November 22, 2012
VaYeitzei: The Prayers of the Avot
According to the Talmud (Berachot 26b), the Avot (forefathers) instituted the three daily prayers:
Abraham — Shacharit, the morning prayer.
Isaac — Minchah, the afternoon prayer.
Jacob — Ma’ariv, the evening prayer.
Is there an inner connection between these prayers and their founders?
Rav Kook wrote that each of these three prayers has its own special nature. This nature is a function of both the character of that time of day, and the pervading spirit of the righteous tzaddik who would pray at that time.
The Morning Stand
Abraham, the first Jew, established the first prayer of the day. He would pray at daybreak, standing before God:
“Abraham rose early in the morning, [returning] to the place where he had stood before God.” (Gen. 19:27)
Why does the Torah call attention to the fact that Abraham would stand as he prayed? This position indicates that the function of this morning prayer is to make a spiritual stand. We need inner fortitude to maintain the ethical level that we have struggled to attain. The constant pressures and conflicts of day-to-day life can chip away at our spiritual foundation. To counter these negative influences, the medium of prayer can help us, by etching holy thoughts and sublime images deeply into the heart. Such a prayer at the start of the day helps protect us from the pitfalls of worldly temptations throughout the day.
This function of prayer — securing a solid ethical foothold in the soul — is reflected in the name Amidah (“standing prayer”). It is particularly appropriate that Abraham, who successfully withstood ten trials and tenaciously overcame all who fought against his path of truth, established the ‘standing’ prayer of the morning.
Flowering of the Soul in the Afternoon
The second prayer, initiated by Isaac, is recited in the afternoon. This is the hour when the temporal activities of the day are finished, and we are able to clear our minds from the distractions of the world. The soul is free to express its true essence, unleashing innate feelings of holiness, pure love and awe of God.
The Torah characterizes Isaac’s afternoon prayer as sichah (meditation): “Isaac went out to meditate in the field towards evening” (Gen. 24:64). The word sichah also refers to plants and bushes (sichim), for it expresses the spontaneous flowering of life force. This is a fitting metaphor for the afternoon prayer, when the soul is able to naturally grow and flourish.
Why was it Isaac who established this prayer? Isaac exemplified the attribute of Justice ( midat hadin), so he founded the soul’s natural prayer of the afternoon. The exacting measure of law is applied to situations where one has deviated from the normal and accepted path.
Spontaneous Evening Revelation
And what distinguishes Ma’ariv, the evening prayer?
Leaving his parents’ home, Jacob stopped for the night in Beth-El. There he dreamed of ascending and descending angels and divine promises. Jacob awoke the following morning awestruck; he had not been aware of holiness of his encampment.
“He chanced upon the place and stayed overnight, for it became suddenly night.” (Gen. 28:11)
The “chance meeting” — a spiritual experience beyond the level to which the soul is accustomed — that is the special quality of the evening prayer. The night is a time of quiet solitude. It is a time especially receptive to extraordinary elevations of the soul, including prophecy and levels close to it.
Unlike the other two prayers, the evening prayer is not obligatory. But this does not reflect a lack of importance; on the contrary, the essence of the evening prayer is an exceptionally uplifting experience. Precisely because of its sublime nature, this prayer must not be encumbered by any aspect of rote obligation. It needs to flow spontaneously from the heart. The voluntary nature of the evening prayer is a continuation of Jacob’s unexpected spiritual revelation that night in Beth-El.
(Olat Re’iyah vol. I, p. 409)