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.


The Freeway Blessing

August 23, 2012

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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.


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