Jacob is on the run. After receiving the firstborn’s blessing in place of his older twin, Esau, he must flee for his life. He heads north from Be’er Sheva, along the ancient Mountain Spine Route (today’s Highway 60). Along the way, he arrives at…well, we’re not sure. The Torah reports, “He came upon a certain place, and stopped there for the night” (Genesis 28:11). One Jewish tradition identifies the “certain place” as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, while a second tradition says it was a bit north of Jerusalem, near the modern city of Beit El.
Wherever it was, Jerusalem or Beit El, what concerns us here is the phrase “he came upon” (in Hebrew, ויפגע/va’yifga). In the course of a discussion about the source for the three daily prayers, the Talmud comments that this verse is the source for Jacob establishing the daily evening prayer, Ma’ariv. How so? The Talmud (Berachot 26b) cites a verse from Jeremiah 7:16 which includes a word with the same three-letter root (פ.ג.ע/f.g.a.), which discusses prayer. Based on this juxtaposition, the Talmud deduces that when Jacob “came upon a certain place,” and “stopped there for the night,” he prayed; hence, the evening prayer. This concludes the Talmud’s proof that “our ancestors established the prayers.”
Not only did our patriarchs establish the prayers, says R. Yoshe Ber (Yosef Dov) Soloveitchik of Brisk (1820-1892, Minsk; Brest-Litovsk), but parents continue to inspire their children to attend services even in our own times. How wonderful! one might think. But R. Yoshe Ber was not being complimentary. Often, he says, the only reason there is a sufficient prayer quorum in the synagogue is due to the number of worshippers who have come in order to recite the memorial prayer (the kaddish). If not for the kaddish-reciters, there might not be enough participants (a minyan). The patriarchs may have originally established the prayers, says R. Yoshe Ber, but the prayers are actually maintained by their deceased descendants, whose deaths force their children to come to the synagogue. Bereft of the need to recite kaddish, however, their children might only rarely see the inside of the house of prayer.
And what of us today? How many of us act in the way which R. Yoshe Ber lamented? Do we attend synagogue services on any kind of regular basis, or is it only when we “have” to go? My father-in-law, Joseph Rotenberg, once told me that many years ago, he decided that though he was careful about never missing the thrice-daily prayers, he made a commitment to attend services in the synagogue as much as he could. He did not want to wait for the recitation of kaddish to “compel” him to attend. After all, he said, those who are showing up to services only due to kaddish need a minyan!
I am fully aware that for many people, prayer in synagogue does not “do it” for them. It very often does not “do it” for me, either. But there may be others who are counting on us, even if we do not know it. Let us make an effort to attend weekday services once per month, and then perhaps twice per month. It can go from there, at our own pace. Let us make our Patriarchs, those who established our daily prayers, proud of us. Let us take on R. Yoshe Ber’s challenge. And just as we were there for others who needed our presence, may others be there for us, as well, after our loved ones have lived complete and rewarding lives.
(Based on ב. יאושזון, מאוצרנו הישן – בראשית, p. 150)