The sages of the midrash found a hint about the Maariv prayer, which Jacob instituted on his way to Haran, at the beginning of this parasha. Maariv is a prayer recited in the evening hours after dark. It is no coincidence that our sages say that Jacob instituted it during those moments as he made his way from his father?s house to Haran.
The three prayers we pray throughout the day express three different situations of standing before God. Shacharit is said at the beginning of the day when a person gets up from sleep, a new day lies ahead, and he is full of energy to fulfill his plans. In such a state, it is important that a person remembers that the path to success is not paved by him but by God. A person who gets up in the morning and expresses his requests to God is making himself conscious of his existential dependence on He who ?spoke and brought the world into existence.?
Mincha is said toward the end of the day. It seals the day with the same awareness with which we began it. We are active doing various things throughout the day, presumably mostly positive ones, and now we go back to remembering that human activity does not guarantee success. This is dependent on ?siyata d?shmaya?, help from above.
The third prayer, Maariv, is said at night, when it?s dark, a situation of doubt and blurriness. At night, activity slows down and we have time to ourselves. When a person is in both internal and external darkness, he might wonder: Will this darkness end? Will there be daylight again when this night ends?
This is the state Jacob was in. He was escaping from his father?s house, totally unsure whether or not he would ever be able to return. His big and strong brother, Esau, is furious with him and waiting for the opportunity to kill him. He is escaping to the unknown. There, he knows, he will search for a woman to marry, and who knows if he will succeed. And even if he does, he will have to start his life alone, without any familial or social support, and build his home in an unknown land.
Jacob is in a state of darkness. The sun set and disappeared over the horizon, epitomizing his situation. He wonders about his path, about his direction, and about his future. From this place, he creates a new prayer, one that expresses the distress of someone immersed in darkness.
However, someone immersed in darkness does not always find the strength to pray. Who hears me? Why do I deserve this? Is there a way out of this? Jacob teaches us that there is no situation in which prayer is not significant. There is no moment of darkness from which we cannot emerge. Maariv is a prayer of hope, and of faith.
The book of Psalms contains a verse that expresses the gap between day and night, ?To declare in the morning Your kindness and Your faith at night? (Psalms 92, 3). In the morning, bathed in light, a person senses God?s kindness. But at night, when darkness closes in and depressing thoughts seep into one?s mind, then we need faith in God Who has the power to extricate us from any situation, even the darkest one.