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The Night Belongs to Jacob

The Night Belongs to Jacob


Our patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob established a rite of prayer that is followed to this very day. Abraham composed the morning service ("Shacharit"), Isaac the afternoon service ("Minchah") , and Jacob the evening service ("Maariv").1

In prayer we draw divine energy into our environment and ourselves. Since each day progresses through three stages -- morning, afternoon and evening -- it is necessary to pray three times every day. Each prayer is designed a little differently from the others in order to draw on the specific form of energy required at that stage. Each prayer was instituted specifically by the patriarch whose spiritual character was aligned with the particular form of energy associated with that prayer.2

Three Stages

The first stage of the day occurs as dawn breaks. This moment is filled with promise, the excitement of potential is in the air. The divine energy that is required at this time is that of optimism. Abraham, a man of positive spirit and infinite optimism, accordingly coined the Shacharit prayer.

As the day advances, the morning's enthusiasm winds down and we engage in the difficult yet rewarding task of achievement. We face our challenges and plow through them, intent on achieving our goals by the end of the day. The energy that is required at this time is that of resolve. Isaac, a man of dedication, commitment and somber resolve, accordingly composed the Minchah prayer.

As the day wanes, we wrap up our activities and wearily sit back to reflect. Though the day has been successful we realize that there is yet so much to achieve. We wanted to complete the task but darkness has encroached.

The night grows melancholy. We sense the mortality of the human condition as we realize that daylight and warmth don't last forever. The morning's enthusiasm and the afternoon's momentum have waned, and the night envelops us in a dark and brooding despair. Can we overcome the chill of the night and draw into it the warmth of G‑d?

The answer is a resounding yes and our patriarch Jacob authored the prayer for it. Why Jacob? Jacob personified the steadfast commitment of divine truth that never wanes despite the conditions. His life was a string of dark moments, difficult trials and overwhelming challenges; but through it all he never despaired. When he dipped into his valleys he had eyes only for the distant peaks; when the horizon looked bleak he was filled with forward momentum.

Inner Space

Let us examine what the Torah says of Jacob. He was forced to leave the bosom of his family, the guidance of his teachers, the support of his colleagues and friends. He wandered to a strange land and entered a foreign culture. He plunged into his night with what should have been a heavy heart.

The Torah reports, "Vayeitzei Yaakov -- and Jacob departed...." In his mind he felt that this was going to be a total and complete departure. He left thinking that he would never return, convinced that he would need to make a new life for himself in a strange a foreign land, that he was setting out for an exile that would last his entire life.3

As the sun set on his first day of travel the Torah tells us that "he encountered the place" where the Temple was later built. What did he do at that space? He composed the evening service.

Consider his situation. Banished from home, estranged from family, alone in the dark -- and he is not afraid. On the contrary he is inspired. What is the source of this amazing strength of character?

The answer lies in the choice of terminology the Torah employs: "Vayifga bamakom ki ba hashemesh..." These words are ordinarily translated as "he encountered the place as the sun set." However, a literal translation of the words yield a different meaning: "he encountered the inside of the place because the sun set." When he saw that night fell as soon as he arrived to the Temple Mount, he came to understand the inner rhythm, the heart and soul, of this holy space.4

Light within the Dark

Our sages teach that the Temple Mount is suffused with metaphysical light that far transcends, and in fact acts as the source of, conventional light. As Jacob approached and experienced the metaphysical light, the sun immediately set. Because conventional light is overshadowed when it encounters the temple's light.5

The ordinary person would have only experienced the fading of the conventional light. But Jacob was alert to the "inside," the inner meaning, of this space. He understood that the essence of this dark was shrouded in a rarefied light so G‑dly as to lie beyond the perception of the human eye.6

Night did fall, but Jacob was not gripped by chilling melancholy but by inspiration and joy. He saw this as the perfect time to coin a prayer of gratitude to G‑d for having given to him, and through him to us, a gift called night.7

He pierced the veil of darkness and discovered the transcendent light that lies beneath. He revealed that night is not the end of today but the beginning of tomorrow. Indeed, the rest and relaxation of the night refreshes us and enables us to face the light of morning.

With this prayer, Jacob enabled us to draw divine energy into the weary and demoralizing night. With this prayer, we prevent the night from shattering yesterday's glorious dream. With this prayer, we greet tomorrow's dawn because it gives us courage to face tonight's dark.8

Talmud, Berachot 26b.
See Derech Hashem, Pirkei Tefilah (R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto of Padua, Italy, 1707-1746).
See the commentary of K'li Yakar (R. Ephraim Shlomo of Luntshitz, 1550-1619) on Genesis 28:10.
See Sfat Emmet, 1882 (R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur 1847-1905).
The windows in the temple were narrow on the inside and wide on the outside because they were not intended to illuminate the temple with the light from the outside but to illuminate the world with the light of the temple (see Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 15:2).
We thank G‑d every morning for "forming light and creating darkness." Should we not first thank G‑d for the darkness and then for the light that redeems us from the dark? The dark we are thankful for is of the kind that conceals an even greater light. It is only because that light is beyond human perception that we are incapable of seeing it and it appears to us simply as dark. For more detail on the supernal nature of darkness see Torat Chayim p. 60 (R. DovBer known as the "Mitteler Rebbe" of Lubavitch, 1773-1827).
He prayed at that moment as he had never prayed before in his life. The Torah describes that he collected the stones from the earth about him. Kabblaah teaches that stones are like letters. Just as stones build walls and homes so do letters build words and sentences. Indeed, G‑d used letters and words to create the world. Chassidic teaching explains that Jacob utilized the letters through which G‑d created that particular moment in time and space and rearranged them to form the words of his prayer. In other words, he utilized the very dark that would have frightened off the ordinary person to coin a prayer of inspiration strength and hope. For more detail see Torah Ohr (R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Chassidism, 1745-1812) and Sfat Emmet, on Parshat Vayeitzei.
The three Temples also closely resemble the three stages of our day.

The First Temple, like the morning, was filled with promise and infinite potential; it was permeated by the love of G‑d for the Jewish people. The Second Temple was permeated by a sense of duty. Like the afternoon, it was a trying time for the Jewish nation filled with challenges and difficulties. Through it all we faced our challenges and did our best to triumph.

This Third Temple, which we pray will soon be built, will remain eternal. It will never be followed by another exile; it's light will not be countered by darkness. Where does it receive this strength? From Jacob, the patriarch of truth. Just as truth can never be compromised so did Jacob's commitment never waver. The dark could not unsettle him, as the exile cannot unseat the third temple.

Jacob's travels brought him to the Temple Mount. We, too, expect our wanderings to carry us there. And when we arrive we will discover that the essence of the exile is, like the night, a light of unprecedented proportions. (Sfat Emmet, 1882)
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, and a frequent contributor to The Judaism Website— He has lectured extensively on a variety of Jewish topics, and his articles have appeared in many print and online publications. For more on Rabbi Gurkow and his writings, visit
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Anonymous Nevada June 25, 2017

As my day ended I was feeling melancholy and then I read of Jacob and the third prayer ironic I should feel sad today Reply

Gershon Goldman Rochester, Minnesota November 14, 2004

We need more teachings on prayer! I have always been profoundly effected by the storyline in the Chumash. This time of year, when we talk about our patriarches, we also cite the well known fact that they established the three prayers. I wish there was more written on the "lost art of prayer."

Also, I am glad the author cited other sources besides strictly Chabad ones, (i.e. the Ramchal). Does not the mishnah say we can learn from everyone? This article shows that Rabbi Gurkow is comfortable enough with his Chabad roots to quote other sources. Also, I think it is significant that his synagogue is called "Beth Tefilah," emphasizing prayer. Reply

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