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.
5 thoughts on “The Freeway Blessing”
Your post just sent chills up my spine. On July 18, I too was in a car crash. It happened just in my quiet neighborhood as I was searching for a parking space in preparation to go for a swim at our local JCC. Out of the blue, a driver coming in the opposite direction did a split second left turn right in front of me leaving me no room to stop or avoid him. As I t-boned him, my airbag deployed with a sucker punch to my chest and I found I could not breathe for the smoky powder that issued from the airbag. My car was basically considered totaled but later repaired via insurance and heavy deductible. Fortunately, the guy who hit me was a mensch and helped me to the curb until the medics came. Anyway, long story shorter, my appreciation of life increased a hundred-fold. I only wish I’d had the presence of mind then to say the Gomel prayer because my injuries were relatively minor in the face of what they might have been sans airbag and seatbelts. BTW, I wasn’t on my mobile or doing anything except thinking about that silly parking space.
The takeaway? We all hear religionists and philosophers carry on about the importance of mindfulness, but it isn’t just an abstract ideal, it’s our job, especially in these times of terminal distractions.
Thanks for a great post!
Oh, I am so sorry it happened to you too! I was terrified by the “smoke” from the airbag – I thought the car was on fire. The whole thing was a wake-up call I did not want but now I am grateful for the insight it brought. May you have no need for the gomel prayer anytime in the near future!
Amen to that, Rabbi!