This week’s Torah reading describes how our Patriarch Jacob, fleeing his brother Esau, left his home and went to Charan. It was a lonely journey. As night fell, he “encountered the place.” Our Sages interpret the word vayifga, translated as “encountered,” as a reference to prayer. There Jacob stopped to pray. In danger and lacking personal resources, he entreated G‑d and asked for His assistance.

Our Sages continue, stating that Jacob did not pray on that night alone. With that prayer, he instituted the obligation of the reciting the evening prayers each night. Abraham had instituted the morning prayers; Isaac, those of the afternoon. And with this prayer, Jacob established the obligation to pray at night.

There is a great difference between praying during the day and praying at night. During the day, the sun is shining. The light and brightness of the physical setting is representative of its spiritual backdrop. Day refers to times and situations where G‑dliness is apparent. That’s when Abraham and Isaac prayed.

Jacob, by contrast, prayed at night, metaphorically, when G‑dliness is hidden and one must combat darkness.

The difference reflects the spiritual mission that the patriarchs carried out. Abraham and Isaac were concerned primarily with drawing down holiness and spreading G‑dly light. For that reason, they lived in Eretz Yisrael, the holy land. It’s true; Abraham spread the message of G‑d’s oneness to a world of pagans. But he did so by offering hospitality to his guests. While they were in his home, they listened to him, but afterwards, the overwhelming majority of them went on their way. For the most part, he was not able to create followers who remained true to his teachings. In other words, he lived in a setting of holiness. He was gracious enough to invite others to share that setting, but by and large he did not transform them.

Similarly, Isaac had an effect on others. “Avimelech [the king of the Philistines,] journeyed to him with a group of his friends and said: ‘We have seen that G‑d has been with you.... Now you are blessed by G‑d.’” Avimelech was a hardly a refined individual. Nevertheless, Isaac’s conduct aroused him to leave his home to come and praise G‑d. But afterwards, he went back home and returned to his ways.

Abraham and Isaac were thus associated with “the day”; they lived in a setting of holiness and their Divine service involved amplifying and spreading that light. Jacob, by contrast, went down to Charan, a place whose very name indicates that it aroused G‑d’s fury and wrath. Isaac was not allowed to leave the holy land and Abraham left it only for a brief time. Jacob, by contrast, spent 20 years in Lavan’s house. He did not live as a hermit, alone, and by himself. On the contrary, he lived in the home of a deceitful person and spent his time involved with the other people there. For his mission involved confronting darkness in its place and transforming it into light.

This goal cannot be achieved through man’s efforts alone. For according to nature, darkness is in direct opposition to light, light does not brook darkness, nor darkness light. How can darkness be transformed into light? By tapping an infinite G‑dly power that knows no limitations, a source of energy above both light and darkness. Therefore, when night falls and Jacob confronts his mission, he reaches to G‑d in prayer, asking Him for assistance in transforming darkness into light.

Looking to the Horizon

Jacob’s Hebrew name יעקב shares the same letters as the word יבקע, meaning“to break through,” as in the prophecy: “Then your light will break through like the dawn.” As mentioned, Jacob’s Divine service involved having spiritual light pierce the darkness of our world.

For that reason, Jacob’s stay in Charan was temporary. He went with a purpose: to elevate and refine the material dimensions of that land and then, after establishing his family and gaining wealth, he returned to Eretz Yisrael.

His personal history establishes a pattern for his future descendants. We have wandered from country to country and from continent to continent, carrying out the mission with which G‑d charged Jacob and his descendants, harmonizing the material and spiritual elements of existence. When that task is finished — and after centuries and centuries of effort, its completion is nearing — we will speedily return with Mashiach to Eretz Yisrael.