The Torah portion of Vayetze is rare among of the weekly Torah readings. All the twists and turns in the narrative – a man on the run for his life, angels up and down a ladder, two new wives, a duplicitous father-in-law, two new maidservants and 12 children born – are told in one paragraph. While the Masoretic text of the Torah normally includes paragraph indicators, which pace the way in which we read a story, this parsha is one of only two of the 54 weekly readings that has no such divisions. This story is told as one unit. This action-packed paragraph is all the more intriguing when discovering that within it is one of the models defined by our sages for our daily prayer.
Three Models of Prayer
Back in the Talmud (BT Berachot 26b), when the scholars questioned the proof text for thrice daily prayer, one suggestion put forth by Rebbe Yossi bar Hanina, is that it is the patriarchs who initiated this pattern of prayer collectively. An earlier source is then heralded to support him evidencing each of the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as introducing radically different encounters with God. These models of prayer not only teach that prayer emanates from a universal human experience, but the paradigms presented also underscore the variety of religious experience. Our engagement with God is as unique as the individuals we are, the time of day, and the context within which we approach.
A verse is brought noting Abraham arising in the morning, standing with the clarity of dawn with upright posture before God. Isaac models a prayer in his going out to the field in the midst of his day to converse with God. And lastly, Jacob’s model of prayer is from this story, while fleeing the wrath of his brother, night falls and the verse teaches he encounters God.
Jacob’s model of prayer – coming within the narrative that has no breaks, in the darkness of the night, with fear surrounding him, being heir to a family dynasty that he is at the same time exiled from – highlights what it means to stand before God. Often we focus upon clearing our minds, setting aside the time and readying for prayer. Yet perhaps one model is to be a bit more candid, opening ourselves up exactly where we are and honestly appreciate what it means to stand before God at that moment.
In fact the first request we make from God, beginning the Amida is, “God, open my lips and my mouth will declare Your praise.” We ask for help in crossing the threshold into prayer- in this challenging exercise of opening ourselves up, revealing our vulnerable honest selves.
The Talmud (BT, Berachot 21a) offers an exhortation of Rebbe Yochanan, ‘Halevai- If only a person could pray all day’ – a prescription which can be understood by some as the harshest curse. However, if we take the model of our forefathers – the essence of tefilah is not to uniformly recite and bow, but to open ourselves up genuinely and confront being in the presence of the Divine wherever and however we are found.
Rabbanit Ilana Fodiman-Silverman, a member of Beit Hillel, is Co-Founder of Moed, promoting a vibrant engagement with Jewish life. She teaches classes in Talmud and Halakha to men and women in Zichron Yaakov and is a Fellow in the Beit Midrash of Beit Morasha. Ilana is a graduate of the Drisha Scholar’s Circle and was an Ira Marienhoff Fellow at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University, where she studied Medieval Jewish History.
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