A Prayer in the Field and a Prayer in the Cave – Hayyei Sarah 5777

A few weeks ago I had the troubling privilege to daven mincha at the Cave of Machpela in Hevron.  The traditional burial place of our ancestors is today shrouded beneath storm clouds of political and social turmoil.  This 4000 year old city today stands literally divided.  After a day of touring the barren town and hearing testimonies of former soldiers and Palestinian citizens, we were given the opportunity to visit the ancient burial cave of the matriarchs and patriarchs.  My mind raced as I tried organizing myself into constructive thoughts.  In that space I remembered Sarah Marquis.

A few months prior, I heard the National Geographic’s Explorer of 2014 give a speech about her circumnavigation of the globe.  Sitting in a cramped auditorium of the Cambridge public library, she painted exquisite word pictures of how she peregrinated across the world.  Her tales with Mongolian bandits were thrilling.  Her depiction of friction lightning dancing through an engulfing sandstorm was terrifying.  The compassion between her and the women she met along the way was heart warming.  It was her tea ritual, however, that I recalled in my preparation to pray.  

Similarly entrenched in my memory was a section of the gemara in Brachot where the Rabbis ask one straightforward question: From where are the three daily prayer services established?  In other words, what is the proof text for our obligation to pray three times a day?  The first answer presented is that they are in honor of the sacrifices once offered at the Holy Temple.  The second option outlines that the daily rites were ordained by our forefathers.  Avraham instituted the morning prayers, Isaac created the afternoon supplications (mincha), and Jacob inaugurates the evening service.   

Found in Parashat Hayyei Sarah, the passuk used as backing for Isaac’s establishing mincha says, ‘Isaac went out to the field לָשוחַ’ ‘la-soo-ach’ (Breishit 24:63).  The BDB Hebrew Lexicon translates this word as: speaking, complaint, musing, or meditation.  The gemara quoted above on the other hand, clearly states that there is no meaning for this word except for prayer.  Putting these definitions together, we are left with a beautiful message.  The mincha prayers are in their essence meant to be a conversation where we voice our complaints, share our musings from the day, and meditate on our current presence.  

While this understanding of mincha is a lovely idea, I must admit that in practice, I often find it difficult to create the space necessary for such a lofty ideal.  Caught up in the momentum of my day, whether that be chores, productive work, or laying on the couch, I struggle with the diligence required to step away and pray (notably, Isaac’s rabbinically assigned paradigmatic characteristic is dilligence – גבורה).  And this is why tea is so important.

Sarah Marquis said that throughout her travels, she always had tea three times a day.  It did not matter if she was making good time, low on food, or saw a village in the distance, habitually, she stopped to have tea.  Her reasoning was clear – stepping out of her active mindset allowed her to check in, re-center, and make the right decisions.  She shared that as humans we work in patterns – mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally.  Sometimes these patterns become a disservice to us.  When this happens, all that is necessary to put ourselves back on track is merely stepping out of our reality, even for just a minute.  We only need to stop, make a little fire, and enjoy a cup of tea.  

I think Issac, if not the Rabbis after him, also understood this simple truth.  There are times when we benefit greatly from yelling and screaming that complaint off our mind, from sharing that tidbit we learned today, and from meditating on our present situation through other perspectives.  This is what making tea did for Sarah, this is what davening Mincha can do, and this is what I needed as I stood next to Isaac’s grave.

Prior to entering for mincha, a good friend turned to me with a heart splitting question, ‘how can I possibly pray here when this is the social and political price paid to do so?’  My answer was simple.  When praying at a grave, the positive characteristics of the deceased bolster our prayers.  I would not come to this place under the current regime merely for the opportunity to pray, but while I was there I had to stand spiritually connected with my ancestors and beg them to intercede on my, on our, behalf.  I had the obligation to call on their lives filled with loving kindness and the pursuit of peace and ask God to heal the pain crying fourth from this city.

Our world today may be more broken than ever before.  Yet, I believe with all my being that the power for evil is only ever as great as our ability to do good.  I bless us all with the diligence to step away for a minute, for the openness to catch a glimpse of where we truly are.  I pray that we should have the courage to use that recognition to break out of our harmful patterns and point us ever more in the direction of peace.  

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