The beginning of Tefilat Haderech, the Traveler’s Prayer, sets a pretty high bar. No matter where we go — a business conference, a family reunion — peace is the desired destination. It is as if peace were an actual place we could find on a map or type into Hopstop.
“May it be Your will,” the prayer begins, “that You lead us toward peace, emplace our footsteps towards peace, guide us toward peace” (Artscroll translation). These three phrases follow one another like footsteps. They beg a question: why does the prayer use three verbs with similar meanings?
Tefilat Haderech is very old. The version reprinted in the siddur and on countless plastic wallet cards dates from the fourth century, and its core is likely much older. Travel itself has changed over time, but the reasons people take trips remain pretty much the same. Perhaps each verb is for a different kind of traveler.
“Lead” I imagine to be for pilgrims who have a destination, but don’t know how to get there. Reluctant travelers, who care neither for the road nor its endpoint, need a shove, their feet “emplaced on the path.” Lovers are all about the path, and set out without knowing — or caring — where it leads. “Guide” is for them.
This summer, I am staying close to home, but will send friends and family off on significant journeys. (Only one shows reluctance.) I will watch them leave, hoping they will experience the joys of growth and discovery, but mindful of obstacles they will certainly encounter.
These obstacles are also in Tefilat Haderech. “May You rescue us,” the prayer continues, “from the hand of every foe, ambush, bandits and wild animals along the way.” These dangers once seemed remote, belonging to a different age or far-off land. Now, they are a reality of modern travel, along with metal detectors and no-fly lists. Even Westchester County has coyotes.
In Brachot, the Talmud suggests the purpose of a travel prayer is to consult the Creator before leaving on a trip. This is not like consulting the weather or a “Lonely Planet” guide. Rather, it is setting an intention, being ready for whatever lies ahead.
I like this idea and its implications for my traveling loved ones. I cannot go with them myself, but Tefilat Haderech can. This does not assure their safety or even improve their odds, except insofar as it encourages them to be mindful.
Also, I imagine they may find themselves alone: out of cell phone reach, far from an Internet café or just unable to see beyond their private horizon. At those times, I hope the prayer’s plural voice will remind them of family and community, and resonate with the love and fortitude I have tried to send their way. May this be so, at least until such time as “peace” can be programmed into a GPS.
Lizzie Leiman Kraiem is executive director of JFEW: Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women.