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When you pray, you should have focus and concentration. If you don’t, then it’s doubtful whether your prayer reaches its destination and gathers an answer for you. It’s a little like throwing a letter into the mailbox without an address. Your letter will go somewhere, but probably not to the place you wanted to send it. The forefathers, who established all three prayers on the Jewish daily schedule, thought a lot about G-d and were well-connected to the One above. Abraham established shacharit (morning prayers) by standing still and speaking to G-d. Isaac established mincha (the afternoon prayers) by going out to a field to talk with G-d. Yakov, protagonist of our weekly Torah portion (Vayeitzei), was so high that he had an encounter with G-d. As a result of that encounter, ma’ariv (the evening prayers) was established.

In Jewish law, the evening prayers are treated differently than the morning and afternoon prayers. Shacharit and mincha are obligatory. A Jewish man (and those women who have accepted the obligation upon themselves) must pray the morning and afternoon prayers. But, the evening prayers are only required because the Jewish people decided voluntarily to take them on. Originally, the halacha (Jewish law) required us only to take on those prayers that have some kind of connection to us, such that we can prepare for them. The evening prayers come from such a high place that even the forefathers couldn’t prepare for it. That’s why the language of the Torah says that Yakov “encountered” G-d. He wasn’t prepared for what he ran into; there was no way to prepare for it. You can only prepare for something that you have some kind of idea exists, and you have at least a vague idea about its nature. But, the spiritual level of ma’ariv is so high that all Yakov could do, with the help of G-d, was to “encounter it.”

Yakov’s encounter actually happened twice; once as he left the land of Israel for his uncle’s house in order to find a wife, and again twenty later when he returned with not just one wife, but two, and eleven sons. On both occasions, angels accompanied him during his encounter. On the way out, the Torah says, “And he encountered (vayifga) the placeŔ – this was the place where Yakov had his dream, where the Temple was later to be built. And on the way back in, the Torah says, “And angels of G-d encountered (vayifga’u) him.” When the Torah uses the same word twice, there are bound to be subtle differences, as well as similarities.

Yakov’s journey outside the land of Israel is a metaphor for something in the life of every Jew. We all have a task down here in the physical world. We’re all meant to dip into the mundane world and take something out of it. We have a piece of Yakov deep in our souls, and just like Yakov had to leave the holy land in order to return as a much enrichened man (both spiritually and physically), so we all have to leave the comfort of our lives, and “dip” into a foreign environment in order to take something back with us. We don’t improve ourselves by staying behind and doing what comes natural and easy. We climb the ladder of achievement and accomplishment by taking on ever-greater challenges, mastering them, and then integrating the lessons into our lives. That’s how Yakov succeeded, and that’s how every Jew has to proceed in his life. The way to grow is to venture into the unknown, and that’s why Yakov had these “encounters.”

During the first encounter, the angels of the land of Israel accompanied Yakov as he left the holy Land. The angels couldn’t leave Israel, but Yakov had to leave, in order to find a wife – but also – in order to find a life. He had to find his task and purpose in the world. And that can be risky. Putting yourself in an unknown situation carries risks. And that’s why the angels accompanied Yakov – to guard and protect him as he went about meeting the various challenges presented by a devious uncle and plotting in-laws. There were angels outside of Israel, as well, who guarded and protected him as he went about his business. For fourteen years, he tended the flocks of his uncle, and for another six years, he built his own business, overcoming the deceitful tactics of his in-laws and detractors. At the same time, he built his family, bringing eleven tribes (Binyamin was born later in Israel) into the world together with the two sisters, Rachel and Leah, and their maid-servants. And then he came back home.

On the way back home, Yakov had his second encounter. Once more, he met up with angels of the land of Israel. And this time, they actually left the land of Israel in order to meet him. They’re not supposed to do that. Yakov, like any other Jew, could leave the land of Israel in order to find a wife (or to study Torah or to make a living). But, the angels of the land of Israel are of a certain spiritual level and holiness that is appropriate for Israel, but not the diaspora. So, when the angels left Israel to meet Yakov, it must have been for a very special reason. The reason had to do with Yakov’s accomplishments. He had been so successful in his work, that he actually elevated his environment to the spiritual level of the land of Israel. Like the Chassidic masters say, “Mach do Eretz Yisroel” – make here the land of Israel. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, by serving G-d with Torah and mitzvoth, lift your environment to the spiritual level of Israel. We all try, and in some small way we probably succeed. But, Yakov succeeded in a big way, and the angels of Israel recognized that. They saw that wherever Yakov was, even in the diaspora, he created the level of the land of Israel. That’s why they had no problem leaving Israel in order to accompany Yakov back into the land of Israel. They weren’t really leaving. They were going from one place to another within Israel, in order to accompany Yakov.

And another thing. They no longer needed to protect Yakov. He had done his work. He was a complete human being, a tzadik who had overcome all obstacles in his spiritual path, and passed all tests. He was no longer in any danger, even outside the land of Israel. But, such a perfect being, complete in his avodat HaShem (service of G-d), deserves honor. He shouldn’t go anywhere alone, he should always have accompaniment. So, the angels provided a sort of honor guard, an escort, to bring him back into the holy Land. It was an encounter of a different kind. On the way out of Israel, Yakov needed guarding. On the way back in, he deserved honor.

Such “encounters” always occurs on a level that cannot be prepared for. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be an “encounter,” but a meeting or a conference. An “encounter” means that one side or perhaps both is not prepared and not ready for the event. And one can never be ready for a high spiritual level that G-d wants to bestow upon him. Nevertheless, among such events we can distinguish two levels. That is, there are two kinds of spiritual encounters, corresponding to the two events that Yakov experienced; one when he left Israel and the second when he returned.

There are also two ways of looking at the evening prayers, at ma’ariv. Either we can look at it as the first of the daily prayers, preceding shacharit and mincha, in which case, it corresponds to the “send-off” that Yakov received as he left Israel to fulfill his life’s tasks. It is meant to give us strength and inspiration to do what we have to do during the following day. Or, we can look at the nighttime prayers as the end of the day, following the prayers of shacharit and mincha. And in that case, it corresponds to the reception that Yakov received as he returned to Israel with his family. As such, it is the prayer which seals and gives the honorary “stamp of approval” to what we achieved during the day. Either way, though, it’s not a prayer that demands preparation. It’s an encounter, meant to prepare or to reward us for our avodat Hashem – service of G-d.

The same applies to life. As we set out on a spiritual journey, hoping to return with the “goods” of higher spirituality as well as a higher level of physical sustenance, we need guarding. We don’t know what to expect and if we’ll succeed. We might not look for angels as we go about our business of trying to create a spiritual dwelling in the lower worlds, but we need guarding. Occasionally, we run into these guards when we don’t expect them. Everyone can tell a story about how this or that “almost happened.” That’s an encounter of one kind.

When we bring back the goods, we undergo an encounter of another kind. We’ve accomplished the mission; we’ve achieved what was demanded of us. We’ve brought down the spiritual levels that surpassed us and yet had a connection to us and our own avoda. Then, it’s time to reap the rewards. It’s time to receive the honor guard. That’s the second, higher kind of encounter. It’s also there for us. But, first we have to first do the work.

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe z’l, vol. 25, pp 150-158 Rabbi David Sterne, Jerusalem Connection in the Old City of Jlm