And he arrived at that place. He established the evening prayer (Talmud, Brachot 26b). And he took from the the rocks of the place. Rocks are letters that are awakened by prayer. He put them on his head and his heart. Therefore, and he dreamt, as is written in the Midrash: “How my flesh hungers for You in this wasteland.” As it is written And you shall speak of themwhen you sit… when you walk… when you lie. Everywhere exist the letters of Torah, as the world was created in ten sayings, and as words reach the mouth in Torah and prayer, the power of the letters that the heavens and earth were created is awakened. And that which the sages said, that the righteous sustain the world that was created in ten sayings: “sustain” here is like the signatures of witnesses. In this way, the righteous recognize and testify to the signet of the King.” (Sfat Emet, Vayetzei 11) 

The Gemara cited above by the Sfat Emet  (Brachot 26b) tells us of two conflicting traditions as to the origins of the three daily prayer service. According to one opinion, they mirror the daily sacrifices brought in the Temple. According to the other opinion, they were established by the Patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. Yaakov, as we see, is said to have established Maariv, the evening prayer service. The Chassidic teaching quoted above completely departs from the story of Yaakov and his dream of the ladder in its original narrative context. Nothing is mentioned there about his brother’s rage at him for stealing his blessing, or about the fact that he has just left home, and will never see his parents again. Yaakov, the person, is irrelevant to the teaching. 

Yaakov is present here only as the paradigmatic righteous person who awakens the forces of creation in prayer and Torah. He is the example of the person who testifies constantly to the constant presence of the Divine.  

The fact that he is the one who established Maariv as opposed to Shacharit or Minchah is almost irrelevant. After all, he takes from the stones of the place and uses them as tefillin, putting them on his hand and heart, and tefillin are not worn in the evening! More important than the fact that Yaakov is associated with Maariv are the words of the Shma, which are written inside the tefillin: when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, and when you lie down.” Three periods of the day reflecting the three prayer services, which are symbolized by the three Patriarchs. True, Yaakov goes to sleep in this part of the story, and dreams about the ladder, but the image of the tefillin almost undermines the importance of this fact. 

The spiritual message of the ever-presence of the Divine, and of its accessibility through prayer and Torah study is essential. Equally important, though, is the other issue that the Sfat Emet brings our attention to, albeit inadvertently; the issue of turning people into symbols. On the one hand, if we read people symbolically, the people get lost and erased, hidden behind the great and brilliant symbolic picture painted of them, as Yaakov is lost here. On the other, if the pure narrative view of the Biblical text is the only valid one, in which we look for Yaakov’s humanity in the text, we lose out on everything else that the tradition can teach us. The text ceases at that point to be Torah. “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.” This is only true if we transcend the Biblical text as the Midrash and the Chassidic teachings do. 

Shabbat shalom! 

Comments are closed.


Visit the
Shaarey Tphiloh Facebook Page

ST Facebook image link

Upcoming Events