Parashat Vayeitzei begins with the story of Yaakov’s experiences as he left Canaan to flee from his brother, and it tells that he “chanced upon a place” (“va-yifga ba-makom” – 28:11) when night fell, and he slept and beheld a prophetic dream. The Gemara in Masekhet Berakhot (26b) famously comments that Yaakov prayed the nighttime arvit prayer at that time, and it was he who instituted this daily prayer. Avraham and Yitzchak had instituted the morning shacharit prayer and the afternoon mincha prayer, respectively, and now, as Yaakov journeyed from Canaan, he instituted the evening arvit prayer.
Many writers have explained that Yaakov is associated specifically with the arvit prayer because this prayer represents our petitioning God during times of darkness, in periods of fear, uncertainty and turmoil. Yaakov spent twenty years in exile, hiding from his brother who sought to kill him, and struggling against his wily uncle who repeatedly tried to swindle him. Later, upon Yaakov’s return to his homeland, he faced several difficult challenges, including the rape of his daughter, and later, one of his sons being brutally kidnapped by his brothers and then sold as a slave to a foreign country. Yaakov would eventually have to leave his home as an elderly man due to famine, and relocate in Egypt. Much of Yaakov’s life was spent in “darkness,” in exile, in fear, in pain and in anguish. He is therefore associated with the evening arvit service, the prayer that represents our turning to God in times of “darkness” and hardship.
However, Rav Aryeh Tzvi Frommer of Kozhiglov, in his Eretz Tzvi, suggests a different point of association between Yaakov and the nighttime prayer. The Gemara, in a famous passage (Megilla 17b), teaches that before Yaakov left Canaan, he spent fourteen years intensively engrossed in study, in the academy of Eiver. The precise formulation used by the Gemara is “haya Yaakov be-veit Eiver mutman” – Yaakov was “hidden” in the academy. On one level, this description might simply refer to the fact that Yaakov was hiding from his brother, and thus he ensured that his whereabouts were kept secret. However, Rav Frommer suggests that the Gemara might also refer to one of Yaakov’s defining characteristics – that his piety was “mutman,” concealed from the public eye. Indeed, the Torah never mentions anything about Yaakov devoting himself to study before leaving Canaan. His devotion was “mutman” – hidden and concealed, kept totally private. In this vein, Rav Frommer writes, we should perhaps understand the specific connection between Yaakov and the nighttime prayer. The arvit service, which we recite during the period of darkness, signifies our serving God in “concealment,” in private, outside the public view. One of the themes of arvit is the theme of “mutman” – of serving the Almighty with pure sincerity, even in private, when there is nobody watching or observing, one of the defining features of Yaakov Avinu.
With this insight into Yaakov’s character, his struggles against his two primary antagonists – Esav and Lavan – become especially significant. Both Esav and Lavan are characterized by deceit and dishonesty. The Torah earlier in Sefer Bereishit (25:27) describes Esav as an “ish yodei’a tzayid” (“a man who knew hunting”), which Rashi, based on the Midrash, explains as a reference to Esav’s appearing pious to impress people – particularly his father – and thereby conceal his true sinful character. And Lavan, of course, repeatedly attempted to deceive Yaakov, yet always found a way to defend himself and portray himself as innocent and virtuous. Yaakov’s struggle against these two adversaries can thus be seen as representative of the struggle between pure sincerity and phony piety. Yaakov represents the ideal of arvit, of genuine piety in the “dark,” when nobody is watching, when we are not being observed or evaluated by anybody, whereas Esav and Lavan represent deceptive self-promotion, the false portrayal of oneself as righteous to conceal his true corrupt self.
We, the offspring and heirs of Yaakov, are called upon to follow his example and embody the concept underlying the nighttime arvit prayer, the ideal of true, honest and sincere religious devotion. A discrepancy between one’s public image and his true self reflects the character of Esav and Lavan, our greatest adversaries. We must strive to ensure that our inner core resembles the favorable image that we project, that we are truly as good and virtuous in private as we are in our public lives.