“Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings.”
For many of us, this last week of summer represents the end of waking up late, being off schedule and “chillaxing.” For many of us, the prospect of school approaching and structure is a long-awaited wish, wondering how it is that we ever thought taking children who are not farmers out of a learning environment for 10 weeks. It is also the last week of summer travel for many who want to squirrel away every last day. And for those who travel, the words of Deuteronomy have a special meaning. We hope that we are blessed in our comings and blessed in our goings.
In the days of old, coming and going had many meanings. It may have been a reference to war, which makes sense with the verse that follows: “The Lord will put to rout before you the enemies who attack you; they will march out against you by a single road, but flee from you by many roads.” In times of battle, enemies may approach you from multiple directions. Be prepared. Hopefully they will get to you by a single road, coalesced into a force that makes an easy target and scatter haphazardly because of your military might. If you are blessed in your going out to war and in returning from war, it means that you have suffered minimal casualties and leave victorious.
Among medieval commentators, the verse is typically understood as a reference to traveling out of cities. Abarbanel, a fifteenth century Spanish statesman, believes the blessing to be a request for safety when traveling out of cities. What travel anxieties did the ancients manage? They worried about wild animals on the way and dangerous river crossings. They worried about ambushes and robbers. They worried about being cheated in unfamiliar territory where they did not know who could be trusted. We have many Talmudic anecdotes that illustrate each of these travel problems. In such circumstances, our ancestors relied on the biblical words of blessing to find comfort in the newness and strangeness of uncharted places and unfamiliar faces.
On a spiritual plane, Rashi – the French 11th century commentator – saw this blessing in the broadest of terms. “May your leave taking from this world be without sin just as you came into the world.” Rashi is not talking about a trip but the trip, the journey of a lifetime. May you exit the world with the innocence with which you came into it.
Why do we need this blessing today? It was written in ancient days when no one worried about flight delays or car accidents or hotel rooms that did not look like the website photo. Today, we tend to focus on pre-trip anxieties. Did we pack appropriately? Will our accommodations meet expectations? Will we get sick because of new foods or new bacteria? Will the planes, trains and buses get us to where we need to go reliably?
But our blessing offers us solace for the way there and the way home, acknowledging two different states of worry. Coming home hardly has any of the nervousness of leaving. After all, we are returning to a place of familiarity. And yet, there are those few minutes when you wonder if all will be as you left it. After a vacation, I find myself standing before the front door holding my breath and hoping that the house will be as orderly as I left it, that the car battery will not have run out, that there will not be any bad news on my answering machine, that I will get no e-mails to let me know that the world has collapsed in my absence. Maybe the worries are silly, but they are there nevertheless. And so as I stand at the front door, I think of Deuteronomy and this blessing that my return be worry-free, kiss the mezuzah and feel blessed to be home.