(photo credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
On a cold, wintry night, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Horowitz of Ropczyce (1760-1827) was
traveling in his wagon as the rain pelted down.
The wagon-driver tried
intently to navigate the paths, but eventually the wheels got bogged in the mud.
The wagon-driver got out of the wagon and began to push, but it would not
With due respect, the wagon-driver approached Rabbi Naftali: “My
master, I know that the wagon is my responsibility; it is my job to drive the
wagon, and when it gets stuck it is my task to push the wagon. On this occasion,
however, I am unable to get the wagon out of the mud alone. Perhaps you could
assist me, for as the verse says, two are better than one (Ecclesiastes 4:9),
and if we are unable to free the wagon, I fear that we may be stuck here until
the summer!” Rabbi Naftali joined the wagon-driver in the mud and began to push,
as the rain continued to pelt down. After much slipping, sliding and falling,
the two were covered in mud. Rabbi Naftali raised his eyes toward the heavens
and cried out: “Master of the universe, it is clear to me that we are stuck in
the mud, in the middle of the road, far from any settlement, because you want me
to repent for my sins. But how can I repent when I am wet to the bone and
covered in mud? Dear God, get us out of this filth and take us home; we will dry
off, clean up, drink a l’haim to warm ourselves, and then we will repent
earnestly!” This is essentially the thrust of the penultimate verse of
Lamentations, a verse that is repeated by the whole congregation after the
scroll is read on Tisha Be’av, and a verse that appears regularly in our
prayers: “Return us to You, O God, and we will return; renew our days as of old”
(Lamentations 5:21). We beseech the Almighty to take the first step: Get us out
of this mire, and then we will repent.
Alas, the Almighty’s response
reverses the order: “Return to me, and I will return to you, says God of the
hosts” (Malachi 3:7). It is incumbent upon us to take the first step to get out
of the mud.
Recalling the Exodus from Egypt, the Almighty says: “I carried you on the wings
of eagles and brought you to me” (Exodus 19:4). Why the wings of eagles? Our
sages explain that while other birds carry their chicks under their wings, the
eagle carries its young on its back in an effort to protect them, lest an arrow
be shot from the ground.
Far from the hassidic tradition, the German
thinker Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) reportedly added: How do the
chicks get onto the back of the eagle? Clearly the eagle cannot pick them up and
put them there. To get the protection of the eagle, the chicks need to make the
initial effort and climb onto their parent’s back.
Hassidic lore does not
record how long Rabbi Naftali and his wagon-driver were stuck, but the tale is
often told during the month of Elul as we prepare for the Days of Awe. The name
of the Hebrew month, Elul, is an acronym for the verse “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li,”
meaning “I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me” (Song of Songs 6:3).
First we must be for our beloved – referring to the Almighty – and then God will
be for us. There is a similar verse where the order is reversed: “Dodi li va’ani
lo” – my beloved is for me and I for him (ibid 2:16). Alas, the month is not
called Dlul; the first step to forming or improving the relationship must be
ours.The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies
and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.