“Please God,” he prayed. “Please let me live. For the sake of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. For the sake of Moses and Aaron. For the sake of Joshua and Samuel. For the sake of Kings David and Solomon. For the sake of all of the Prophets and all the great Rabbis. For the sake of Your mercy and kindness. For the sake of Jerusalem and Your Holy Land. Get me out of this swamp and I will drain it myself empty handed. I’ll plow up the wilderness and plant field after field with seeds. Just give me another chance to be a better man than I’ve been.”
When the mule sank down to its neck, Tevye broke out in a sweat. His own legs were completely covered with water. If he got off the mule, he would drown. If he tried to walk, he would be trapped in the mud. Only by staying put where he was on the animal’s back could he hope to keep his own head above water. Maybe the mule would stop sinking. Maybe morning would come. Maybe someone would see them.
Seconds crept by like minutes. Minutes like hours. An hour passed as slowly as a lifetime of days. Tevye kept praying. He kept clinging to hope. He reminded himself of the teaching of the Sages – even if a sword rested on the nape of a man’s neck, it was forbidden to cave in to despair. Millimeter after millimeter, the mule sank into the quicksand. Water reached Tevye’s waist. With tears in his eyes, the words of King David’s Psalms poured out from his soul. They were the only lifeline that could save him.
“I will lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence comes my help. My help comes from the Lord, who made the heaven and the earth. The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night….The Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.” Tevye prayed for what seemed like hours. When the body of the mule disappeared, and only its neck stuck out from the swamp, it turned to stare mournfully at Tevye. Its large, frightened eyes looked at its rider imploringly, as if to say, “Why don’t you get off of my back?”
“What can I do, my good friend?” Tevye replied. “If I climb off your back, I’ll end up like you.”
The head of the mule began to sink in the water.
“I know, it doesn’t seem fair,” Tevye lamented. “After all, you have four legs, and I only have two. If saving a life was decided on the basis of that, I should be the one to sacrifice my meager existence for you.”
Soon only the creature’s eyes and ears could be seen over the shroud of black water
“You should know,’’ Tevye said in words meant to comfort the both of them, “that dying in the Holy Land is a great privilege. Everyone buried in its soil goes straight up to heaven. All of his sins are forgiven, just as if he brought a sacrifice on the sacred Temple altar. So be happy, my friend. You go down, not in disgrace, but in triumph.”
The animal’s head disappeared underwater. As if in concern for its master, the mule met its fate without panic, without even a shudder. A great love for the creature welled up in Tevye’s heart.
“Forgive me, my friend,” he said in farewell.
Slowly, the animal’s ears vanished from view. A few bubbles broke the surface of the swamp, and then a deathly silence seized the night. The silence of buzzing mosquitoes.
Miraculously, the mule didn’t topple over into the swamp. Embalmed in the quicksand, it stood rigidly upright, as if still protecting its rider. Tevye continued to squeeze the animal’s ribs with his legs. Swamp water reached up to his chest. Its stench made him gasp for a breath of fresh air. But he was afraid to inhale too deeply, in fear of losing his tenuous balance. Centimeter by centimeter, he felt himself sinking into his grave. Minutes passed. Before long, only his head stuck out of the water. Trembling, his hands clutched onto the ears of the invisible mule in the damp tomb below him.