Parshas Chukas (5771)
Have you ever been on an airplane when, just as the plane is taking off, some religious-looking guy next to you pulls out a little card and starts mumbling some words to himself?
If it sounds to you like Hebrew, then what you likely witnessed was the recitation of Tefillas HaDerech, the “Wayfarer’s Prayer”, a special prayer composed by our Sages over 1500 years ago for one who sets out on a journey.
Since the summer is upon us, and many people will be on the road again, it is a good time to discuss the basic laws and concept of Tefillas HaDerech:
Whenever a person is taking a trip by air, land, or sea that is at least three miles long, he must pray that he completes the journey safely. The prayer should be recited as soon as one has gone about 140 feet past the last house in town (i.e. when one has left the city limits). On a journey that will last for many days, it is recited once each day. It is customary for one member of the group to recite the prayer aloud and for the others to fulfill their obligation by listening and responding Amen. Although it is better to interrupt one’s travel and stand while reciting this prayer, this need not be done if it is too difficult.
Here is the traditional text of the Tefillas HaDerech prayer, translated into English (it may be recited in any language):
“May it be Your will, L-ord, our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers, that You lead us toward peace, emplace our footsteps toward peace, guide us toward peace, and make us reach our desired destination for life, gladness, and peace [one who is planning to return on the same day adds: and return us to our homes in peace]. May You rescue us from the hand of every foe, ambush, (bandits, and evil animals) 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 supplication, because You are G-d Who hears prayer and supplication. Blessed are You, G-d, Who hears prayer.”
The basic idea behind Tefillas HaDerech seems pretty straightforward and simple: Since travelling is often fraught with danger, we pray to G-d as we set out on a journey to protect us from any harm. It is important to mention, however, that there are some recent Halachic authorities who questioned whether this prayer is applicable in our modern era, when, at least on the main roads, there are plenty of cars full of people around, as well as a strong police presence, and the likelihood of being ambushed on the road by bandits or attacked by evil animals is practically nil. [See, for example, the opinion of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ZT”L, quoted in Halichos Shlomo chapter 21 note 14.]
The truth is that Tefillas HaDerech is more than just a prayer for protection from danger on the road. The Talmud in Berachos 29b, which is the source for this prayer, states the following: “Eliyahu said to Rabbi Yehuda, the brother of Rabbi Sela Chasida: ‘Don’t get angry and you won’t sin; don’t get drunk and you won’t sin; and when you set out on a journey, consult with your Creator and then go’. What is meant by ‘consult with your Creator and then go’? Rabbi Yaakov said in the name of Rabbi Chisda: This refers to Tefillas HaDerech, the Wayfarer’s Prayer.”
Mahara”l, in his classic work Nesivos Olam (see Nesiv HaKa’as chap. 2), explains the deep connection between these three seemingly unrelated pieces of advice that Eliyahu gave Rabbi Yehuda as follows:
The most important thing that we have that helps “keeps us in line” and stops us from doing morally and spiritually destructive things to ourselves and to others, is our seichel - our G-d-given, soul-driven conscience. When a person’s seichel is in control, he is fully connected with G-d, and he is able to successfully guide all his thoughts, emotions, and actions in the proper moral direction.
When one gets angry, however, his seichel loses control of the rest of him, and he is prone to all kinds of dangerous and reckless behavior – as we have all witnessed when watching someone who has lost his temper – and in his ‘disconnected’ state he can easily sin and make some really bad mistakes he will definitely regret later.
The same happens when a person gets drunk. His G-d-connected seichel is no longer in charge of the rest of him, and he is apt to say and do all kinds of things that are inappropriate and even sinful.
A third way – explains the Mahara”l – that one can lose control and disconnect from G-d, is when setting out on a journey or vacation. When at home, it is easier to stay in control and spiritually connected. Out on the open road, however, things are very different. Whether it’s because people are nervous about the potential hazards of the journey (as was fairly common in the olden days), or maybe it’s due to the fact that it’s vacation time and we are ‘away’ and ‘on our own’, we often experience a spiritual disconnect and we tend to greatly relax our moral (and religious) standards. This can lead to all kinds of actions that we would normally never consider doing.
Eliyahu therefore counseled Rabbi Yehuda that before going on a trip or vacation, he should ‘consult’ with his Creator and ask for His permission and protection – i.e. recite the Tefillas HaDerech prayer – and by so doing, he will no longer feel like he’s ‘away’ from G-d and ‘on his own’, but instead, will be totally connected with his Creator, and his seichel will retain its control even while away from home.