Yaakov left Eretz Yisrael to go to Charan in order to get married and start the Jewish nation. Chazal (Chullin 91b) tell us that Yaakov arrived in Charan and then thought about the fact that he had passed over Har HaMoriah on his way and did not stop there to daven as his fathers had prayed. Immediately, he turned to go back there and was granted kefitzas haderech and miraculously arrived there in a split second. Yaakov saw that the sun had set, he prayed and then he went to sleep. In his dream he saw the awesome prophesy relating to the ladder which bridged heaven and earth and that discussed the promise that Hashem would redeem the Jews from all exiles. When Yaakov woke up he exclaimed his amazement by stating that “indeed this is a holy place and I did not know this before” (Bereishis 28:17). This was a most significant day for Yaakov as he experienced many miracles and revelations. Why did it all come now? What made this time period in his life so special? Also, what did he learn about Hashem’s presence that he did not know before?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) offers a most beautiful explanation here. Yaakov was heading towards Chutz L’Aretz, his first journey to outside of Eretz Yisrael and he was about to be faced with some of the most difficult twenty years in Charan dealing with Lavan’s wickedness and lies. Yaakov could have thought that he was exempt or partly excused from his learning and spiritual responsibilities. He could have excused himself from them stating that it was now too hard and how could he be expected to live with spirituality in an evil city and while living with an evil Lavan. But on the contrary, Yaakov rose to the occasion and accepted on himself to grow and to maximize his potential.
Hashem wanted to encourage Yaakov and to show him that his outlook and commitment were beautiful. Thus, as soon as Yaakov set his mind to do what was right, namely to go back to Har HaMoriah, Hashem helped him and made him arrive there immediately. Yaakov was deeply inspired by the lesson and it was precisely there that he established the Maariv prayer. Ben Ish Chai (Berachos) explains that Maariv is prayed at night when it is dark and scary outside. This represents the challenges of life. When one prays, he is turning towards Hashem and asking Him to bring light into the world. One is connecting with Hashem in a most deep way.
It was specifically at this time that Yaakov merited to see the dream of the ladder, receive the promise of redemption, and learn about the unity and promise of the 12 tribes that were to emanate from him (by means of the 12 rocks under his head which became one [Rashi]). Yaakov was at a most crucial juncture in his life and was deeply inspired to use his time wisely and productively. This is what he was referring to when he said that he had not fully understood that Hashem was present in this place. Yaakov now learned and experienced Hashem’s presence and help at this time in his life. Indeed, Chazal state that this was the first time that Yaakov slept a full night’s sleep in the past 14 years when he was learning Torah. Yaakov was working to prepare himself for the challenges that lie ahead and to commit himself to learning to ensure his growth. Chazal also state that it was the last time that Yaakov slept for the next 20 years to come as well. He would once again immerse himself into his learning and spirituality. Indeed, after Yaakov’s time in Charan he was able to state, “I lived with Lavan but still fully kept all 613 mitzvos” (see Rashi on Bereishis 32:5) and was thus not afraid of Eisav. Yaakov taught us that in every situation and place in life we can thrive and grow.