Parshat Chayei Sarah: Types of Tefilla

There is a seeming paradox within Jewish prayer. If the times we pray and the words we say are fixed by halakha, how can tefilla also be flexible, individualized and filled with kavanah (intention)?! Parshat Chayei Sarah provides some insight into this question.

The Talmud, drawing on the parsha, contains a debate about the origin of the three daily prayers in Talmud Berachot. One opinion is that tefilla is modeled after the Avot: Avraham instituted shacharit, Yitzchak – mincha, and Yacov – ma’ariv. Alternatively, tefilla is based on the daily “tamid” offerings from the Beit Hamikdash. What is the difference? Tefilla which parallels the daily offerings is characterized by constancy and consistency, infusing holiness into our day at prescribed times. Tefilla modeled after the Avot conveys diversity and spontaneity in prayer. Each of the forefathers is associated with a different time of day/night for tefilla and with a distinct word for prayer in the Torah. Avraham’s prayer is called “standing.” Yitzchak’s tefilla is called “lasuach” (conversing?) and Yacov “encounters.” By drawing on both these sources of tefilla – tamid offerings and avot – the Talmud encourages us to engage with tefilla both from obligated regularity and from voluntary inspiration. 

The source of Yitzchak’s mincha prayer, found in parshat Chayei Sarah, reinforces this duality in tefilla. The verse states, “And Isaac went out “lasuaḥ in the field toward evening.” Some commentaries understand the word “lasuaḥ” as meaning “to converse,” as in “sicha” (conversation). Others see a connection between “lasuaḥ” and “sichim,” (plants and trees). Hence, Rav Kook, in Olat Reiyah, explains that tefilla is related to both: It is an opportunity for an individual to converse with God; and, tefilla enables a soul to blossom with renewed energy, so that a person can emerge from praying and branch out like a tree in the world.  

Tefilla as “sicha” establishes a framework for continuing to engage in regular conversation with God, while also leaving space to renew ourselves and our relationship with tefilla. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson 

Chayei Sarah: What is your Be’er?

Parshat Chayei Sarah begins with the passing of Sarah. This tragedy, following the akedah, must have left Yitzchak feeling drained and broken. Perhaps this explains Yitzchak’s passivity in finding his match. How then did Yitzchak find strength and resilience?

Numerous significant events in Yitzchak’s life take place by a be’er – a well. In the first scene, Yitzchak is not present but his proxy Eliezer has come to Aram Nahariyim to find Yitzchak a wife. Eliezer stops at the “be’er ha-mayim,” where the women draw water and where Eliezer prays to God for guidance and finds Rivka. The midrash points out that the well is the meeting place of various biblical couples, representing potential for new life and hopefulness. 

Next, when Rivka travels to Abraham’s home she encounters Yitzchak who had just returned from a place called “Be’er Le-chai Ro’i.” This is also where previously Hagar goes with Ishmael when they were banished and where Hagar prays to God for protection. Noting this, the midrash teaches that Yitzchak was there to bring back Hagar (aka Ketura) to Abraham after Sarah’s death. Here too, the well represents matchmaking and renewal, healing and resilience.

Wells appear again later, when Yitzchak re-digs the wells of Abraham which had been stopped up by the Philistines. The Sefat Emet interprets these wells as representing spiritual sustenance which the avot brought to the world. So Yitzchak, having renewed himself then had the ability to provide inspiration for others. 

Be’er is referred to by Song of Songs as a “well of living waters.” Yitzchak renewed his life and spiritual strength at the be’er, providing a model for us to find our our own metaphoric “wells” —  sources of renewed energy and strength, so we can grow in kedusha and chesed. Shabbat Shalom