Learning to drive is the perfect metaphor for the journey into adulthood. It means taking the wheel while a parent watches with trepidation from the passenger’s seat, there to give you advice and support, while trying not to interfere. It means a little bit of panic and frustration. It means sometimes you have to laugh, so you don’t cry. And like any journey, it can bring you closer to Hashem.
In Judaism, the journey is just as important as the destination. This world is just as crucial as the next. The person you become is a product of the effort you put in to get there. A journey is a time of danger and risk that gives you a unique opportunity to connect with Hashem. When we return safely from a perilous journey or have just been healed from an operation, we say Bircat HaGomel, a special prayer to thank Hashem for helping us through. When we take a long trip, we say Tefilat HaDerech, a prayer in which we ask Hashem to guide us to our destination safely and successfully. At the end of Tefilat HaDerech, we bless Hashem for being “Shomea T’fillah,” hearing our prayers, at all times, but especially on the dangerous road.
My own journey toward a license has just begun, and it’s moving at a speed that is both terrifying and exhilarating (unlike the car, which will not be hitting the highway until I actually know what I’m doing, thank you very much).
Sept. 4 was both my first day of school and my 16th birthday. I waited in line outside a New York State Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) with my dad thirty minutes before it opened, praying. Within minutes, I would be taking the test that determined if I earned a permit and the right to get behind the wheel.
Not long after the doors opened, the permit test takers were called up, and I got a number. I had only been sitting on a bench for a couple of minutes when I was called up to one of the counters. “We can let you take your test now,” the lady behind the counter told me, “but the photo system’s down—statewide. We can’t check your documents or give you a permit until the people in Albany get it working again.” My Dad and I exchanged looks.
Nevertheless, I was able to take the test. I went to a testing station to take the permit test on a computer. The pressure was a little scary, but the test wasn’t bad at all. I finished the twenty multiple choice questions quickly and passed with flying colors. I proceeded to sit there occupying myself by reading a book for a good two or three hours until they announced that the photo system was back up again. Finally! It wasn’t long before I was holding my shiny new—well, actually it was a slip of paper labeled “interim permit” which would allow me to drive until the real thing arrived in the mail in seven to 14 business days, but it’s the thought that counts.
A few days later, my mom and I were in the car heading out for my first driving trip ever. After all, I needed some practice before my fall session of Driver’s Ed started in three days. What a scary concept.
We tried a couple of industrial parks full of businesses that should be closed on Sunday, but there were cars, vans, buses and trucks in the parking lots. One of the signs said “MAX” in really big letters, evidently the name of some other business, but it felt almost like it was yelling a reprimand at me, Rena Max, for not having tried driving yet.
We eventually pulled into the parking lot of Nassau Coliseum, which was empty, thankfully. There, my Mom spent hours patiently talking me through the basics of driving. When I kept driving with both feet, one on the brake and the other on the accelerator, she told me that my left foot shouldn’t be involved at all (pretty hard for a leftie to grasp), and suggested I take off my shoe to get into the habit of not using that foot. She taught me how to stay in one lane, make a U-turn, stop properly at stop signs and use the drive, park and reverse gears. She winced silently when I took a wrong turn and edged a wheel onto the curb. I even practiced driving through a drop-off circle.
I’m still a long way away from being a fully competent driver. Driver’s Ed, like growing up, is going to take time—and it won’t be easy or pretty. But I’ll have my parents, my friends, my instructor to help me through it, and, of course, Hashem.