“Return us to You, O God, and we will return; renew our days as of old.”
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 budge.
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.