I’m not what you would call a good flier. But since I hold all my anxiety inside, you wouldn’t think I was a bad flier either. It’s probably normal. As someone who’s remarkably self-aware when a little ignorance would suit me better, I could probably benefit from an in-flight cocktail or swallow of valium or Atavan. (Once, on a flight, I needed oxygen. But that’s another story.) But when I’m inside a plane, whether or not we’re actually in the air, there’s lots going through my mind, and after the preliminary awe of “wow, we’re really high,” nearly all of it is disastrous.
Air travel seems unreal to me. The aerodynamics, the triumph over gravity, the likelihood that seatbelts make a safety difference…it just seems impossible, like fictions that we embrace because the alternative is never going anywhere. I end up thinking about how the inside of the cabin seems both impossibly small and made of unstable materials, especially when it shakes and rattles during turbulence. If I’ve got an aisle seat, I end up staring at the emergency tape, and wondering if it would really light up in case of an “in case.” On the window, I stare at the shifting of the wings, and wonder how much pressure it would take for them to snap off entirely. For the occasional thought about whether the back of the plane might break off and if so, at which row the fissure would occur, I blame Tom Hanks for "Castaway" and ABC for “Lost.” Occasionally, mid-flight, a momentary drop in cabin pressure makes my stomach lurch, and somehow manages to feel like endless freefall. Forever an English major, I think of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun with his wings of wax, and for his hubris, plummeted into myth and metaphor. Inexplicably, I feel like our soaring into the heavens in pursuit of business or pleasure or family reunion is analogous to throwing coins into the air and, as the old joke goes, “what God wants, He keeps.” And then, of course, the egomaniacal writer in me wonders if my flash drive would be discovered intact in the theoretical (God forbid) wreckage.
And of course, that’s when it comes to me. I know what I forgot.
When they travel, by air or by sea or even on particularly long or dangerous car trips, most observant Jews say Tefilat Haderekh (the Prayer for the Journey). I always found it fascinating: that just saying words that acknowledge that, as in all things, a journey’s outcome is up to God, helps to reassure a very human insecurity about flying in a man-made machine. I have the prayer on a little card that I usually take with me when I travel, but I travel so little that this time, I forgot it. Only after getting on the plane and seeing the engines right outside my window, did I realize that maybe that’s what was missing Wednesday night. I had forgotten my little tefilat haderekh card at home, and the prayer, as many times as I’d uttered it, was just gone from my brain.
Since I was on my way to Chicago for an improv event, I did what any good improviser would do: I improvised. I began with the phrases I remembered: that we be safeguarded against disasters of varying sorts, any kind of misfortune or disaster that might await us on our journey, God being merciful, and protecting the nation of Israel. Then I added the prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel, on the theory that a) it couldn’t hurt, and b) the teaching that God helps those who pray on the behalf of others. (Not a hundred percent altruistic, but heartfelt.) I thought about ending with Adon Olam (a prayer that praises God as master over the world), which traditionally ends many prayer services. But ultimately, I went with the shehakol, because, as any yeshiva graduate knows, although many brakhot are assigned to specific foods, shehakol can be said over everything.
I’m half-joking. But the more I think about it the more I feel that the formula, content and structure of prayer doesn’t matter half as much as the intent and the inspiration, the actual action of feeling inundated or overwhelmed, and asking for help. It’s tempting, of course, to suppress the inclination, and request nothing from friends, family or community. But ultimately, our support systems are there to help in times like these, times when things seem very up in the air.
Suddenly, shehakol niheyeh bidvaro, that everything—from the roaring jet engines to the foil bag of infinitesimal pretzels I get with my 2.5 ounces of Diet Pepsi during the beverage service— came into being due only to the will and word of God, seems extremely appropriate.