The Freeway Blessing

August 23, 2012

English: A variable message sign indicating es...

This post originally appeared on Kol Isha, the blog of the Women’s Rabbinic Network.

As I perched on the hospital gurney, I reviewed the facts: the SUV slipped into the space ahead of me on the crowded highway and then braked abruptly. Its lights glowed red as I pressed and then stomped my own brakes. Time slowed as my car slammed into the SUV.

Air bags will save your life, but to do so they punch your chest like a champion boxer. For a 57 year old woman, chest pains demand a trip to the ER, even if they come after an encounter with an airbag.  Once I got to the hospital, they decided I wasn’t dying, but they wanted to keep me for a bit “for observation.” That’s how I wound up parked on a gurney, meditating on the seriousness of driving a car.

Until the afternoon of April 17, I prided myself on my good driving record, but it was no more than a nice report card. I seldom thought about the fact that when I’m driving I hold the lives of other human beings in my hands, and others hold mine.

The Torah regards life and health as precious gifts. Deuteronomy 22:8 commands us to put railings on the high places in our houses to prevent accidents. The rabbis of the Talmud went even further in Bava Kamma 15b, saying that one should not keep anything dangerous, neither a biting dog nor an unsafe ladder. PIkuach nefesh, the preservation of life, is such an important mitzvah that it can override almost any other mitzvah: better to violate the Sabbath than to let someone bleed to death, for instance.

And yet that afternoon, I had climbed into my little car with its 3,000 pounds of steel, and barely gave it a thought. I had been driving for 41 years, and driving had become routine. I didn’t speed or break the law. I didn’t chat on my cell phone or fix my makeup as I drove. But neither did I ever reflect that I was holding the lives of others in my hands.

Sitting on that gurney, I began to see that driving is a sacred activity, or it should be. Driving mindfully, aware of the lives flowing with me and past me on the highway, could be a form of worship of the One who created all those lives.  Conversely, driving carelessly, driving distracted, or driving sleepy is chillul Hashem, a desecration of the Name of God, because it invites the destruction of life given by God. Its very heedlessness is blasphemy.

I never found out why that car stopped so suddenly. All I know is that no one in the other  car was injured, my car was totalled, and I was lucky that I only had bruises. I am grateful that it was no worse.

Since that day, when I get in the car, I murmur what I have come to think of as the Freeway Blessing, a blessing to remind me to bring holy mindfulness to this sacred task:

Baruch Ata, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, hanoten l’chol chaim.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space, Giver of life to all.

“Choose life!” we are told in Deuteronomy. Behind the wheel of a car we each have that choice. I could have died on the freeway, but instead I was blessed: blessed with renewed awareness of the sacredness of life, and the responsibility we each have to preserve life.


Shabbat Shalom!

November 7, 2014

rest area

It was quite a week.

I had another near-disaster on the freeway. The alternator died, with the result that by the time I was able to get off the road and stop, it was just me, 2 tons of car, and the laws of physics. Still a good day because I lived to tell about it.

Friends have had unhappy things happen: serious bicycle accidents, skunks under the house, car accidents, failures of technology with consequences, illness.

The Jewish People have had a hard week: violence in Jerusalem, rising anti-Semitism in Europe, nasty stuff on the internet. We remembered a very difficult week 19 years ago, when we lost Yitzhak Rabin, one of our heroes.

We are coming up on an anniversary this weekend: the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht.  If you don’t know about it, or are only vaguely clear about it (“a Holocaust thing”) then follow the link and read about it. We should reflect upon it before slinging around the word “Nazi.”

Many heavy burdens to carry, but tonight the sun will go down, and we will welcome the Sabbath in all her glory. Let those burdens drop from our shoulders, take a deep breath, and let us welcome the peace, if only for a little while.

If we make our best effort to experience the Sabbath, perhaps we can carry some of that peace into the week that follows.

Kein y’hi ratzon: May it be the will of the Eternal. Amen.


A Blessing for Driving?

May 31, 2014
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Bicyclist in Traffic

Pikuach nefesh (pee-KOO-ahch NEH-fesh) is a Jew’s obligation to save a life in jeopardy. This commandment is taken so seriously in the tradition that it overrides many other considerations. To preserve a life, it is permissible to remove organs from a dead body (otherwise, Jews are forbidden to disturb a body except to wash it, clothe it decently, and bury it.) To preserve a life, one may travel or otherwise violate the Sabbath.

The obligation is based in the Torah: “Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:16) This mitzvah was honed and expanded through many discussions in the Talmud, and it is carefully spelled out in the codes of halakhah (Jewish law.)

Often when we speak of it, we think of desperate heroic situations: the weeping widow signs off on organ donation after her husband’s death, a sick child is rushed to a hospital on Shabbat, or a teen uses CPR skills to keep someone alive until the EMT’s arrive.

Today I was reminded that it also applies to a situation so mundane we rarely pause to notice it. A friend posted to his facebook timeline:

“Most people don’t get into their cars thinking, ‘I hope nobody hits and kills me today.’ I cannot get on my bike without having that thought.”

It’s not an unreasonable fear. I heard it from my son, too, back when he was commuting on a motorcycle. And what city dweller has not had a close call as a pedestrian? Bicyclists, motorcyclists, pedestrians are what traffic experts call “vulnerable road users” (VRU’s) and recently they have accounted for more than 10,000 fatalities a year on US roads. The average new car weighed 4,000 lbs in 2010. When two tons of steel encounter a fragile human body, there’s no question who is going to get hurt.

Then, of course, there are the other people in cars: despite the tons of steel surrounding passengers, riding in a car is pretty dangerous too. According to a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 32,999 people killed, 3.9 million were injured, and 24 million vehicles damaged in motor vehicle crashes in the United States in 2010. Using the other figure for VRU’s, that leaves 22,999 people in cars who were killed in 2010.

Automobile safety is a pikuach nefesh issue. When we sit behind the wheel of a car, we take lives into our hands. Every glance away from the road is a few seconds in which something terrible can happen. Each item of distraction is a potential desecration of life. I’m not talking about drunk driving, or texting, or other flagrant violations of law. I’m talking about the things we all do that seem “normal” at the time: fiddling with the radio, letting ourselves get impatient with an irritating driver, paying too much attention to anything besides the road ahead of and around us. At any moment of distraction, someone could die. It’s as simple as that.

I wrote about this once before, back in August of 2012, after I had an accident. When I wrote The Freeway Blessing, I was shaken by the fact that I came too close to being a statistic. When it happened I was being very careful: the radio was off and I was wary because the traffic was both heavy and moving rapidly on I-880. Even with all my faculties engaged, I couldn’t react quickly enough to avoid a serious accident.

Today, after the reminder from my friend, I’m renewing my commitment to taking driving as seriously as it deserves. Here’s what I am going to do:

  1. I commit to giving my full attention to the process of driving.
  2. I commit to allowing time for careful driving: leaving a bit earlier than absolutely necessary, so that I won’t feel an urge to hurry.
  3. I commit to getting that eye exam that I think probably isn’t necessary, but it’s time, so I’ll get it.
  4. Finally, I commit to reminding myself that driving is a sacred activity, because I hold lives in my hands when I do it. I’ll do that by saying a blessing before I drive:

Baruch Atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam, hanoteyn l’chol cha-im.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space, Giver of life to all.

I invite you to join me in making a new commitment to pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life.

Image by Elvert Barnes, some rights reserved.


Here and Now

March 6, 2014

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Sometimes life shakes us up a bit.

Today I pulled into a parking place in a shopping center near my home. I was going to buy some vegetables for dinner, and pick up a prescription. I paused for a moment to text Linda to make sure that dinner together was on her calendar, too. Then suddenly a beat-up green Toyota careened into the parking lot followed by a crowd of police cars, their lights blinking and sirens roaring. 

I froze in the front seat of my car, unsure what to do, as police leaped out of the cars and pointed their guns at the green car. I felt like I’d dropped out of reality into a TV show. The police yelled so loudly I could hear their voices even with my windows rolled up. I hit the button for the door locks and slid low in my seat, aware that I was awfully close, should anyone begin shooting. Stay in the car, I told myself, don’t attract attention. I hoped that whoever it was in the green car did not have a gun, or would have the sense not to shoot.

The situation resolved very quickly, without gunshots. The man in the car surrendered and was arrested, and the crowd of cops relaxed, putting away their weapons, gathering up things and examining the car. After a few minutes, I realized it was over: I could go run my errands.

I still have no idea what it was all about.

Events blow into our lives sometimes as quickly as that fleet of cars roared into the parking lot. One minute we’re planning dinner, and the next we’re wondering if we’re going to be around for dessert.  Once a year in synagogue we recite a prayer about that (Who will live and who will die?) but in fact we live with that reality every day – we simply don’t look at it. If we looked at it too long or thought about it too much, we’d lose heart. But if we don’t look at it often enough, if we don’t stop and remember that we are mortal creatures, we may waste this precious life we are given.

Eighteen months ago, I wrote about a car accident that got my attention. Today I got another reminder: Wake up! Pay attention! Next week I will turn fifty-nine, and again, a little voice will remind me that I do not know how much time I am given on this earth. This is why we are advised by the sages to run to do mitzvot: we have no guarantees of months and years ahead. All we have is what Kipling called “the unforgiving minute.” All we have is now.

So the question is, what am I going to do with this precious time, this now? What will you do with yours?

Image: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Dalo_Pix2


How Will I Ever Feel At Home in Services?

November 12, 2013
Grand Lake Theater of Dreams

When I drive past the Grand Lake Theater, I am flooded with memories.(Photo credit: Thomas Hawk)

Last night I attended a memorial service in Fremont, CA. It’s just down the freeway from my home, but I have only been there a couple of times, and I was completely dependent on my GPS getting in and out. I passed lots of places that meant absolutely nothing to me.  Eventually I arrived at my destination, attended a beautiful service, and then did the whole thing again going home.

It’s different when I drive around Oakland. I lived in Oakland for almost 20 years, and now I live in the town next door. When I drive anywhere in Oakland, every street corner has a memory. I used to drive down Grand Ave, by the Lake, to take the kids to school. When I drive down Piedmont Ave, I am reminded of lunches with my old study partner. When I drive up Redwood Road, I remember the scary time I was trying to take the kids home and the road turned into a river of muddy water around us.  And so on.

Attending religious services is like driving in a town. If I attend a Unitarian service, I have no idea what’s going on. I’ve only been to one service and I was lost the whole time. I could tell that the people around me were “into” it, but I didn’t know what was going on, and there were no memories connected with any of it. It was like driving around Fremont, clinging to the GPS.

But in the familiar Jewish service, I meet memories at every corner: that prayer comforted me when my friend died, this prayer was taught me by a beloved teacher. One prayer annoys me, and another prayer always thrills me. I remember when new things were added (sort of like remembering what was on Lakeside Dr. before the Trader Joe’s went in) and I feel at home.

There is only one way to get that kind of homey familiarity with a town or with a service: you have to live there for a while. Maybe not 27 years (I lived in Jerusalem only for a year, and it is full of memories) but you have to show up, and get lost, and get found, and stumble around. That messy stage of finding one’s way is an integral part of the process.

So the next time you are in a service and you feel like, gee, when am I ever going to feel at home with this? – consider the possibility that maybe you need to go more often, or more regularly. It’s only by logging the miles that the place will really become home. The good news is that as that if you put in the time, it’s inevitable.  That mysterious service will be well and truly yours.


Fear and Humming: a Cancer Scare

June 25, 2013

English: SAN DIEGO (Sept. 22, 2008) Lead Mammo...

It all started six weeks ago when I found a lump in my right breast. My regular mammogram was coming up, so I figured OK, I will just keep the appointment. That was the wrong plan, because insurance being what it is, I needed to have a different kind of appointment with different approvals for a mammo with an actual bump. Oh.

I got the callback for Mammo #2 after a week. (Yes, I had to wait for the results on #1 before they could sign me up for round 2.) Round 2 was more mammography plus an ultrasound.

That trip to the radiologist was scary. I thought I was pretty calm at first, but when techs kept “going to check with the doctor” and then coming back to take more images again and again, I got very nervous. The last verse of Adon Olam [Master of Time & Space] played over and over in my head:

B’yado afkid ruchi
b’eit ishan v’a-irah
V’im ruchi g’viyati, 
Adonai li, v’lo ira.

In English:

Into your hand I trust my soul,
When I sleep and when I wake.
As with  my spirit, my body too:
God is with me and I will not fear.

Then the tech asked me to hum.  It was the first thing she’d said to me in a while.

“What?”  I was startled – you want me to what? 

“Hum, please, it will help us see details.”

So I hummed what was in my head: Adon Olam.  It was weirdly comforting. It was also just plain weird.

She snapped a few more pictures and then let me get dressed. Off I went to wait for another report. I got yet another callback: time for an “ultrasound guided needle biopsy.”

That time, no singing.

And finally, good news: it’s benign, probably a bit of damage from last year’s car accident. Whew.

The whole adventure took 6 weeks. My beloved life-partner, Linda, was a wonderful support. I can only imagine what bells were going off in her head as a two-time cancer survivor. I told a small circle of people what was happening, and they were solid: my rabbi, my cantor, a couple of friends.

I learned some things about myself. I was afraid, so afraid that I couldn’t admit I was afraid. The ancient words of Adon Olam became my mantra, insisting that I will not fear. I clung to the words, and to the tune, and to all of it because it was a fixed point in what I feared was about to become an unraveling world.

Did I believe “God is on my side so I will not have cancer?” Of course not. The fixed words of the prayers were a handhold on the familiar, on the things that endure. They were comforting precisely because they had been hummed by so many distressed Jews before me. They were comforting to me because they were a statement of faith that whatever happens, I am not alone.

I believe that God is the ultimate mystery; I do not presume to say much of anything about God on my own. What I do believe is that I am not alone, that goodness will be made manifest to me through the actions of good people, and through the blessings of creation, which is itself good. (Gen.  1:31) And I do believe that the traditions of Judaism link me to many of those people, and to a particular experience and appreciation of life.

Adonai li, v’lo ira.

In a way, it’s a whistle in the dark. I choose to believe that at the heart of the universe, there is goodness. Even had it been cancer, even had it been very, very bad, my life has meaning.

Adonai li, v’lo ira!


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