While in Fifth-Century Iraq and Persia, a group of rabbis were engaged in passionate debates to which we are invited to engage in our study of the Talmud, in Epirus, a province in the northwest corner of Greece, Diadochus was seeking a more contemplative approach to a relationship with God. "When the sea is calm, the eyes of the fisherman can penetrate to the point where he can distinguish different movements in the depth of the water, so that hardly any of the creatures who move through the pathways of the sea escape him, but when the sea is agitated by the wind, she hides in her dark restlessness what she shows in the smile of a clear day."
Diadochus taught that with a calm mind we will be able to distinguish the good from the bad suggestions so that the good ones can be treasured and the bad ones dispelled. This mystic and theologian kept his distance from the euphonious Talmudic study halls, confidently quoting Isaiah's rebuke, "In stillness and calm you will be saved, in quiet and confidence is your strength, but you would have none of it (Isaiah 30:15)."
Diadochus saw Isaac's prayer, described in this week's portion, "Isaac went out to supplicate in the field towards evening (Genesis 24:63)," as proof that a Seeker must find calm solitude, "in the field," to commune with God. The Talmudic rabbis, based on the same verse, derived that Isaac instituted the Minchah, afternoon, prayer (Berachot 26b). They taught us to pray in the midst of the storms of daily life, to use the afternoon prayer to find the eye in the storm.
The Talmud reads Isaac's pause to pray in the context of the previous verse, "Now Isaac came from having gone to Beer-lahai-roi (Verse 62)." The Midrash understands Isaac's trip as stepping into a storm, even as his life was being shaped by others, bringing Hagar back as a wife for his recently widowed father, Abraham.
There are storms all around Isaac's prayer. Abraham had sent his servant Eliezer, to the home and family he abandoned decades earlier to choose a wife for Isaac. The now world-famous uncle sent a message to the rejected family, "I need you now," causing an intense emotional storm.
The next Patriarch, Isaac, was expected, in the midst of this storm, to passively accept the woman with whom he would build the future. He prepares for his new role by approaching Hagar and Ishmael, expelled by Abraham into the desert with barely sufficient supplies (21:14), triggering another storm, "Now you want us!"
It was not the mystic seeking a calm sea to live a life in conversation with God who, "went out to supplicate in the field." It was not the contemplative monk, nor the ascetic seeking peace to confront his inner demons. It was the storm-chasing Isaac who conquered demons before he found the calm in the eye of the storm, who entered prayer. This is the essence of the afternoon prayer, the Talmud insists; it is the one who engages the world, who dives deep into its agitated waters, its distractions, dissonance, and noise, who, in the eye of the storm, can converse with God.
While the mystic separates the mundane and the holy, the Talmudic study halls find one within the other, in raging wars over whether to initiate a marriage with a significant gift or a token of admiration (Kiddushin 2a), in fierce battles over whether or not to classify human beings as inherently violent (Bava Kamma 2b), or in fearsome arguments over the definition of thoughtful action, the role of a judge, or the respect due a parent. Each of those engaged in the passionate debates, finds his way to the eye of the storm, and, as did Isaac, "raises his eyes and sees (24:63)," discovers, an unlimited future coming his way.
Rabbi Simcha L. Weinberg
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