Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 3 December 2022 / 9 Kislev 5783

Tefillat Haderech: A Prayer to Travel Through Life

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Yaakov has just left his home, and is headed to Haran to find a wife from the house of Lavan. He will spend the next twenty years building his family, and establishing his financial independence. En route, he vows to G-d: If G-d will be with me, and guard me on this path on which I am going, and will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and I return in peace to my father’s house — then G-d will be G-d to me.

In the context of the priestly blessing, we first mention material blessing (yivarechecha) and then ask that G‑d protect that blessing (v’yishmirecha). But here, Yaakov first asks for protection (guard me on this path) and then for the blessing (bread to eat and food to wear). Since he has no more than the shirt on his back, he cannot be referring to his possessions. But there is something he did pack for his journey, in abundant supply — his spiritual and moral attainments.

Until now, Yaakov has been a yoshev ohalim, dwelling in the tents of study. He now sets out to seek a wife and a livelihood to support a family. He is right to fear the dangers that lurk ahead. Once Paradise was lost, and man was to eat by the sweat of his brow, earning an independent livelihood became complex. More than effort and skill are required to gain that loaf of bread. Rarely is the race for that loaf unaccompanied by pressure to attain social status. That “path to bread and clothing”, having become a dizzying quest for success, is ridden with potholes. Unscrupulous business practices, dubious marketing techniques, unfair competition, and undignified treatment of employees are but a few of the stumbling blocks on this path. “This path,” our Sages comment, alludes to cardinal sins such as idolatry, illicit relations, murder, and slander. It takes courage and conviction to walk this road with honesty and integrity, to continue to value hard work, even as the outcomes of clever cunning seem ever more gainful. The path is indeed steep and thorny, with luxuries and windfalls beckoning the traveler to stray from his honest and law-abiding toil.

Yaakov’s prayer is a model for similarly situated travelers. First, he prays for the preservation of his character, that he not forfeit his integrity. Only then does he ask for respectable sustenance (food) and social position (clothing). His third wish is for “shalom” — peace — and “return to his father’s home” — intact family ties.

Finally, Yaakov vows that he will respond to G-d’s preservation and blessing by declaring, “G-d will be to me Elokim.” Most who have been so blessed would surely wish to continue that relationship with the G-d of mercy (Hashem — spelled Yud, heh, vav and heh), but Yaakov expresses the lofty wish of the Jew, to continue the relationship also with G-d as Lawgiver (Elokim). He vows: The G-d who showered upon me the bounty of His love and goodness will be to me G-d Who not only gives and bestows, but also demands that His Will be done with all that bounty. With that vow he has directed every thought in his mind, every sentiment in his heart, and every penny in his possession to be used in accordance with the Will of G-d.

  • Source: Commentary, Bereishet 28:20-21

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