Parshat Vayetze: Prayer in the Darkness
Rabbanit Sally Mayer is the Rosh Midrasha of Midreshet Lindenbaum‘s Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program
In our Parsha, Yaakov leaves home, running for his life from his brother Esav. He stops on the way to sleep and dreams of the ladder with the angels. The Gemara in Brachot 26b famously teaches that this is when Yaakov established the evening prayer, arvit, after his father Yitzchak established mincha in the afternoon, and his grandfather Avraham established the shacharit, the morning prayer. The Gemara there brings another possible source for tefilla, a Rabbinic enactment to parallel the korbanot tamid, the daily sacrifices brought in the Beit Hamikdash each morning and afternoon. What is the meaning behind this debate? Why does it matter if the prayers were established by our forefathers or as a parallel to the service in the Temple? I’d like to suggest that there is a world of difference between the two.
What kind of tefillot do we see in the case of the avot? Avraham prayed early in the morning, “where he had stood before Hashem” (Breishit 19:27), begging the day before to save Sodom from destruction. In that encounter, Avraham showed both compassion and confidence – caring for the people of Sodom, even those who were not righteous, and boldly negotiating with Hashem over the fate of the city. Yitzchak’s afternoon prayer is called “to converse in the fields in the evening” (Breishit 34:63), as he goes outside awaiting the arrival of his future bride, still mourning the loss of his mother, and contemplating what life with his new wife will be like. And Yaakov in our story is terrified, fleeing for his life from his murderous brother, seeking Hashem’s protection. Our forefathers are praying from their hearts, in what are personal and individualized requests, and each one even seems to fit the hour of the day: confidence in the morning, contemplation in the afternoon as the sun sets, and fear in the night. This model seems to be telling us whatever we are feeling, we must bring to God in our tefilla. The daily sacrifices, on the other hand, are fixed and prescribed: a sheep in the morning and in the afternoon, with the ritual very clearly described in the Torah in Sefer Vayikra. They are brought on behalf of the whole community, not any one individual. And each kohen who performs that service does it the same way, rain or shine, no matter what he is personally feeling. This model teaches us that service of God takes a certain preparation, has structure, and is greater than any one of us individually.
In the end, we assume that our daily tefillot really stem from both sources – established first by the avot, and then later formalized by the Sages to parallel the korbanot. What emerges is an incredible synthesis. On the one hand, we have fixed times for tefilla and a fixed text as well, reminding us that this is a service of God, to be taken seriously, and gently reminding us of what we should be asking for – wisdom, forgiveness, health, rain, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and more. And at the same time, we must remember where prayer began – when Avraham wanted to argue with Hashem, when Yitzchak wondered what would come next, and when Yaakov begged for protection. This is the personal side of prayer, the moment where we remember to add the name of an individual who is not well, a family having difficulty, or a personal goal with which we need Hashem’s help. This synthesis of the commanded with the spontaneous, the communal with the personal, is what makes tefilla meaningful for us even today.