Jacob is traveling fast, so much so that there are “speed bumps” placed on the way perhaps to slow him down or to provide rest stops for refreshment and contemplation, – “Tefila laderch” prayer for the journey. The same transitional term is used both at the beginning and at the end of this week’s portion of Vayetze, to provide parking lots for thought.
The unusual word is Vayifga, which could almost be translated as he bumped into a place and stopped there, evoking an unexpected or unplanned stop. The enigmatic phrase gives rise to many interpretations, prayer being among them. Rashi quotes the well known Talmudic passage from Berachot 26b, which asserts that; “Jacob instituted the evening prayer, as it is stated: “And he encountered (vayifga) the place and he slept there for the sun had set” (Genesis 28:11). The word encounter means nothing other than prayer, as it is stated when God spoke to Jeremiah: “And you, do not pray on behalf of this nation and do not raise on their behalf song and prayer, and do not encounter (tifga) Me for I do not hear you” (Jeremiah 7:16).”
Putting aside the curious manner in which the Talmud uses a later use of the word as a precedent to explain the first time it is used with Jacob, there is a consensus around the claim in a broader context that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob established the morning, afternoon and evening prayers. Having determined that pattern through examples from Abraham and Isaac, clearly, inevitably a proof text would be devised for Jacob. What is equally anomalous for all three, though, is the lack of content. What was actually (spontaneously) recited in those poignant and fraught moments. Our emotions are being played with or might we suggest prayed with!
Perhaps that is the point! The fascinating episodes invite us to consider not so much the what, rather the when. – When do we pray? In the case of Abraham, it was prompted by anger or dismay at what was planned for Sodom. For Isaac, radical amazement, seeing the wonders of nature in the field, and for Jacob, fear, anxiety, uncertainty. We too are being invited to create our bumps in the road, our sudden or planned moments to slow down to meditate before we mediate.
At the close of that tumultuous journey, the text poetically suggests that Jacob’s prayers are indeed answered through his Vayifga “bumping” into the messengers of God ; 32:2 when וַיִּפְגְּעוּ־ב֖וֹ מַלְאֲכֵ֥י אֱלֹהִֽים the angels of God encountered or bumped into him or perhaps, met his prayers, by escorting Jacob and his large family to the Promise of the Land and to the Blessings pledged by God.