The Midrash (Bereshit Rabba) relates that Avram was reluctant to travel to Canaan before the events of our parsha, as he was concerned about neglecting his obligation to serve his father. Rather, he awaited G-d’s command, “Lech lecha”. The halakha likewise instructs us, the descendants of Avraham, to “consult with our Maker” before going on a trip, by saying the Tefillat Haderekh. (Berakhot 29b, SA OC 110:4-7, KSA 68.)
Most people understand that the background for this prayer is the risk of travelling. Even today, travelling is one of the more dangerous things we do routinely, mostly due to the risk of auto accidents. In the time of the Sages the risks from accidents, bandits, hunger and so one were very much greater.
This is indeed the aspect of the prayer emphasized by the Yerushalmi (Berakhot 4:4), which points out that “All roads are considered dangerous”, and mentions that Rebbe Yonah used to make a will each time he set out on a trip.
Yet many things we do are more dangerous than crossing an unsettled area, but do not merit a special blessing. For instance, there is no special benediction before undergoing surgery, even though dangerous medical procedures were certainly common in the time of the Sages.
Indeed, the Bavli does not mention danger at all in the context of the travellers’ prayer. The practice is introduced by the following story: “Eliahu [the Prophet] said to Rav Yehuda brother of Rav Sala Chasida, ‘Don’t come to anger and you won’t come to sin; don’t become drunk and you won’t come to sin; and when you goon a journey, consult with your Maker and then go.’” (Berakhot 29b.)
Eliahu mentions three things: anger, drunkenness, and travel. All of these things make us forget ourselves, and do things we would normally avoid. Anger and drunkenness are always improper, and Eliahu warns against them unequivocally. But travel is sometimes necessary, so in this case the proper course is to consult with HaShem, that is, recite the travellers’ prayer to remember Who accompanies us on our journey.
This reminds us that one of the most important risks of travel is the spiritual danger. When we travel, we tend to be tired, and therefore less vigilant in performing G-d’s will; it may be difficult to find the wherewithal to keep mitzvot, such as mitzva objects and kosher food; and we are anonymous, and so our usual sense of shame at deviating from the commandments may be lessened.
The comments of the Acharonim on the Tefillat HaDerekh relate to all these aspects. They urge us to study on the way, to keep G-d’s service in mind; to bring necessary mitzva objects with us and to be careful about kosher food on the road; and to have someone accompany us on the beginning of our journey, to lessen our sense of isolation. (MB 110:20 and 28, KSA 68.)
When we say Tefillat HaDerekh, we should remember that we are not only asking help from HaShem to help us in our way; we are also consulting with Him to make sure that we are continuing in His ways.