“On a Wing and a Prayer”
By Rabbi Danielle Upbin
Generally, I enjoy travel – once I am on the way, that is. Preparing to leave, however, is another story.
A flag is raised by my packing routine: pack, shop for last minute items, repack, assemble a year’s supply of toiletries (even for just the weekend), and secure a triage bag for unexpected ailments. If the packing detail involves children – add an arsenal of car activities, electronic devices, accompanying paraphernalia, and another three hours of preparation.
Once the onerous task of packing has been completed, the “departure routine” begins: “Did you shut off the water? Unplug the electronics? Take out the trash? Set the alarm?” Add a few more last minute items to my bags and we are on our way. Even when I am traveling alone, the scaled down process can still be daunting.
The Jewish law codes stipulate that the “Traveler’s Prayer”, also known as the Wayfarer’s Prayer, (Tefillat Ha’Derech) can only be recited once one has already embarked on the journey (Shulchan Aruch 110:7). Some of us, however, need a version to be recited much earlier. Be that as it may, the Traveler’s Prayer has accompanied the Jewish people on their journey for centuries.
One of the earliest iterations of this prayer can be found in the Torah: “Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings.” (Deuteronomy 28:10). The Biblical exegete, Abravanel, states that this blessing refers to “safety in travel to and from the city, a common theme in descriptions of blessing and prosperity” (JPS Torah Commentary on Deuteronomy, p.259). Similarly, Isaiah 55:12 states: “For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace…” In greeting one another, one often recites, “Shalom aleichem!”/ aleichem shalom!” – “May peace be upon you!”, or when departing, “bo’achem l’shalom, tzayt’chem l’shalom- “Go in peace and come in peace”, a familiar blessing from the Sabbath table hymn.
The rabbis of the Talmud were also concerned with the ordeals of travel, as discussed in Tractate Brachot 29b:
Rabbi Jacob also said in the name of Rabbi Hisda: Whoever sets forth on a journey should say the prayer for a journey. What is it? — ‘May it be Your will, O Lord my God, to lead me forth in peace, and direct my steps in peace and uphold me in peace, and deliver me from the hand of every enemy and ambush by the way, and send a blessing on the works of my hands, and cause me to find grace, kindness, and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who see me. Blessed are You, O God, who hearkens unto prayer’.
ואמר רבי יעקב אמר רב חסדא: כל היוצא לדרך צריך להתפלל תפלת הדרך. מאי תפלת הדרך? יהי רצון מלפניך ה’ אלהי שתוליכני לשלום ותצעידני לשלום ותסמכני לשלום, ותצילני מכף כל אויב ואורב בדרך, ותשלח ברכה במעשי ידי, ותתנני לחן לחסד ולרחמים בעיניך ובעיני כל רואי, ברוך אתה ה’ שומע תפלה
Over time, the blessing was expanded upon and varied from culture to culture. The overall theme, however, remains – a plea to deliver the travelers safely to their destination, protect them from peril along the way, and when applicable, return them home in peace.
In modern times, the prayer has made its way on to amulets, keychains, pendants, and even luggage tags. Recently, the PJ Library sent out an endearing Tefillat Ha’derech project for children to learn about the traditional version of the prayer as well as prompt cards to create personalized wishes for safe travels.
Indeed, upon reflection, there are many modern hazards from which we need protection. Outside factors such as traffic accidents, road rage, overzealous TSA agents, or lost luggage can easily unhinge us. Internal pitfalls such as anxiety, impatience and anger can be just as damaging. Our response to these triggers will “make or break” a happy trail. The Traveler’s Prayer reminds us that we have a responsibility to ourselves, as well as to our fellow passengers, to create a peaceful passage for all. It is good to remember that when our flight is delayed, the ticket agent isn’t to blame, no matter how loud we yell at her. When we are stuck in traffic under the blistering sun on an interstate road, we can groove to the opening scene of “La La Land.” Who knows, maybe everyone will dance on their car rooftops. There is always the “high road”, as it were.
Where ever our journeys take us this summer: May we and those with whom we share the ride, be accompanied by the ancient blessing of our people. May we be protected in body, mind and spirit, ready to trail blaze, see new sites or be refreshed and enlightened. May we go in peace and return in peace with all of our wits (and luggage) intact!
English Text of the Traveler’s Prayer: May it be Your will, Lord, our God and the God of our ancestors, that You lead us toward peace, guide our footsteps toward peace, and make us reach our desired destination for life, gladness, and peace. May You rescue us from the hand of every foe, ambush along the way, and from all manner of punishments that assemble to come to earth. May You send blessing in our handiwork, and grant us grace, kindness, and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who see us. May You hear the sound of our humble request because You are God Who hears prayer requests. Blessed are You, Lord, Who hears prayer. (Translation from MyJewishLearning.com)