Just as every person’s life has its periods of Night and Day, so each and every day has its “Nights and Days,” its moments of Darkness and Light. This becomes especially clear when seen in terms of the set of daily prayers which take a Jew through the twenty-four-hour cycle.
It was the Patriarchs who introduced the three daily prayers. Avraham initiated the Morning Prayer, Yitzchak the Afternoon Prayer, and Yaakov the Evening Prayer (Berakhot 26b). Our Sages taught that the morning and midday prayers are compulsory, whereas the nighttime prayer is optional (Berakhot 27b). Nowadays, the Evening Prayer has also been made compulsory (Orach Chaim 237:1).
When these dinim abound – when Night falls – one must be able to see beyond the Night, beyond the difficulties and confusions that beset him (Likutey Halakhot, Arvit 4:1,2). This is how prayer gets us “through the Night.”
Reb Noson writes: Seeing that there is no commandment to recite the Evening Prayer, and that one offers a prayer at night out of an inner desire and not as a fulfillment of one’s obligation, why did Yaakov have to initiate it? Would anyone have assumed that it is forbidden to pray at night, that Yaakov had to establish a precedent to show that nighttime prayer is permissible? Besides, of what value is the implementation of an optional custom or devotion? However, Yaakov foresaw the forthcoming exiles, the long Nights and the ever-increasing obstacles to serving God. He anticipated the extended Darkness created by the power of the resistance to spirituality. Therefore, Yaakov established the Evening Prayer. He initiated Ma’ariv to show that even in our darkest moments, we have a path by which we can always return to God.
But if the Evening Prayer is so important, then why, indeed, was it originally left optional? We can understand this by looking at the reason why the daily liturgy was established in the first place. This was done to help those who would not be able to entreat God without the aid of a formalized rite for presenting the prayers. However, the most productive and complete prayer is one that a person says straight from his heart; the private, secluded prayer known as hitbodedut. This is what Yaakov had in mind – a spontaneous prayer, one that a person can always offer, no matter where he is or what he has done in the past. This is the optional prayer introduced by Yaakov as the Evening Prayer. His intention was to instill in us the courage never to give up – never – even in the darkest moments (Likutey Halakhot, Minchah 7:89).