7/23/2006

לא קלה היא, לא קלה דרכינו

This inspiring post and video got me thinking about the tefilat ha-derech. Here are some comments on the segment of Gemara which introduces the idea:
אמר ליה אליהו לרב יהודה אחוה דרב סלא חסידא: ... וכשאתה יוצא לדרך - המלך בקונך וצא
?מאי המלך בקונך וצא
אמר רבי יעקב אמר רב חסדא: זו תפלת הדרך
ואמר רבי יעקב אמר רב חסדא: כל היוצא לדרך צריך להתפלל תפלת הדרך
?מאי תפלת הדרך
יהי רצון מלפניך ה' אלהי שתוליכני לשלום ותצעידני לשלום ותסמכני לשלום ותצילני מכף כל אויב ואורב בדרךותשלח ברכה במעשי ידי ותתנני לחן לחסד ולרחמים בעיניך ובעיני כל רואי. ברוך אתה ה' שומע תפלה
Eliyahu said to R' Yehuda, brother of R' Sala the Pious:... and when you leave for the highway, consult with your Creator, then leave.
What does "consult with your creator, then leave" mean?
R' Ya'akov says in the name of R' Hisda: This is the Wayfarer's Prayer (tefillat ha-derech).
And R' Ya'akov says in the name of R' Hisda: Anyone who leaves for the highway must pray tefilat ha-derech.
What is tefillat ha-derech?
May it be Your will, Lord, my God, that you guide me toward peace, and march me toward peace, and support me toward peace, and save me from the hand of any enemy or ambush along the highway. Send blessings and success to all of my endeavors, and place me in the grace, compassion, and mercy of Your eyes and the eyes of all who behold me. Belssed are You, Lord, Who listens to prayer.
There are several striking features of this Gemara. Firstly, the idea of 'taking counsel with God' seems a bit strange. Does one actually take counsel, or, as Rashi ad loc says, get permission from God before embarking on a journey?
Secondly, why would one need to ask permission before hitting the highway? Does everything we do require permission, or God's counsel? In lomdishe terms, why does yetzi'a la-derech require a mattir?
Finally, though two explanations of tefilat ha-derech are given here, both are attributed to the same source, namely, R' Ya'akov in the name of R' Hisda. What is the relationship between the two statements, assuming that he doesn't argue with himself?

It must be stated that the beginning of a journey, literally and symbolically, is a time of great stress. In the ancient world, it was indeed a time of serious danger. Highways are indeed much safer today, but life's journeys often involve more than roadways. When embarking on these journeys, individually or collectively, and experience the stress associated with it, we become obligated to pray to the Almighty. The Biblical perscription for prayer is at a time of danger or distress (ve-acamo"l).

Prayer fulfills a number of functions. In addition to addressing our needs before God, it forces us to contemplate exactly what it is we're requesting of God. R' Soloveitchik, in an essay entitled 'Redemption, Prayer, and Talmud-Torah', writes about the formative power of the Shemoneh Esrei to shape our 'table of needs' in addition to addressing them. Similarly, the act of prayer that we engage in before embarking on our journeys forces us to reflect upon the purpose of the journey; it forces us to ask, "Where am I going? Why am I going there?" Certainly, if my destination is not consonant with by own understanding of God's Will, then my prayer becomes an act of sheer hypocrisy! Shall be ask God to help us fulfill our ungodly wishes?

Thus, the two statements of R' Yaakov in the name of R' Chisda are essentially one and the same. The stress which generates the obligation to pray also forces us to take 'God's counsel', and to measure our goals by His yardstick.

The conclusion of this prayer is borrowed from the concluding petition of the Shemoneh Esrei (which, incidentally, explains why it's formulated as a bracha he-semukha le-chaverta even though it's recited independently, ve-acamo"l), which encapsulates all of our strivings. Tefilat Ha-derech, then, addresses the totality of our fears as we embark on a new venture.

עם האור נוסיף ללכת הלאה
עוד הדרך רבה, המסע עדיין לא תם
לא קלה היא, לא קלה דרכינו

With the light, we'll continue to go further

The road is still long
The journey is not yet over

It's not easy, our path is not easy

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