On the verse: “And Isaac went out to commune in the field towards evening,” our Sages comment that, at this time, he ordained the Afternoon Service. The Afternoon Service is a unique prayer. The Morning Service almost comes easily: After arising in the morning and having been granted the gift of life anew, it’s natural to want to say thank you to G‑d. Moreover, the person’s day has not yet started and one has the time to collect his thoughts, direct them to Him, and thus gain perspective.

The Evening Service is also not that great of a challenge. The day is over. A person often feels the need to take the time to stand back and regather his thoughts, to review his day and appreciate the spiritual lessons it should have taught him.

But the Afternoon Service is different. Every business and occupation has its hectic times, when people are under pressure and are so busy working, buying, and selling that there is no room to think of anything else. Often, it is precisely in the midst of such times that one is obligated to pray the Afternoon Service. Regardless of the these pressing, one has to stop, step back, and pray.

Our Sages teach: A person should always be careful concerning the Afternoon Service, because Elijah was answered only in the afternoon.” Implied is that when G‑d sees a person struggle to pray despite the burning demands of his schedule, He responds and answers those prayers.

The Hebrew wording of that teaching also contains an allusion that points to the positive effects of these prayers. זהיר, the Hebrew term translated as “be careful” also has the implication “shine.” These prayers enable the soul to shine forth. A person’s spiritual essence, the G‑dly core of his soul, is expressed and overcomes his material nature and worldly concerns.

To explain: The essence of the soul — like the essence of G‑d — cannot be described as holy. For holy is a limitation and an exclusion — there are certain things and activities that cannot be considered holy. Indeed, the association of G‑d with holiness has led to the dichotomy that plagues Western spirituality — the spiritual is separated from the physical. G‑d is put into a box of prayer and study and one’s physical activities are considered as separate from Him.

From the perspective of G‑d’s essence — and the essence of the soul — nothing is further from the truth. G‑d is neither spiritual nor material — and equally permeates both the spiritual and the material. He cannot be grasped by the most elevated abstract raptures, nor can the most depraved activities cut one off from Him.

When does a person reflect this essential aspect of G‑dliness? When he fuses the material and the spiritual in his life, when in the midst of productive material activity, he stops and prays, devoting himself to the spiritual. Such an activity enables the core of his soul — his true G‑dly potential — to shine forth.

Looking to the Horizon

Our Sages derive a further lesson from the verse cited at the outset, stating that Isaac — like his father Abraham and his son Jacob — prayed at the future site of the Temple. It is, however, significant to note the term used to refer to the Temple’s site: a field.

The commentaries note: When else is the Temple referred to as a field? In its destruction, as it is written: “Zion will be plowed like a field.”

In a like vein, our Sages compare the process of exile to the sowing of seeds; as the prophet says, “I will sow [Israel] unto Me in the earth.” When harvested, the produce that grows from seeds greatly exceeds the quantity initially sown.

True, for this growth to take place, the exterior husk of the seed must utterly decompose. Only then, can its kernel flourish into a flowering plant. In a similar way, the destruction of the Temple and our people’s exile are intended to strip away all superficiality and allow the Jewish people to blossom into fulfillment with Mashiach’s coming. This is not a painless process, but it leads to the ultimate good.

An allusion to this is also found in the story of Isaac’s prayers. The Torah relates, however, that after praying, Isaac “saw camels coming.” The Hebrew letters of the word גמל, “camel,” has the same root as גמול, “reward.” Isaac saw that the destruction of the Temple and the exile were steps in a process that would lead to the ultimate reward: the coming of Mashiach.