UncertainTree

Isaac does an odd thing near the close of the Torah portion, Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1 – 25:18):

…וַיֵּצֵא יִצְחָק לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶה, לִפְנוֹת עָרֶב

Vayetse Yitschak lasuach basadeh lifnot arev…

And Isaac went out la-suach in the field at the eventide

Gen 24:63; via Mechon-Mamre, transliteration from Bible.ort.org

The verb, sin-vav-chet, appears only here, where Isaac is la-suach ha-sadehsuach-ing in the field.

  • Everett Fox (1997) translates la-suach as “to stroll,” with a note saying “Hebrew obscure; some use ‘ponder'”;
  • Robert Alter (2004) also uses “to stroll,” adding: “The translation reproduces one current guess, but the verb occurs only here, and no one is sure what it really means”;
  • Stone/ArtScroll (1993) uses “to supplicate,” citing B. Berakhot 26b, in which Isaac is credited with establishing Minchah (the afternoon prayer), while Abraham is credited with Shacharit (“arose early in the morning,” Gen 19:27) and Jacob with Maariv (evening, Gen 26:11);
  • Onkelos on the Torah (2006) uses “to pray” and offers a summary of commentary around the word:

The Arabic saha means “stroll” and the Hebrew root of the verb, siach, means “talk.” Ibn Ezra and Radak understand it as “walking among the sichim” — among the trees, or bushes. Rashbam states that the walk was for the purpose of inspecting his workers. Chazkuneee suggests a similar interpretation, stating that Isaac was examining his trees, inspecting his employees, or (translating siach as “conversation” or “speech”) talking to people with whom he needed to converse. However, Onkelos, Saadiah, and Rashi understand the word as “speak,” as do Genesis Rabbah and various talmudic statements, and elevate the patriarch’s speech from mundane matters to “prayer.”

note on Gen 24:63, Drazin & Wagner, Geffen 2006

Both the Old JPS (1917) and the King James use “to meditate.”

The similar word, sin-yud-chet, a noun, appears four times in the Tanakah:

  • Gen 21:15 in which Hagar puts Ishmael under one of the bushes, ha-sichim;
  • Job 30:4 where Job describes his opponents as gathering alei-siach [“salt-wort” or “shrubs of the desert”] for food, and
  • Job 30:7 wherein, among those bushes, bein-sichim, they cry out;
  • Gen 2:5 in which there was no siach ha-sadeh BECAUSE there was no Earthling yet to tend them (or to converse with — more below)

Trees in Conversation

Connecting Gen 2:5 with Gen 24:63 suggests some poetry in those otherwise mundane-sounding commentaries, cited above from Onkelos on the Torah, about Isaac conducting some stewardship task. Trees and conversation are also connected in midrash:

“No one to converse with (siah, ‘tree’) in the field” (Gen 2:5). All trees converse (meisihin),* as it were, with one another. Indeed, one may add, all trees converse with mortals; all trees–created, as trees were, to provide fellowship for mortals.

*Footnote: The usual word for “tree” is etz. Hence siah (“conversation”), used instead, is construed in a dual sense: “tree” and “converse, provide fellowship.” Citation is to Gen R 13:2

The Book of Legends, Bialik and Ravnitzky (Shocken 1992), p.586, entry 112

The surrounding context adds poignancy to the braiding of Isaac, conversing, and trees.

Gen 24:62 tells us that Isaac was coming back from Beer-Lahai-Roi, where Ishmael has settled — suggesting some kind of on-going relationship, which in itself is poignant, given this family’s difficult history (some thoughts on Beer-Lahai-Roi with links to R’ Arthur Ocean Waskow’s commentary). Beer-Lahai-Roi is also connected to Hagar’s vision, when she was in the desert the first time, thus highlighting divine communication. His family’s response to various communications with God has propelled deep and disturbing drama in Isaac’s past, including his own near death; meanwhile, Isaac himself has not experienced any such communication (yet — at least, as reported by the text — see Chapter 26).

And here is Isaac, still grieving his mother’s death, and awaiting marriage to an unknown bride. Perhaps this suach-ing here, Isaac alone before Rebekah arrives, echoes the situation in Genesis 2:5, when there was “no one to converse with in the field.”

In addition, it’s worth nothing that both Old JPS and King James use “at eventide” for “lifnot arev.” Many newer translations, including New JPS, use “toward evening.” Fox offers “around the turning of the sunset,” picking up on lifnot, which comes from the verb “to turn (toward).” The use of expressions “tide” and “turn” help capture some of the poetry in the otherwise simple actions of the text.

visual description below

Uncertainty as a Value

Isaac out suach-ing in the field is a moment of deep uncertainty. So it’s fitting — R’ Brant Rosen of Tzedek Chicago pointed out in a recent Torah study — that Isaac is acting in a way we don’t entirely understand. The use of la-suach here helps convey, intentionally or not, some of the meaning.

On the topic of uncertainty in our Bible reading, Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1943-2006) offered some important thoughts. Frymer-Kensky discusses the strange grammar of “Breishit bara....” at the start of the Torah:

An intentionally ambiguous phrase mirrors the mystery of creation. People who do not know whether eternity preexists creation and creation preexists terra can refrain from writing in such a way that would reflect a certainty that is not there. The ambiguity is also a foreshadowing and a tip-off about things to come in the Bible. The world the Bible considers is complex, and the text reflects the world, different voices compete and clash, claim and disclaim.

The complexity and multivocality of Scripture need not deter those who read it. Nobody has to understand the full meanings of the text: indeed, the text, like life, can be so multivocal and complex that only the mind of God can fully comprehend it.

Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism (JPS, 2006), p.373, p.374

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) is quoted as saying, “I do not want to believe in a God I understand.” In a similar vein I am most interested in the places in Torah where our uncertainty is most present, mystery and possibility most vivid. Attempting to apply aspects of the Svara-method of Talmud study to my reading of Torah is leading me to roots where the text comes alive in new ways for me…

…maybe I’ll eventually figure out where the eshel Abraham planted (last week’s musing) and the trees in this portion and the fantastic idea that God “appeared by means of a tree” in the midrash, and hospitality and glitter and the bent places that store up moisture all meet…

For now, I think I’m a little like Isaac at that fraught moment when he doesn’t yet have anyone with whom to converse, and has so much that needs healing and understanding — except that I know I have communities ready for those fruitful conversations.

Description of Visual:

Three lines of text, with three colors, graphic built from basic computer fonts.

First reads “sin-yud-chet, siach” in bright green.

Bottom reads: “lamed-sin-vav-chet, la-suach” in turquoise.

Middle line shows a shadowy green siach behind the brighter suach, meant to suggest where the words and their roots blend, as the color green blends into the blue-green turquoise.

RETURN

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