There is something liberating about traveling. Maybe it’s the pressure and release of the whole experience.
There is the pressure of space: You pack up your life into a few bags, asking yourself what it is that you really need to take with you and what can be left behind.
Then there is the pressure and inevitability of time: the plane will fly at a certain point, and you’d better be on it when it does!
As I left the house this morning, I checked for the essentials: my journal. A pen. My pocket siddur (prayer book) that I purchased the last time I was in London and cannot travel without. My phone and credit cards and cash and IDs. My passport.
I try to travel light, but what always gets me are the books. I left the house twice before running back to grab a modern print of the commentary on Masorah written by the Baal HaTurim back in the 1300s. Although it’s heavy and a bit cumbersome, I felt like I couldn’t go on my journey without it. At least I had the self control to take just one of the five volumes from my shelf!
The release of time comes when you reach your seat on the plane and hunker down for the flight. I always love to sit by the window so I can watch the ascent. Today’s was especially magical. That California sun warmed my face as we sped up along the runway, and as the wind caught our wings and lifted us heavenward I laughed and cried tears of joy and anticipation. The freedom of flight does that to me.
I saw the wide, gorgeous back of the ocean rippling in the sunlight. I watched Los Angeles recede into the distance. I saw snow on the peaks of the Sierras. I saw the farmlands of this beautiful country of ours rolling by at 600mph.
Darkness fell fast. The best sunsets are seen from up above the clouds.
Galaxies of NYC
Swam into view
‘neath a new moon
Is there anything more beautiful than flying thirty two thousand feet above the earth?
The release of space comes when you finally reach your destination and yank open that taut zipper on your luggage. But I have only reached Manhattan. I still have thousands upon thousands of miles to go before I sleep.
There is something else about traveling: you’re suddenly aware of your vulnerability. Some moments are subtle, like when you remove your shoes in the security line at the airport. In that moment, when you realize that everyone around you is barefoot, you are all equally human and vulnerable.
Other moments are much more obvious, like being confronted by a stranger in the airport whose behavior is threatening and unpredictable and you are a woman traveling alone. Or when you are up in the clouds, opening a bottle of water when the turbulence hits, the plane vibrates, then shakes, then drops six or seven feet and a terrified cry goes up from the passengers in one desperate voice.
My thoughts in that moment of fear went to the text of the Tefilat HaDerech, the Traveler’s Prayer, that I had said before takeoff.
(One of the things I cherish most about Judaism is that it is a religion of gratitude. There is a blessing for nearly everything. And that elevates countless mundane moments into sacred ones.)
The Tefilat HaDerech mentions Jacob, a forefather of the Jewish people, encountering angels on his journey.
But there were times in the life of Jacob when he found himself alone on his journey. Those were the times when he felt the most vulnerable, even terrified. Jacob was once anticipating a meeting with his estranged twin brother, Esav, and was uncertain whether the encounter would be violent or peaceable. Had Jacob’s brother forgotten his anger for what had transpired between them in their youth? (After all, though he was the younger brother, Jacob had found a way to purchase the birthright from his older brother, and with it he later surreptitiously took his father’s blessing, meant for Esav.) Was Esav still seeking revenge for this after all these years?
It was in this moment, when Jacob feared the coming encounter, that he offered up a prayer.
“Katonti,” he said to the Creator, “I have been made small by all Your kindnesses to me…”
In just one word, katonti, Jacob at once acknowledged that his life was filled with blessings and that he was humbled by them. Hebrew is quite a compact language when compared to English: katonti means, “I have been made small” or “I have been diminished” or even, “I am not worthy.” Most translations (I looked up a dozen) do say “I am unworthy”, but in this case, but I translate it very differently.
Jacob is saying “I am humbled by all the kindnesses you, G-d, have shown me.” Jacob goes on to request that he continue to be protected by the G-d of his ancestors in the time of his travels. He prayed not to be harmed on the roadside by his brother.
That word, katonti, normally appears like this:
But guess what? There is a special Masoretic embellishment on the very last letter of the word, the little letter Yud. The Yud is embellished in an unusual way: it is one of the Otiot Meshunot or “Unusual Letters” in the Torah Scroll. It’s described as a Yud Kafufah, meaning a ‘bent Yud’.
One might think that a Yud is a Yud is a Yud. But small though it may be, the Yud can be embellished and morphed like any other letter. The way this particular Masoretic note is indicated on our Yud varies depending on the manuscript. It’s a clue to variant scribal traditions that illustrate Masoretic notes:
Four variations of the embellished ‘Bent Yud’ are shown above. The Yud in Gaster’s Manuscript is by far my favorite since I love the whimsical curlicue! But all the variations aim to achieve the same goal.
Through being bent, the Yud becomes an expressive pictogram. According to the Parma and Gaster’s manuscripts, the Yud is bent at the waist like a human bending forward in prayer. And in fact, an ancient book, called the Sefer Tagin (Book of Crowns) describes this Yud Kafufah or bent Yud with precisely this metaphor.
To me, the Yud is like a diagram of the very moment that Jacob is experiencing before confronting his potentially murderous, potentially loving brother Esav. Feeling vulnerable, feeling small and unprotected, he nevertheless humbly expresses gratitude for what he has. The Baal HaTurim expounds that Yud, which has a value of 10, is a clue to the 10 blessings that Jacob has received in his life. In the attitude of prayer and gratitude, Jacob bows his body like a bent Yud, and asks that he and his family will continue to be sheltered from harm under the wings of heaven.
The turbulence that cast our airplane down unexpectedly caused a brief panic – a brief sense of “This is it” in the minds of more than a few fellow passengers.
But we were bound for Israel. The air caught the plane again and lifted it skyward, and in a moment, we were smoothly gliding to the meeting of three continents, and the home of our ancestors, once more.
Perhaps this is why the Yud in Yaacov’s prayer is writ bent: it is a reminder that crying out in times of need or distress is not weakness. On the contrary, it is what makes us human.