A Traveler's Prayer
By Dr. Erica Brown
March 22, 2009
"May it be Your will, our God and God of our forefathers, that we travel in peace and advance in peace; that we be guided in peace and that we are supported in peace and that we arrive at our chosen destination with life, happiness and peace."
My zeide (grandfather), of blessed memory, used to sleep in his suit and shoes the night before a flight. "You wait for the bus; the bus does not wait for you," he always said. He was what you would call an anxious traveler. Travel always seems exciting and often is, but leaving our comfort zone can produce more anxiety than we may be willing to admit. John Mortimer, in his novel, Paradise Postponed, explores this very theme through a graduate student writing his PhD on how nervous people are when they leave home for vacation. After all, home is a place that is familiar. We know the food and the surroundings. We speak the language. We know our way.
Some people avoid this foreignness by making sure that they eat the same foods they would eat at home or always travel with friends or make sure to speak in only their own language, not even daring a "good morning" in Spanish or Swahili. They temper the strangeness of being elsewhere with their crop of personal stabilizers.
And, when we travel, even small problems can seem insurmountable: the change in currency, how to get from here to there, finding the restrooms. For some these issues are not issues at all; they are just an insignificant part of an adventure. In fact, each may add to the allure of travel for those who welcome change. The contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton in The Art of Travel is intrigued by the identity issues that surface when people travel. Who are you if you are not defined only within the parameters of familiar space?
Jews are, fortunately and unfortunately, the great historical travelers. Identity issues emerge for the Israelites as early on as our first patriarch, Abraham. In Genesis 12:1 Abraham begins a journey to a new home that will be a source of blessing and new life. He must travel in order to create that new awareness. He cannot stay in the same place and innovate. Emmanuel Valdman, a French thinker, believes that it is for this reason that both Abraham and the Jewish people as a collective entity had to travel before arriving at a homeland. Our faith identity was not to be only about land ownership; our wandering was to be an inherent quality of our very selves.
By Genesis 12:10, Abraham travels again to find food in Egypt to face the famine in Canaan. Even arriving at a destination is not enough. Within ten verses of getting to the Promised Land, he must move again.
Travelers' Prayers (tefillat ha-derekh), such as the one above, are as old as the Talmud. The anxieties of travel were not something to be withstood but something to articulate and manage through supplication. The language of the prayer seems repetitive; all of the various stages should bring peace. And yet, the repetition is understandable when we think of all that can go wrong on a trip. At every moment, we may face inconvenience, danger, loss or disorientation. We ask that God accompany and look out for us as we advance through each level of our travels. As the prayer continues, it mentions wild animals and thieves, anything that can hamper or compromise our journey. Today, we might think of an orange alert or having a wallet pickpocketed.
Travel for pleasure is obviously not the same as travel for work or relocation. Nevertheless, some of the same tensions present themselves. The traveler's prayer acknowledges in a way that sometimes we fail to, just how significant each piece of a journey is and how graced we are when we travel well and arrive in safety. The prayer ends with the hope that God will grant us blessings through our labors (important when traveling for business), look compassionately upon us and regard us with kindness. Importantly, the prayer twice mentions that God should hear our prayers.
So here's a contemporary version of the traveler's prayer:
May we get to our destination on time.
May we not be charged for overweight.
May we experience no turbulence.
May our luggage arrive with us.
Pleas God let out us make our connecting flight.
May airport security not catch us with a hole in our socks.
May God watch over us and make sure we are safe from all worry.
May the place we are going to stir happiness.
And may arriving back home bring even greater joy.
Dr. Erica Brown is the Director of Adult Education at The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and Director of the Jewish Leadership Institute at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. She is also an adjunct professor at American University and George Washington University, was a Jerusalem Fellow and is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation. Brown lectures widely on subjects of Jewish interest and leadership, in addition to extensive writing in journals of education and Jewish studies. She has chapters in "Jewish Legal Writings by Women, Torah of the Mothers," and "Wisdom from All of My Teachers" and writes a weekly internet essay on topics of Jewish interest. Brown is the author of the book, "Inspired Leadership: A Jewish Perspective" and co-author of "The Case for Jewish Peoplehood." This article first appeared on the web site of The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning.