers could be answered before they were spoken for Daniel and Isaiah, why not for the patriarch Isaac?

But perhaps the answer is deeper. The verses about Hagar’s prayers, Genesis 16:11-14, give us connections to Ishmael as well as to Hagar, for this is the place where the reality of his conception entered Hagar’s consciousness. In this instance, the connection to Hagar and Ishmael is through the place, Be'er lachai-ro'i. But the sages make another connection between Isaac’s prayer and Hagar and Ishmael with Gen. 21:15, when Hagar and Ishmael have been sent away by Abraham at Sarah’s behest, and in Hagar’s despair she “cast the child [Ishmael] under one of the bushes [hasichim].” The two words lasuach and sichim, have the same three-letter root. They have different etymologies, and different meanings, but because of the similarities, the rabbis find meaning, as they often did, by noting and strengthening the connection, in this case connections within the family.

Isaac's meditation in the field has a connection to his father, too. From the Talmud (Berachot 6b), we learn that Abraham instituted the morning prayers, Shacharit, Isaac the afternoon prayers, Mincha, and Jacob the evening prayers, Ma’ariv. But the Biblical commentators (e.g. Rach, Gen. 24:63) don’t credit Isaac alone for bringing the Mincha prayer service into being; they tell us that the Mincha prayer originated with Abraham, but was brought to fruition and named through Isaac. The innovation of the afternoon prayer had to be passed from one generation to the next in order to secure for the tradition a place into the future. Connections to past generations.

Connections to the past don’t end with Hagar and Abraham. They go all the way back to Creation. Rashbam, in his commentary on "Isaac went forth to pray in the field [lasuach basadeh] toward evening” focuses on the words lasuach basadeh, and he refers us to Genesis 2:5 and the creation of every “bush/herb of the field (siach hasadeh),” for which he provides the association, “to plant trees and to see the fruits of his efforts.” The fruits of the planter’s efforts, the answers to the pray-er’s prayers—the connection to Creation offers additional evidence that our prayers, our pouring out of our hearts in time of need, are answered.

The verse Rashbam comments on comes from the second creation story and in its entirety it reads, “Now no tree of the field was yet on the earth, neither did any herb/bush of the field yet grow, because the Lord God had not brought rain upon the earth, and there was no man to work the soil.” (Gen 2:5) It is followed by, "A mist ascended from the earth and watered the entire surface of the ground.” (Gen 2:6) Two verses later, G!d “planted a garden in Eden” (Gen 2:8). Although we understand from the ancient rabbis that there is no “before” and “after” in the Torah, nevertheless, here in this narrative we find that even before rain began falling, there was mist rising to water the plants!

How often do we understand the rising mist as the answer to our prayer for falling rain? When rain has not yet been created, we must expand our minds and our hearts to be able to see that the rising mist may indeed be how our prayer is answered. A mist that rises from the ground may be the precursor to the rain that falls from the sky, or it may even have the same function.

So can our prayers be answered before we speak them? What would it mean if they were? The answer I believe,  is ultimately about allowing connections. Isaac was physically alone in that field, but in his heart and mind he was connected across time and space to Hagar, Ishmael, a special well, G!d, Earth, and Creation. And, perhaps most importantly, his heart was open to receive a message, the message that G!d was ready to send him.

When we open our hearts and allow ourselves to be connected to those in our lives—living and dead, near at hand and far away—to G!d, to the Earth, to the past, to all of this and more—then our prayers are answered. We may not always see and recognize our answers as easily as Isaac did—he lifted up his eyes and there was Rebecca coming toward him, his new love, his wife to be. But if we listen closely to our hearts and souls, if we keep them open, despite whatever obstacles get thrown our way, if we stand beside a well with a seeing or seeable angel upon it, then, we, too, can feel or see or hear an answer coming to us, too.

Many prayers of petition are built into our tradition, such as the blessings of the weekday Amidah (Shmoneh Esreh) and the prayer for healing recited during the Torah service. Many of the petitionary blessings end with a chatimah, a closing signature, sort of a summary of what the blessing is about.  However, if we look closely at these, we see that they are, in essence, statements of what G!d does. For example, the morning blessing for the body ends with “Blessed are You, Adonai, healer of all flesh and worker of miracles.” This is a statement of who and what G!d is and does, as much as, or more than, it is a request for what we hope will be.

Hope, what does this word really mean? defines the verb “to hope” as “to look forward to with desire and reasonable confidence,” but also as, “to believe, desire, or trust.” If we take all those closing signatures of blessings as statements of reality, they can give us faith, faith without an indirect object. Not faith IN something or someone, just faith—the sense, the knowledge, the understanding, the trust, that whatever happens, there will still be meaning, we will still be able to find meaning and well being and self-integrity. We will, on some very basic and fundamental level, be OK.

This, I believe, is what it means to have our prayers answered before we pray. Our prayers are not a request for something to happen, but a statement of our faith, and therefore they are answered even before we say them, for if not, we wouldn't even say them. 

What makes it possible for us to have this kind of faith? Lawrence Hoffman in his book The Art of Public Prayer, discusses patterns. The anthropologist Gregory Bateson spoke of “the pattern which connects” and described the patterns upon patterns that are present in the living world, their increasing complexity, and how they all connect. Lawrence Hoffman refers to Bateson’s description of the levels of patterns  He asks us to think of connections between patterns in the universe and, as we compare more and more sets of patterns, how quickly they become so complex that they are beyond the capacity of the human mind to fathom. He suggests that these infinite levels of patterns are not only evidence of order in the universe, but are also a way of seeing a Divine Presence in the universe.    

Faith is about connecting all the patterns, and trusting that those we cannot understand really exist. It is about certainty and knowing, combined with humility, something we feel in the pit of our stomach. It is about knowing our smallness in the vast sweeps of space and time that constitute the Universe—and beyond. It is about knowing our importance and the difference we can make in this world when we say YES to the still small voice we hear within us. Faith is about feeling the rightness of that choice in the deepest recesses of our soul. 

Faith is about knowing—through the myriad connections between us and all that surrounds and encompasses us—that we are part of, not separate from, all of Creation, the natural world that surrounds us.

Patti Ann Rogers, in her poem “The Family Is All There Is,” begins: “Think of those old, enduring connections found in all flesh--the channeling wires and threads, vacuoles, granules, plasma and pods, purple veins, ascending boles and coral sapwood (sugar- and light-filled), those common ligaments, filaments, fibers and  canals.” She goes on to lyrically express all kinds of connections with the world around us that wouldn't have come readily to my mind, reminding us that we are very much a part of all that is, and not separate. Faith is about opening our hearts to all these unseen connections and trusting that they—and others exist.

Faith is about embracing the Butterfly Effect, the concept in chaos theory that a small change at one place in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere. It is about believing that there is meaning in our lives and in our existence, and that we have a meaningful impact.

Faith is about the “Supposition” Pattiann Rogers writes about: “Suppose the molecular changes taking place in the mind during the act of praise resulted in an emanation rising into space....Suppose benevolent praise, coming into being by our will, had a separate existence, its purple or azure light gathering in the upper reaches, affecting the aura of morning haze over autumn fields, or causing a perturbation in the mode of an asteroid. What if praise and its emanations were catalysts to the harmonious expansion of the void? Suppose, for the prosperous welfare of the universe, there were an element of need involved.” Faith is about knowing that our own faith has a positive impact on the Universe.

We need to pray, not so that we will get what we pray for, but in order to understand that the answers—the connections—are already present, which is why the answering of our prayers is in the praying. The answers are in the connections, and they are always available for us to see, understand, and accept into our hearts and souls. All we need to do is open our eyes, as Hagar did, our hearts, as the poor man in the Psalm did, and our bodies and minds, and as Isaac did when he walked out into the field, under the open sky, surrounded by G!d's creatures, where the connections could flow without impediment. For, as Pattiann Rogers tells us: “I’m sure there’s a god in favor of drums.... [and] the heart must be the most pervasive drum of all. Imagine hearing all together every tinny snare of every heartbeat in every jumping mouse and harvest mouse, sagebrush vole and least shrew living across the prairie; and add to that cacophony the individual staccato ticking’s inside all gnatcatchers, kingbirds, kestrels, rock doves, pine warblers crossing, criss-crossing each other in the sky, the sound of their beatings overlapping with the singular hammerings of the hearts of cougar, coyote, weasel, badger, pronghorn, the ponderous bass of the black bear; and on deserts, too, all the knackings, the flutterings inside wart snakes, whiptails, racers and sidewinders, earless lizards, cactus owls; plus the clamors undersea, slow booming in the breasts of beluga and bowhead, uniform rappings in a passing school of cod or bib, the thidderings of bat rays and needlefish.” Faith is in connecting to all these heartbeats, our own, and countless others across space and time.

Faith is knowing that our prayers are answered. Before we speak the words.

Rabbi Katy Z. Allen is the founder and leader of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope inWayland, MA, and a staff chaplain at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. She is the co-convener of the Jewish Climate Action Network, a member of the editorial board, a board member of Shomrei Bereishit: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth, and the co-creator of Gathering in Grief: The Israel / Gaza Conflict.

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