Travel blessings

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Click photo to download. Caption: Dr. Erica Brown.

For many of us, the end of summer represents the end of waking up late, being off schedule, vacation and “chillaxing.” For others, the prospect of school and structure is a long-awaited wish; we wonder whose idea it was to take children who are not farmers out of a learning environment for 10 weeks. It is also the last week of summer travel for many who want to squirrel away every last day. And for those who travel, the words of Deuteronomy have a special meaning. We hope that we are blessed in our comings and blessed in our goings.

In the days of old, coming and going had many meanings. It may have been a reference to war, which makes sense with the verse that follows: “The Lord will put to rout before you the enemies who attack you; they will march out against you by a single road, but flee from you by many roads.” In times of battle, enemies may approach you from multiple directions. Be prepared. Hopefully they will get to you by a single road, coalesced into a force that makes an easy target and scatter haphazardly because of your military might. If you are blessed in your going out to war and in returning from war, it means that you have suffered minimal casualties and emerge victorious.

Among medieval commentators, the verse is typically understood as a reference to traveling out of cities. Abarbanel, a 15th-century Spanish statesman, believed the blessing to be a request for safety when traveling. What travel anxieties did the ancients manage? They worried about wild animals on the way and dangerous river crossings. They worried about ambushes and robbers. They worried about being cheated in unfamiliar territory where they did not know who could be trusted. We have many Talmudic anecdotes that illustrate each of these travel problems. In such circumstances, our ancestors relied on the biblical words of blessing to find comfort in the newness and strangeness of uncharted places and unfamiliar faces.

On a spiritual plane, Rashi—the French 11th-century commentator—saw this blessing in the broadest of terms: “May your leave taking from this world be without sin just as you came into the world.” Rashi is not talking about a trip but the trip, the journey of a lifetime. May you exit the world with the innocence with which you came into it.

Why do we need this blessing today? It was written in ancient days when no one worried about flight delays or car accidents or hotel rooms that did not look like the website photo. Today, we tend to focus on pre-trip anxieties. Did we pack appropriately? Will our accommodations meet expectations? Will we get sick because of new foods or new bacteria? Will the planes, trains and buses get us to where we need to go reliably?

But our blessing offers us solace for the way there and the way home, acknowledging two different states of worry. Coming home hardly has any of the nervousness of leaving. After all, we are returning to a place of familiarity. And yet, there are those few minutes when you wonder if all will be as you left it.

After a vacation, I find myself standing before the front door holding my breath and hoping that the house will be as orderly as I left it, that the car will start, that there will not be any bad news on my answering machine, that I will get no e-mails to let me know that the world has collapsed in my absence. Maybe the worries are silly, but they are there nevertheless. And so as I stand at the front door, I am grateful for Deuteronomy’s words that my return be worry-free, kiss the mezuzah and feel blessed to be home.

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of “In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); “Inspired Jewish Leadership,” a National Jewish Book Award finalist; “Spiritual Boredom; and “Confronting Scandal.”

Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list at http://leadingwithmeaning.com.

Posted on August 22, 2012 and filed under Jewish Life, Torah Commentary.