Prayers for Travel

Prayers for Travel – Yom Kippur 5758 (1997)

Baruch ata Adonai, shomay-ah t’filah.
O God, hear our prayers this day, and let Your Presence fill our hearts.

Today, I’d like to invite you to take a short trip with me, to visit some special places I’ve been. But first, a little prayer for travel:

Y’hi ratzon milpenecha Adonai Eloheinu ve-lohay avoteinu shetolikeynu l’shalom.
May we be blessed as we go on our way, may we be guided in peace.

Now, I don’t have any home movies, any slides, any multimedia show. Instead, we can use our imaginations to see the pictures: it’s May, and we’re in Yosemite National Park, camped along the Merced River. The night sky is clear, the stars are out, and the cliffs that line the valley — thousands of feet high — hide the moon that soon will rise. Wrapped in blankets and holding mugs of cider to keep us warm, we travel along the valley floor in an open tram. Specks of light dot the most severe cliffs: rock climbers camped out for the evening on their several-day ascent. As the moon clears the valley walls, the sheer granite faces take on an eerie, shimmering glow. The sight makes us shiver in wonder.

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, oseh ma-asay b’reishit.
We praise You, Eternal God, Sovererign of the universe, Source of creation and its wonders.

There’s a scientific explanation for this: the moon’s light resonates with the mica in the granite cliffs, causing the shimmering glow. I don’t understand it all, but I did find a bit of God in that valley, if only in the gift of being able to experience beauty. The nice thing about science is that now I know how to find God like this again. For surely God is present in this place, and I did not know it. But will I only be able to find God at high altitudes, next to granite cliffs, on a full moon?

I’m always hoping to bump into God, to encounter the wonders of the spirit from day to day. I like getting that little shiver up my spine that tells me something special just happened, or is about to happen. I like being reminded of the mystery of life, of the gift of beauty.

There’s another place I’d like us to visit: it’s August, in the Catskills. We’re at Kutz Camp for Rabbinic Aide training. Next to our dorm is a small, quiet lake, surrounded by trees and pavilions built for study or prayer. For a service in one of those pavilions, my roommate decides to teach us all to blow shofar. Taking out a long, curled ram’s horn, he tells us: “The shofar is just a vehicle for transmitting your prayers to God, and the person actually blowing it is just the engine. Whenever the shofar is blown, everyone in hearing should imagine their prayers being channeled up through the shofar to God; whoever is blowing it must be neutral, just the tool of the congregation.”

We follow his instructions and stand in a circle, eyes closed, holding hands, and begin to pray silently, imagining that our prayers are like wisps of smoke, swirling around inside the circle. Suddenly the shofar sounds, and they are caught up in a huge updraft and blasted heavenward. The shofar sounds and sounds, and it seems as if our very souls are passing through it and touching God.

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, vitzivanu lishmo-ah kol shofar.
Blessed are You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, Who hallows us with choices, and invites us to hear the sound of the shofar.

Touching God. How unimaginable, and yet how real. Now that I’ve helped blow that shofar, I can never hear another one without getting that special shiver. God has touched the shofar for me, and it will never sound the same again. But do I have to wait to hear a shofar to find God?

Come with me to another moment at Kutz: we’re learning how to use the tallit. Some of us have one, others just pretend they do; either way, we are told, is fine — it’s the mental exercise that counts. The Rabbi tells us: “Imagine the tallit is a garment of light, of God’s presence, that you wrap around yourself. As you begin, take a moment and drape it over your head — let yourself become completely enveloped by God. Then, when the moment is right, let it slide down to your shoulders, and join the service.” A little self-consciously, we close our eyes and do as suggested, real tallit or not. A shiver runs up my spine.

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, vitzivanu l’hit-atayf batiztzit.
We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, Who hallows us with choices, and invites us to wrap ourselves in fringed garments.

So now wearing a tallit is, for me, a special event, one that helps make Shabbat mornings a little holier. Other things help as well: when we light the candles on Friday evenings, seeing the mezzuzah at our front door, wearing a yarmulka when I’m in the Temple. But do we need things to invite God into the world?

Not at all: we can pray. Sometimes I like to say a prescribed prayer, like when we’re making motzi. Other times I change one a little to suit me. Even more often I make up my own, have my own conversation with God in my own words. The formula isn’t important, it’s the practice that is.

Think of the Kaddish: a prayer we all have recited, a prayer that invites God into our world in the most troubling of times. It’s a different kind of moment, but still a sacred one, as we recall those who filled our world in ways that it will never be filled again. We invite God to share in our sorrow, to lift us back to life, to renew our commitment to those whose lives we touch, and to all life. We find God there, too, in those holy moments that touch us deeply, if painfully.

It’s quite a journey to take, these visits to holy moments. We can make the landscape familiar by practice — going over and over the map, as it were, highlighting familiar spots with prayers, mental images and personal acts. And once we’ve started bumping into God, it won’t be such a rare event anymore — still special of course, still holy — but one we can repeat more and more easily. It might happen when we see a tree’s leaves turned brilliant colors, or a smile on the face of a friend, or the sob of a relative as we hold them in their time of need.

And then we’ll begin to learn the real value of bringing God into the world. For once God touches our world, it changes in a way that we can’t forget: God’s Presence moves us not only to pray, but to act; not only to be healed, but to heal; not only to experience joy, but to create joy. In short, we become God’s partner in creation, making this world better for all of us, family or stranger, wounded or healing, always searching or always discovering.

All we need is a little practice, a little prayer, and a little wonder.

Baruch Avinu, kulanu k’echad, b’or panecha, ki b’or panecha na-tata lanu, Adonai Eloheinu, torat chayim, v’a-havat chesed, u-tzedakah uv-racha, v’rachamim, v’chayim v’shalom.
Bless us, our Creator, one and all, with the light of Your Presence; for by that light, oh God, you have revealed to us the law of life: to love kindness and justice and mercy, to seek blessing, life and peace.

Amen.

© 1997-2007 James F. Brulé