Rabbi Alexandra Wright
Sometimes there is a felicitous synchronicity between the weekly Torah portion and the events taking place around us. This week is one such example. In parashat Chayyey Sarah, we encounter Isaac out in the field – the first time he has made an appearance since the trauma of being taken by his father, Abraham, to Mount Moriah to be offered up as a sacrifice. At the very last moment, his life is spared, and a ram is offered instead, but a careful reading of the text shows that he does not return home with his father, nor does he appear at his mother, Sarah’s funeral, in the next chapter.
It isn’t until we are into the second chapter of this week’s parashah that we know he is, at least alive, when Abraham summons the chief steward of his household and instructs him to find a wife for his son, Isaac. The servant takes ten camels and gifts and makes the long journey north to Aram-naharaim, to the city of Nahor. As he makes the camels kneel down at the water-well at evening time, he prays to God to bring him luck. May the young woman who offers water to me and to my master’s camels be the one designated for Isaac, he says.
He has scarcely concluded his prayer, when Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel, Abraham’s nephew, comes down to the well with a pitcher on her shoulder. She fills her jar with water from the spring, offers it to the steward and then draws more water for the camels and the man is ushered into her home, there to meet with her brother Laban. In a long and elaborate speech, the steward explains his mission and his encounter with the beautiful young woman, and invites her to become Isaac’s bride. While her mother and brother urge her to delay, Rebekah is eager to begin her journey and she sets off with her nurse and Abraham’s servant.
The narrative makes a seamless and beautiful transition from this scene with Rebekah’s family, to a field in the land of Canaan. And it is here that we suddenly encounter Isaac once again, no longer the terrified boy bound to the altar, but a young man coming from the Negev where has been living. It is evening and he has gone out to ‘stroll in the field’ and as he is walking, he looks up and sees camels coming!
The Hebrew of this verse is both ambiguous and pregnant with meaning: Va-yetze Yitzchak la-su-ach ba-sadeh lif’not erev… ‘And Isaac went out la-su-ach in the field…’ Many translations say that Isaac went out to ‘stroll’ in the field, reading the verb not with a chet as its last letter, but with a tet – la-shut – ‘to rove about, to go to and fro.’
I am not very sure why some of the scholars amend the final letter of this word. It may be because the Peshitta, the Syriac translation of the Hebrew Bible, made in the 2nd century CE, translates the word in this way. Isaac was having a little wander in the field. Other Aramaic translations and the Talmud have Isaac praying in the field, understanding la-su-ach to mean ‘to meditate’ as in the verse from Psalms (119:15): B’fikkudecha asichah – ‘I meditate upon your precepts…’
However, Rashbam – Rabbi Samuel ben Meir – the grandson of the great biblical commentator, Rashi, gives another meaning to this root. He understands the word la-su-ach to come from the word si-ach, which means ‘bush, shrub or plant’, from a root meaning ‘to grow’ or ‘shoot up’, particularly of trees. We come across the word as a noun in the second creation story in Genesis 2:5: V’chol si-ach ha-sadeh terem yiheyeh va-aretz – ‘when no shrub of the field was yet on earth…’ and again in Genesis 21 when Hagar casts her son, Ishmael, under achad ha-sichim – ‘one of the bushes.’
So, what was Isaac doing out in the field, asks Rashbam? Perhaps he was indeed walking to and fro, examining the ground, perhaps he was praying, reflecting on the beauty around him. But Rashbam places him in the field planting sichim – trees.
This weekend as world leaders consider loss and damage in the context of climate change, tipping points, climate justice and the impact of burning fossil fuels on the planet, among other subjects at the Cop27 conference in Egypt, Rashbam’s interpretation of one verb in Genesis is an instructive indicator and perhaps even a message to those engaged in detailed discussions and decision making.
When we contemplate the fragile and endangered landscapes of our planet and reflect and meditate on their beauty; when we consider the gross injustices and tragedies that occur because of climate change – poorer nations paying the price for richer nations’ indulgence, when we consider the tiny window of time we have to reverse the damage we have inflicted on our world, we are reminded that we need to live in balance with the natural world, taking care that our footprint is light. And we need to act on our moral and financial responsibility to those poorer continents whose carbon emissions are a tiny percentage of richer continents.
It is Isaac who discovers the wells stopped up by the Philistines in their dispute with Isaac’s shepherds, reminding us of the scarcity of and vital need for access to clean water (Genesis 26:15 ff). Isaac, who does not leave the land of Canaan, even in a time of famine, offers us insight into how to live lightly on our planet, planting trees and conserving and sharing water so that future generations can look to the possibility of a peaceful future.
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