In our people’s mythic calendar, this is the time of year that we are journeying from the Red Sea to Sinai, from Passover to Shavuot. For me the annual pilgrimage started, as it does most years, when I made the journey to my parents’ home for Passover. And as usual, each time I boarded the plane, coming and going, I whispered the traveler’s prayer to myself.
I love tefillat haderekh, the traveler’s prayer. I love how it asks that we arrive at our desired destination alive, in joy and in peace. I love how it names a list of crazy uncontrollable things that happen in the world and asks God to protect us from them. I love how it asks that we might be seen with loving eyes by all who meet us and that our endeavors be blessed. I love how it makes a claim that our prayers are heard.
I must confess that it felt particularly poignant to be saying this prayer in the aftermath of the shooting that happened at the Chabad synagogue in Poway this week. I heard all the piercing questions arise: How can we reconcile the reality of our violent world with the claims that God is listening to our prayers, that there can be such a thing as safety, such that we can actually trust strangers? The traveler’s prayer seems suddenly unspeakably naïve.
And yet, I know that the traveler’s prayer comes from a time when traveling itself was a terribly dangerous thing to do. Instead of traffic jams and flight delays, the list of possible obstacles on the road includes ambushes, bandits and wild animals. It is precisely when we are feeling most vulnerable that we can open our hearts in prayer.
The truth is I don’t say the prayer because I believe it will actually keep the plane in the sky. I say it in order to mark the fact that I am on a journey that is out of my ordinary routine. It is a way of setting an intention for new experiences, to remind myself that the destination is always life, joy and peace. It’s a way of taking sober stock of the precarious state of the world, of the common fragility of life and all the things that make me – and all of us – so terribly vulnerable. And it’s a way of reminding myself that it is a practice to trust that others will in fact deal kindly and generously with me, even when I am a stranger on the road. (And most of the time, they really do.)
May our journeys this season, both physical and spiritual, be blessed along with all of our endeavors!