Parshat Vayetze: Prayers and patriarchs
By SHLOMO RISKIN
‘And he confronted the place and lodged there because the sun had set …’ (Genesis 28:11)
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).”
This talmudic passage
ascribes one of our three daily statutory prayers to each one of our
“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); the term ‘standing’ (Hebrew: amida) refers to prayer, as it is
written ‘And Phinehas stood and he prayed’ (Psalms 106).
the afternoon prayer, as it is written ‘Isaac went out to converse with the
Divine in the field before sunset;’ the term ‘conversation’ refers to prayer, as
it is written, ‘The poor person prays when he wraps himself in his prayer shawl
and pours out his conversation before the Lord’ (Psalms 102).”
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
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 akeda (binding), his wife is chosen
for him and the blessings are wrested from him through subterfuge. He is the
great continuator, the consummate follower who certainly represents the masses
of descendants who 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
Jacob’s life is more tragic than the lives of his two
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 the fear symbolic of night.
teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, suggested another way of looking at these
The morning prayer, Shaharit, is a young man’s
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. Youth 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.
evening prayer, Ma’ariv, is the prayer of the person at the end of his life, the
prayer that asks for survival more than for 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 “Old age is not at all for cowards” (told to me
by Mira Koschitzky in the name of her mother).
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:
2). It is comparatively easy to praise God in the midst of one’s success and
optimism – although many tend to think that they themselves are responsible for
their good fortune. 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 17:12).
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.
means faithfulness: we must be faithful in carrying out what God asks of us –
with as much sincerity and good cheer as we can muster – no matter what
difficulties and trials He may send our way. It was this ability that made Jacob
the most chosen of our Patriarchs.
The writer is the founder and
chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of