The passengers aboard the "Tanista" were enjoying a sunny, relaxing voyage to the Bahamas. Nearly everyone was on deck, basking in the balmy breezes, when heavy clouds appeared on the horizon. A squall had arisen to the north, and it was drawing nearer by the minute.
The change was dramatic. The sun-drenched decks were suddenly cold and windy. The ship started to lurch from side to side. The seamen quickly rolled up the sails, as mothers herded their young charges down to the cabins. All but the most adventurous travelers turned away from the deck and sought cover from the heavy drops of rain that started to pelt the ship.
One minute, huge waves towered over the ship, then crashed onto the deck, smashing everything in sight; then the ship plunged into a trough, like the shell of an empty nut, entirely at the mercy of the foaming waves. Up and down the vessel went, from the crest of one wave to the foaming trough that inevitably followed.
Soon the decks were stark and barren; everything had been washed over the side. The storm did not stop there. The winds seemed bent on taking the small vessel apart, plank after plank. The rudder was lost, and now torrents of water were blown on high, then crashed down against the masts and the deck. There was a sickening crack of wood – once, twice – and the main mast gave way.
With that, the gales were spent. The force of the wind abated gradually, and the torrential downpour abated to a heavy rain, and then to a mere drizzle. When the sun finally peered out again from amongst the clouds, it shone on the battered wreckage of what had once been an orderly, shipshape, seaworthy vessel, with only the stars to guide them.
The captain immediately took charge and issued orders to his staff. They were lost at sea; water and food were strictly rationed. What remained of the sails and mast must be repaired as quickly as possible. Each swallow of water, each bit of food, left them with the dread that they were that much closer to dieing of starvation and thirst. Together, they prayed for a miracle that would bring their salvation.
Three days later, a voice rang out from the top of what remained of the mast. "Ship ahoy!" All eyes turned to the same direction, straining to spot another vessel in the distance. Indeed, the younger passengers called out excitedly: "Look! A ship! We're saved!"
The excitement grew, as all rushed to the railing. "A ship! Thank Heaven! Our prayers have been answered!"
Those who had relatives and friends below rushed down to share the good news. They would live! They would see their families and homes once again!
The ship's horns were sounded, and with renewed strength they all shouted: "Ship ahoy! Save us!"
Indeed, the vessel changed its course and veered in their direction. The passengers and crew were ecstatic. Their ordeal would soon be over. There would be as much water to drink as they wanted, and food aplenty. It was only a mater of another hour or two until they and their belongings would be safely aboard the ship that had come to their rescue.
They stood there, glued to the spot, watching the rescue ship as it drew ever nearer. Spirits were high, until someone exclaimed: "A fog! Look, there to the left. It's coming our way!"
All heads turned, and a collective moan escaped the lips of the nearly-rescued. What would they do now? It was only a matter of minutes until they would be completely enveloped in a cloud of fog.
How would the passing ship find them? They knew that if it slipped by without locating them in the haze, it would merely continue on its way and leave them to their bitter fate.
Their golden chance to live and rejoin their loved one would be lost completely. Distraught with despair, the passengers began to moan, weep, pray, and cry out in anguish.
The captain, however, kept his wits about him. Quickly he dispatched several hands to go below and gather every lamp and reflector they could find, from the large search light to the smallest chimney lamp, and bring it up on deck. The crew quickly had everything alight. Now, even in the thickest fog, they would surely be visible to their rescuers.
And, indeed, it was only a matter of time until the two ships drew near, and Heaven be praised, all were saved.
Last year, we also experienced the High Holy Days. After weighing our past, we decided to improve our ways. We resolved not to repeat past mistakes. Then we embarked on a new year, with our course firmly set. Our destination was clearly fixed in our minds, and we were determined not to stray from the route we had chosen to follow. This year, we assured ourselves, we would keep all the promises we made, both to Heaven, and to ourselves.
But the storms that arose en route – whether petty desires, physical difficulties, technical tribulations, or "unauthorized" emotions that seem to spring up, unbeckoned, from nowhere – set us back on our course of travel, and often led us astray. The evil inclination always seemed to know just when the time was ripe to snatch the helm from our hand and to change our course in life before we were even aware of what had happened.
We were lost even before we realized that our course has changed.
Now it is Elul again, time to prepare ourselves for a new year. We make a reckoning of the past twelve months, and we see that the supply of fresh water is running low. We are short of mitzvahs and merits with which to close our accounts for the year that is about to come to an end.
How shall we pay our debts?
We turn to Heaven and ask for mercy. We sound the shofar and recite the Selichos prayers to gain merit in the eyes of Him "who listens with mercy to the sound of the shofar blasts of His people Israel."
We find our way back to the right path and start to move forward.
When the Satan sees that his prey is slipping between his fingers, and our salvation is about to come, he darkens our world with a heavy fog that dulls our sensitivities, lest we return to our Maker in full teshuvah and repentance.
A ship stranded on the high seas, light strong lamps to guide its rescuers to it; we, too, must kindle the flames of prayer within us, so that their light and warmth will guide us to our destination and we will return to our Creator with all our heart.