A Taste of Torah in Honor of Shabbat
by Rabbi Avi Weiss
Shabbat Parshat Vayetze
7 Kislev 5758
The Torah in this week's portion tells us that as Jacob
left home he "encountered the place--va-yifga bamakom." (Genesis 28:11)
The Talmud understands the word va-yifga to relate to prayer. (Berakhot 26b) In other
words Jacob did not encounter a physical place, rather he prayed to God who is sometimes
Bearing in mind that all this occurs at night, the
Talmud concludes that Jacob right then instituted the idea that one ought pray in the
In fact, there is an opinion in the Talmud that the prayer services were instituted by the
It can be suggested that the characteristics of each of the three avot (patriarchs)
motivated them to pray at different times. Avraham (Abraham), who introduced a new faith
commitment to the world, prayed at dawn, the beginning of the new day.
Yitzhak (Isaac), the meditator who evaluated and then transmitted Avraham's novel ideas,
was passive, content to follow in his father's footsteps. He was taken to Moriah to be
offered as a sacrifice, had a wife chosen for him, and reopened the wells which his father
had discovered. He was a man who contemplated rather than initiated. Therefore he prayed
in the afternoon, as the sun set, an especially suitable time for contemplative thought.
Yaakov (Jacob), Yitzhak's son, was the loneliest of the
biblical figures. Hated by his brother, he was separated from his parents for twenty two
years. His beloved wife, Rachel, died young; his favorite son, Yosef (Joseph), disappeared
and was believed to be dead. Appropriately, Yaakov prayed at night, a time when one is
often overcome by fear and a sense of groping loneliness.
Hence, the Talmudic opinion that prayer corresponds to the avot, who prayed when they felt
the personal need to reach out to God. They did so at times which best reflected their
inner feelings and aspirations.
From this perspective, prayer has a spontaneous element. It is the cry or song of
individuals who feel motivated by some experience to communicate with God.
Perhaps for this reason, Jewish law allows and even
encourages each individual to insert personal requests of God during particular parts of
the service. (Orah Hayyim 119:1) Structured prayer is not meant to stifle one's
feelings, but rather to spur our own individual encounter with God.
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