As Yaakov is going from Beer Sheva to Charan, the Torah tells us that he “reached the place”. Rashi explains that this refers to “reaching out” in prayer, and that this is the precedent for the Maariv prayer (Bereshit 28:11 and Rashi).
TO AND FRO
Yaakov’s journey had a peculiar dual character, which is reflected in the prayer service he founded. As the first verse of our parsha tells us, he was going both from Beer Sheva and to Charan. On the one hand, he was going from, fleeing from Canaan and from Esav, as Rivka directed him (Bereshit 27:43). On the other hand he was going to, fulfilling Yitzchak’s command to go to Padan Aram to find a wife (Bereshit 28:2).
The same duality can be perceived in the Maariv service. On the one hand, we can view this prayer as going from – as a prayer which puts an end to the day’s efforts. Conversely, we can view this prayer as going to – as a preparation for the unique spiritual challenges of the night. Rav Kook points out that as a result of Yaakov’s prayer, his sleep was not passive, but rather enabled him to see the remarkable ladder, the angels, and even to perceive HaShem’s presence at the top of the ladder (Ein Ayah on Berakhot 26).
PATRIARCHS AND SACRIFICES
The gemara mentions two approaches to the three daily prayers: each was founded by one of the Avot and each corresponds to one of the sacrifices. The Maariv prayer corresponds to the unburnt parts of the sacrifices which are placed on the altar even at night (Berakhot 26b).
In general, the times of each tefilla (prayer service) are especially related to the parallel Temple sacrifice, whereas the character of each prayer is especially learned from the circumstances of its founding.
The gemara explains that maariv can be said all night long. This is unlike shacharit which is said only until four hours of the morning, and unlike mincha which is said only from a half an hour after noon. This corresponds to the unconsumed sacrifices, which may be placed on the altar all night long (Berakhot 26b).
We can point out an additional halakhic parallel between maariv and the corresponding sacrifice. The Talmud concludes that the maariv prayer was, in its origin, optional. (That is to say the Sages, or perhaps the Patriarchs, instituted such a prayer without mandating it) (Berakhot 27b). However, later authorities conclude that nowadays it is an absolute obligation, because it is an accepted custom of the entire Jewish people. In other words, this prayer is formally optional but practically obligatory.
The “left over” sacrifices have a similar duality. Unlike the daily tamid sacrifices, there is no actual obligation to have pieces on the altar at night. (Riaf in Ein Yaakov.) However, practically speaking such pieces will always be left over. So burning these pieces is also formally optional but practically obligatory.
This aspect of the Maariv prayer evidently corresponds to the “coming from” attribute we mentioned. Burning the leftover pieces puts on orderly end to the day’s Temple service, just as one aspect of this prayer is to close our day of activity.