Feivel lived in the village of Dommski, in Eastern Europe, about one hundred-fifty years ago. Like his fellow Jews, he was not allowed to own farm land, or to engage in any number of other businesses or professions. The government did not feel itself responsible to see that a Jew had a respectable way of feeding himself and his family; rather, their concern was to see that the Jews not compete with the gentile citizens in their professions. His majesty’s duly appointed representatives also to saw to it that an inordinately large percentage of whatever a Jew managed to earn, ended up in the coffers of His Royal Highness’ Treasury, and not in the pocket of an infidel Jew.
This being the case, it was no great wonder that many otherwise upright, G-d-fearing Jews found their living by selling contraband, merchandise which had been smuggled over the border without being declared, and without anyone having paid import duties on it.
Feivel was one of the unfortunate Jews who found no other way of keeping at least bread, if not butter, on his family’s table. He would load his cart with fine fabrics, and then hire a wagon to take him through the by-ways that wandered through the forest and led to Yallenburgh, on the other side of the border.
It was no pleasant journey, trying to sneak one’s way over the border with a heavily-laden wagon of goods. From the time they left the safety of the village, headed in the direction of the border, Feivel’s heart would pound. What if they caught him this time? What punishment would they mete out? Would he get away with only a fine? He dared not try to imagine what would be his fate if Heaven forbid, they decided to cast him into the dungeon.
Hirschel the wagon driver was far more relaxed. As he guided his horses toward the path running through the forest, he enjoyed the good weather, kept an eye on the state of the bog to the left of the road, and took in the cheerful chirping of the many birds who seemed to be serenading this balmy spring day.
They entered the forest. Feivel began to recite psalms and plead with his Maker to guard him and his family from all evil, including detection by a border official. Hirschel drove on unperturbed; what could he do?
He also had to make a living, and if a customer asked to be driven along the road in the forest, what concern was it of his?
However, as they drew closer to the border, Hirschel began to have second thoughts. If the authorities caught Feivel, they might vent their anger on him, as well. The guards might even accuse him of having known what was in the crates, and being a partner in the profits Feivel was hoping to earn.
Hirschel’s heart also started to thump, and his breath came in short, shallow gulps. What would they do to him? Would they confiscate his wagon and his horses, because he was involved in an attempt to avoid paying customs duties?
He, too, started to recite chapters of the psalms that he knew by heart.
Slowly the horses pulled the heavy load forward. Hirschel’s ear was cocked for the slightest telltale sound. He and Feivel hardly breathed as the wagon crept along. Both of them strained every muscle they had as they surveyed the forest for any sign of someone lurking in the thicket, just waiting for a hapless Jew to fall into his clutches.
Now, only the horses breathed freely and enjoyed the warm spring weather. To them it was all the same. Border, shmorder! What mattered to them was that a generous bag of feed awaited them when they reached their destination. What difference where they were? That was no concern of theirs!
When the month of Elul arrives, some of us become tense and start to ask: What will be? Will we have enough merit to be inscribed for a good new year?
Such people are like Feivel. They realize what lies ahead of them, and are aware of the risks involved. As soon as the month of Elul arrives, they begin making a reckoning of how well they lived up to their commitments to G-d, and what areas still need improvement. They will arrive at Rosh Hashanah well prepared.
Others can be compared to Hirschel, the wagon driver. At first, it’s just another drive in the country for him. He knows the road well, and doesn’t think about the danger that lies ahead. His heart starts to pound only when he draws near the border. But once he thinks about it, he takes every possible precaution to protect himself.
Such individuals remain relatively calm when the month of Elul begins, but when it’s time for Selichos, the week before Rosh Hashanah, they suddenly realize what lies ahead. Now they take themselves into hand and seriously start to prepare themselves for the Day of Judgment.
Who remains calm all along the way?
Only the horse. He doesn’t get nervous at any stage of the trip, even when the wagon is stopped for inspection. He’s only an animal; there is no spiritual aspect to his existence. He has nothing to fear when the border comes in sight.
Similarly, those whose spirituality has atrophied from disuse, do not grow so apprehensive with the approach of the Day of Judgment. They have grown accustomed to thinking only in terms of their physical well-being, with the result that their souls gradually become insensitive to matters of the spirit.
Like Hirschel’s horses, they are harnessed to a wagon; they drag along with them the weight of their physical concerns, and trot confidently along the path before them with no thought for their ultimate destination. The Day of Judgment will find them totally unprepared, with limit merit to earn them an additional year of blessing and good health.
The shofar calls to us right from the first day of Elul. If we choose to be like Feivel, we’ll be alert to any sign of danger right from Day One. If not, we may turn out to be like Hirschel; when we start to recite Selichos, about a week before Rosh Hashanah, we’ll prick up our ears and be on the alert for any signs of danger.
But those who prefer to remain like the horses, will just breeze through the months of Elul and Tishrei with nary a thought to where their chosen path leads them. Unfortunately, when the day of reckoning comes, they will find themselves with empty hands, and hearts full of regret.
Who are we? Feivel, Hirschel, or the horse?
That’s up to us!