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Torah Portion – Vayetze

By Shlomo Riskin

“And he confronted the place and lodged there because the sun had set …”’ (Genesis 28:11Genesis 28:11
English: King James Version (1611) - KJV

11 And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.  

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Jacob, the last of the patriarchs, is forced by his brother, Esau, to leave his ancestral home for exile. The Talmud (B.T. Brachot 26b) interprets our opening verse as follows: “Jacob enacted the evening prayer, as it is written, ‘And he confronted the place and lodged there;’ the term ‘confrontation’ [Hebrew: pegiya] refers to prayer, as it is written ‘And you are not to pray on behalf of this nation and you are not to raise songs and prayers on their behalf and you are not to confront Me’ (Jeremiah 7:16Jeremiah 7:16
English: King James Version (1611) - KJV

16 Therefore pray not thou for this people, neither lift up cry nor prayer for them, neither make intercession to me: for I will not hear thee.  

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This Talmudic passage ascribes our three daily statutory prayers respectively to each of our patriarchs. In addition to the reference to Jacob above:

“Abraham enacted the morning prayer, as it is written, ‘and Abraham arose early in the morning toward the place where he had stood,’ (Genesis 19:27Genesis 19:27
English: King James Version (1611) - KJV

27 And Abraham gat up early in the morning to the place where he stood before the LORD:  

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); the term ‘standing’ (Hebrew: amida) refers to prayer, as it is written ‘And Phinehas stood and he prayed’ (Psalms 106: 30Psalms 106: 30
English: King James Version (1611) - KJV

30 Then stood up Phinehas, and executed judgment: and so the plague was stayed.  

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“Isaac enacted the afternoon prayer, as it is written, ‘Isaac went out to converse with the Divine in the field before sunset’ (Genesis 24:63Genesis 24:63
English: King James Version (1611) - KJV

63 And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide: and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, the camels were coming. to meditate: or, to pray  

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); the term ‘conversation’ refers to prayer, as it is written, ‘A prayer of the afflicted when he faints and pours out his meditation’ (Psalms 102:1Psalms 102:1
English: King James Version (1611) - KJV

102 A Prayer of the afflicted, when he is overwhelmed, and poureth out his complaint before the LORD. of: or, for 1 Hear my prayer, O LORD, and let my cry come unto thee.  

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I believe that our Sages are purposefully identifying each of these three prayers with the unique personality of one of the patriarchs. Abraham is identified with the early morning prayer, our first communication with God at the beginning of the day, with the rising of the sun. Abraham emerged at the dawn of Jewish history. He was the great path-breaker who discovered ethical monotheism and began to teach it to the world. He raised multitudes of adherents to his newfound faith and his teaching of compassionate righteousness and moral justice. He was immensely successful in all that he did; a wealthy shepherd and an internationally famed military commander. It makes sense that his prayer comes at the dawn of a new day, when each of us is most optimistic regarding the possibilities that lie ahead.

Isaac is the most passive of the patriarchs. He is taken by his father to the akeida (binding), his wife is chosen for him and the blessings are wrested from him through subterfuge. He is great in continuing what he inherited, the consummate follower who represents the masses of descendants to faithfully follow Abraham’s path. It is understandable that Isaac’s prayer comes as the sun is beginning to set, at a time of day when much has already occurred, and it is up to the individual to react more than to initiate action.

Jacob’s life is more tragic than the lives of his two forebears. He spends many years in exile because his brother, Esau, has threatened to kill him. After working for 14 years to win the hand of his beloved Rachel, he mourns her premature death in childbirth. He then spends more than two decades mourning the loss of Joseph, whose brothers sold him into slavery and told Jacob that he had been killed by a wild beast. His life is identified with the darkness and fear symbolic of night.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik suggested another way of looking at these three prayers:

The morning prayer, Shaharit, is a young man’s prayer. After all, it is only after the morning prayer that one may eat, that one may partake and declare ownership of the world around us. Youths believe that the entire world is at their fingertips.

The afternoon prayer, Minha, comes in the midst of the day, in the midst of what is often frenzied activity, and so Minha is the prayer of the individual at midlife.

The evening prayer, Ma’ariv, is the prayer of the person at the end of his life; the prayer that asks for survival more than success. This prayer is made at a time of anxiety and uncertainty, when one feels one’s powers waning. Ma’ariv is the prayer of the brave because, as they say, old age is not at all for cowards.

Our Sages expressed the varying moods of our prayers by citing the verse: “One must declare God’s lovingkindness in the morning and His faithfulness in the evening” (Psalms 92:2Psalms 92:2
English: King James Version (1611) - KJV

2 To shew forth thy lovingkindness in the morning, and thy faithfulness every night, every...: Heb. in the nights  

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). It is comparatively easy to praise God in the midst of one’s success and optimism. During times of darkness, uncertainty and anxiety, it is necessary to grasp onto God, but sometimes most difficult.

What does the psalmist mean when he speaks of faithfulness? The Hebrew word emuna is usually translated as faith; but what it really means is steadiness (Exodus 17:12Exodus 17:12
English: King James Version (1611) - KJV

12 But Moses' hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat thereon; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun.  

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). Faith does not mean that we must believe everything will work out well in the end as long as we pray strongly enough and live good enough lives. Faith means faithfulness: we must be faithful in carrying out what God asks of us, no matter what difficulties and trials He may send our way. It was this ability that made Jacob the most chosen of our Patriarchs.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.

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