Many of you know Kurt F. Stone by his outstanding, long running blog, The K.F. Stone Weekly, but what you may NOT realize is that he has written many other things that have rarely, if ever, been made public. Being a close personal friend of his for over 25 years, I encouraged him to let these short stories see the literary dawn of light. The result is nine selections of short stories each of various lengths and subject matter. I believe you will be most pleased and even surprised at what you read below.
NOTE: With the exception of the very first story just below, you can click on any story name and it will bring you straight to the story. At the end of each story, you will see a link that will bring you back to the top of the page, so you can click on the next story to read. Enjoy!
The Prince Who Thought He Was a Rooster
Once upon a time there was a king who had a son, and for reasons unknown, the boy had actually come to believe that he was a rooster. No matter what his father, his mother, or anyone in the palace might say, he persisted in this strange belief. And to make matters even worse, he decided that since roosters did not wear clothing, he would go about in a perpetual state of nakedness! Furthermore, he reasoned, since roosters did not dine like humans, he would take all his meals sitting on the floor beneath his father’s vast dining table. To say the least this greatly upset the king. After all, who wanted a son who ran about naked, dined under a table, pecked at the ground with his nose and generally wished to be treated like a rooster?
Beside himself with worry and not knowing what to do, the king began consulting magicians, seers and keepers of dark magic – all to no avail. No one had the slightest idea how to deal with the boy. One day, a wise man told the king: “While I do not know how to deal with the lad, I believe there is one person who might actually know what to do. He is a very wise scholar who lives nearby.”
“Bring him here at once!” the king proclaimed. And so the scholar came before the king.
The king explained the situation with his son to the aged scholar, who listened intently, all the while stroking his beard.
“It is peculiar, I must admit,” the scholar said after the king had finished his tale of woe. “But I do believe that there is something we can do about his condition.” The king was pleased to hear the scholar’s words.
“What must we do?” the king asked.
“Leave me here in the dining hall with your son for a day or two. Let no one enter the room while we are together. I believe that at the end of our time together, your son should return to a state of near normality.”
“What do you mean by ‘near normality’?” the king asked. “Cannot you promise me that he will be restored to perfect health?”
“All I can promise is that I will do the best I can,” the scholar said with a twinkle in his eye. “And now, if you will be so kind, please leave us alone.”
Once the king had departed, the scholar took off all his clothes and crawled under the dining table, where, for the first time, he came face-to-face with the young prince.
Seeing the naked old man, the boy became afraid. “Who are you and what do you want?” the prince asked.
“Why I am an old rooster,” said the scholar, “don’t you recognize me as such?”
“Oh yes, certainly,” the boy said. After a few brief formalities, the two began conversing about the lives of roosters.
After about an hour, the scholar said to the young man: “You know, I like you very much. I don’t believe that I’ve met as nice a young rooster as you in quite some time.”
The prince smiled at this compliment. Then the scholar added:
“You know, I have been a rooster far, far longer than you. I have learned many things in my time that I would love to share with you. Perhaps even a secret or two that I’ve never, ever shared with anyone else.”
“Such as?” the boy asked with a bit of skepticism.
The scholar began to speak . . .
“Permit me to tell you a secret,” the scholar said in a singsong lilt. “I have learned that nowhere is it written ‘A rooster must go about without a shirt of blouse.’ I admit that few – if indeed any – roosters wear shirts or blouses, but again I say, nowhere, so far as I know is it forbidden. Why don’t we put on shirts? We can still be roosters. Remember, I am far older that you, and have thus been a rooster far longer. What do you say?”
Thinking it over, the young prince decided that, in fact, there was nothing wrong with a rooster wearing a shirt. Especially if this aged rooster so taught. And so, the two put on shirts and continued sitting under the table.
After more conversation, the scholar told the lad: “You know, I have never learned or heard that it is wrong for a rooster to go about in a pair of trousers. I do admit that it is a bit peculiar, but certainly not forbidden. Why don’t we put on trousers? We can still be roosters, even if we are clad in shirts and trousers. Remember, I am far older than you, and have thus been a rooster far longer. What do you say?”
As with the shirt, the prince agreed to put on a pair of trousers. Thus clad, the two continued conversing under the table.
"You know,” the scholar finally said, “there is virtually nothing in the world that says that a rooster must eat on the floor. So far as I know and have learned, it is perfectly permissible for roosters to dine at table. Oh, I admit it is a bit unusual, but it is certainly not forbidden. Remember, I am far older than thee, and have thus been a rooster far longer. What do you say?”
Pondering the scholar’s comment for a few moments, the prince agreed. The two then crawled out from under the table and sat at chairs facing each other. The boy looked directly at the scholar and asked: “But are we still roosters?”
"Of course we are,” said the scholar. “We are every bit roosters despite the fact that we are clad in blouses and trousers, and are sitting and eating at a table with knives, forks and spoons. The trick here involves a deep dark secret.”
“Which is?” the boy asked in utter fascination.
“That only you and I know that we are truly roosters! It does not matter one iota that the rest of the world considers you to be a prince or me a scholar. Let that be their delusion. Permit me to suggest that if it turns out in the end of days that we are the only ones who know that we are truly roosters -- well, so be it. It shall be our little secret”
The prince gave thought to the scholar’s suggestion and decided that he had spoken wisely.
And from that day on, the lad continued living like a prince of flesh and blood. On the surface and to all concerned, he appeared to have returned to normal. The only thing was that he carried a deep dark secret all the days of his life:
That in reality, the prince was really a rooster!
This too, shall pass
Solomon, the wisest of kings, so we are told, had more than a thousand wives. As such, it is readily understandable that he also had innumerable children. One of his sons, a lad of 14 or 15, was among his favorites. Most regrettably, the boy suffered from what today we moderns would likely call “depression.” Being as wise as he was, Solomon recognized the condition. More importantly, he understood its origin: the boy felt that no matter whom he was what he thought or what he might accomplish during his lifetime, he could never be anything like his father. And this depressed him.
In considering his son’s plight, Solomon readily understood that it would not suffice for him to merely tell the boy, “Look, you don’t have to be as smart, as wise, or as beloved as me. It truly doesn’t really matter. I will always consider you to be very special no matter what.” This, the king realized, would never act as a tonic for his son’s troubled self psyche. What was needed, the king reasoned, was something truly special – something that would permit the boy to hold his head up high and feel his uniqueness. Solomon gave the situation many weeks of serious thought, and finally came up with a plan. Once he had decided on precisely how best to handle the situation with his son, he set the royal minter upon the task of coming up with an utterly unique gift – a coin made of the finest ruby on one side, the finest sapphire on the other. When the coin was at last delivered into Solomon’s hand it was perfect; precisely what he wanted.
He then called for his son.
“My son,” Solomon said to the boy, whose eyes were cast toward the ground, his shoulders bent forward, “I have a gift for you – something that none of your brothers or sisters will ever possess. It is just for you.”
“Thank you father,” the boy responded listlessly. “What is it?”
“A very special coin that teaches a lesson no one else in this family knows.” And with that he placed the coin in the boy’s left hand. Looking at the coin, the boy managed a wan smile, and looking at his father, he asked: “what is the value of this coin?”
“Its value?” King Solomon said, rising from his throne. “Why it is absolutely priceless! And let me tell you that its value is not even remotely dependent on the relative price of the ruby or sapphire from which it has been minted. Rather, its value resides in the wisdom that is etched upon it. It is a coin that will make you wiser than anyone in the world.”
“Wiser than anyone?” the boy asked, his eyes beginning to show signs of life. “What does it teach?”
“Hold the coin in your hand, ruby-side up, and close your fist,” his father commanded. This the boy did. “Now,” the king gently said, “You know those feelings you get that make you sense that everything is down, every attempt is doomed to failure, the world is a vicious snake pit, and every time you turn toward the right you should have turned toward the left?”
“Without question,” the boy responded with a derisive laugh. “That’s my normal state of mind. What in the world can the coin do to help me?”
“When I tell you, open up your fist and read what is etched upon the coin. It contains a kernel of vital wisdom that will lift your spirits, straightened your shoulders, stiffen your spine and give you the ability to deal with the world in a state of joy and gladness.” The boy looked at his father in disbelief; then he looked down at his closed fist.
“Please, open your hand and read aloud this profound truth,” Solomon said.
Slowly opening his fist, the boy looked at the red side of the coin. Casting his eyes upon his message, he read aloud the Hebrew words “gahm ze ya-ah-vor “– namely, “this too shall pass.”
“You see,” Solomon said, “This side of the coin comes to teach that virtually everyone – including myself – has times when every white is black, every up is down, and every good is evil. The wisdom contained on this side of the coin teaches that such a condition is only temporary. Do you understand?” he asked.
“Yes father, I do,” the boy answered, beginning to stand just a bit straighter. “I never for one moment thought that the way I feel could have any ending except death. Are you sure that this lesson is true?”
“Without question,” his father said. “Now, once you crawl out of the pit of your despondency – which I know you shall – everything will start going quite well for you. In matter of fact, things will start going so very well, that you will actually begin thinking that your previous condition was all a chimera – a figment of your imagination. You will undoubtedly come to feel that any direction you take will be the proper one, any act you attempt will turn out successfully, and every day will be better than the last. It is at such a time that you should look at the blue side of the coin. Now, turn it over and read its secret wisdom out loud.”
Turning the coin over, the boy peered at what was etched on into the sapphire.
“What does it say?” his father asked.
“Why it says the very same thing – gahm ze ya-ah-vor – this too shall pass,” the boy said in astonishment. “But what does it mean?”
“It means,” Solomon gently said,” that in order to get through this life, you must understand the lesson of balance. Nothing is forever. No streak of bad luck is infinite. No time of good fortune lasts forever. Balance: this is the key. And believe me, this is a true gem of wisdom that virtually none or your brothers or sisters possess. I command you to keep this coin upon your person from this day forth. And even when you have carefully memorized and taken to heart its profound meaning, you must keep it with you. It shall serve as a lesson for you in all times – both the good and the bad. It will, in short, make life far more livable.”
“Thank you so much father,” the boy said, smiling a broad honest smile for the first time in his life. “I cannot think of a better gift or a better lesson. And now, if you will excuse me, I think I will go out and walk in the sunshine.”
“But it is a cloudy day,” the king said with a trace of humor in his voice.
“Yes, I know,” his son said. “But for me, the clouds have parted and the sun is shining. May I go?”
“Certainly my son; enjoy the sunshine,” King Solomon said.
The son departed from his father’s presence.
And from that day forth, his depression, like the clouds in the heavens, began to part, for he had learned the vital lesson of balance.
Gahm ze ya-ah-vor – “This too shall pass.”
THE PIANISTS: A PARABLE
(Note: The following was discovered on a papyrus scroll in a cave. Due to its extreme age, estimated at not less than 1,800 years old, there were many gaps (or lacunae) which made the text difficult to render. To the best of our ability, this is what the story contained . . .)
Once upon a time long ago, a group of weary wanderers received a Divine Commandment from on high. It forever changed their lives. The resonating basso voice of the Nameless Muse said, “Thou hast been chosen for greatness. Hear now this commandment which I command thee this day: Thou shalt become Piano Players and lovers of music. Throughout all thy generations, thou shalt diligently teach thy children to study and to practice, to play and to love, the music of the Piano. For Piano shall be thy life and the length of thy days. It shall add glory, meaning and contentment to thy lives. Piano shall fulfill thy souls . . . . I am thy Muse.”
To help facilitate their lives, Co* [This pronoun means "he/she"] gave them a manuscript with explicit step-by-step instructions on how to build a proper piano. To further guide them along their path, the Muse also provided the Piano Players (or Pianists as they eventually took to calling themselves) with The Holy Score, which contained Sonatas, Fantasies, and Concertos, Partitas, Trios and Quartets. Needless to say, those hearing the Muse’s Divine Directive were moved beyond compare; slowly they began seeking the means to fulfill Co’s awesome decree. This they did throughout their generations, as they continued wandering the wilderness, ever searching for their place in the sun.
After many years of meandering, the nascent Pianists did find a permanent home in a land called “Pastorale.” Once settled, they began devoting their lives to Piano and its attendant joys. Over many generations, they became renowned for the skill and artistry, the dedication and single-mindedness with which they fulfilled their Prime Command. They endlessly studied the Holy Score, adding breathtaking variations and brilliantly original compositions of their own. They were a happy people living happy, creative lives. But there were dark clouds on the horizon. . .
Other peoples, other cultures (whom they simply referred to as Outsiders) mocked, scorned and even persecuted the Pianists. To the Outsiders, this people – the Pianists – seemed so different, so utterly foreign as to be an unsettling, unspoken threat. And in a strange sense, they were. For owing to the extreme discipline required in order to become players of Piano and lovers of music, the Pianists generally kept to themselves; they lived by apart from all others. They even developed their own language with which to speak amongst themselves; they called it P’santayr. Not having been witness to the original Command on High, The Outsiders could not understand the commitment and devotion with which the Pianists lived their lives. They kept strange hours and seemed to do nothing but practice, practice, practice. They played pieces from the Holy Score religiously three times each day. One day in seven they rested, doing nothing but attending the Odeon – their place of musical devotion – where they praised the Divine Muse for the gift of Piano. They dressed alike and all ate high protein diets. They rarely participated in activities that The Outsiders considered “important” or “necessary.” How, The Outsider’s wondered, could any people devote so much of their lives to something as frivolous and nonproductive as Piano playing and music? How could they be so terribly obedient to the wishes of a Muse they could not see?
Because of their uniqueness, the Pianists were often persecuted. In fact, many Outsider cultures tried to eliminate them. Many believed that the Piano Players were a malevolent, monolithic force bent upon taking over the entire world; of turning everyone on the face of the earth into Pianists. Strangely, others saw in the Piano Players not an overarching power, but rather an inherent weakness; one which made them susceptible to the will of The Devil. Against all reason, the Outsiders became convinced that the Piano Players believed themselves to be better than everyone else . . . although this certainly was not the case. True, the Muse had long ago informed the Pianists that they were Co’s “Chosen People.” But that did not make them better – only chosen. But Chosen for what? Why to be Players of Piano and devotees of music – not an easy task when you think about it. No, they were not better, but they were different and unique. Unfortunately, few Outsiders asked that seminal question: “Chosen for what?” As a result of their lack of curiosity, many Outsiders could not (and still cannot) understand that people who are “different” or “unique” need not be feared.
After generations of living lives of extraordinary creativity and happiness in Pastorale, the Pianists were conquered by Outsiders and forced to leave their homeland. Before long, they were dispersed to the four corners of the earth. As the generations came and went, the Pianists contributed greatly to the countries and cultures in which they found themselves living, even though they continued to be scorned, persecuted and even feared for their uniqueness. To the Outsider way of thinking, they just did not – and could not, would not – fit in. Nonetheless, the Pianists did continue to provide both themselves and the entire world with sonatas, concertos and symphonies of dazzling brilliance and profundity. They created a body of musical literature that covered virtually every emotional aspect of life. No matter where they found themselves in the wide world, they continued to study, to play, and to luxuriate in the heavenly music they had been commanded to create. It gave their lives meaning and purpose, just as the Muse had predicted. And, despite the fact that they were grossly misunderstood and lived with the constant threat of danger, music continued to be the central focus of their lives – the driving force that kept them together as a people.
For more than 2,000 years, the Pianists lived in almost every country in the world. Never vast in number, they were nonetheless believed by the Outsiders to be an enormous monolithic people. And in a sense, one can understand how the Outsiders might reach this unwarranted conclusion. Because of their unique culture and common purpose, the Pianists did feel themselves to be a people, a single family. Theirs was a singular global connection. Since all Piano Players adhered to roughly the same daily ritual of practice and study, they understood each other’s lifestyles, needs and expectations. And since virtually every Pianist spoke P’santayr, they could easily communicate with one another whenever the need arose, no matter where they might be living.
For countless generations, Pianists would only marry amongst themselves. This they felt to be their sacred obligation. Whenever or wherever a community of Pianists might suffer, their fellows could always be counted on to come to their aid. Additionally, when finally permitted to enter mainstream professions – law, medicine, banking and academics – the Pianists tended to become rather successful. This was due in great part to the tremendous discipline and love of learning which had been instilled in them throughout all their generations. Simply stated, they approached each and every challenge as if it were party of the Holy Score. The Outsiders – perhaps through jealousy, or envy, or sheer ignorance – had a tendency to look upon their success as positive proof that the Pianists were international conspirators – evil people bent upon taking over the entire world. But of course, nothing could have been further from the truth.
With the arrival of modern times, many strange things began to occur amongst the Piano Players. They found the pull of Outsider society to be increasingly strong and alluring. The time they devoted to playing Piano and studying music became less and less. While most considered themselves devoted Pianists in the cultural or historic sense, many turned away from the age-old forms of study and practice. They no longer trained their children for a lifetime of playing and love of music. Why? Well, many said that they were deeply concerned lest their children feel “odd” or “strange” around their Outsider neighbors. No longer did they play Piano three times a day, as had their ancestors. Rarely did they attend the Odeon on the Seventh Day. No longer did they steep their children in the musical culture of their grandfathers and grandmothers.
Instead, they took to sending them to twice-weekly lessons for three or four years in order to learn to play but a single piece of Piano music – and largely by rote at that. The parents rarely, if ever, took their children to the Odeon on the Seventh Day. In far too many homes, the children were unable to practice, for the parents did not even have a Piano. The message these children often received was: “Piano must be important to you for the next several years.”
“Why?” their children would ask.
“Because we say so,” the parents would answer.
Often, they would add, “But, if after you have completed your lessons, you do not wish to continue, let that be your decision.” The children also questioned why something that should be important to them was rarely seen or heard within their own homes.
It was a very good question; a very good question indeed.
It eventually became the custom that at the age of thirteen, each child would play his or her single piece of music at a glorious recital that would be attended by family and friends. Plans for the recital (and the banquet that would follow) began years before the child knew how to locate Middle C, or had ever heard of Bach, Beethoven or Brahms. The day of the recital was filled with tension and anxiety, lest the child not “perform” up to capacity. It became increasingly obvious that many of those who attended these recitals did not have the slightest idea of how to act or what to expect. They had become, in short, a musically illiterate folk.
Many of those in attendance would recall their own recitals, and realize that it was really the last time they had ever played Piano, attended the Odeon, or devoted themselves to music. Some would remember their parents and grandparents, and how they had devoted their lives to the pursuit of Piano and music. But these children – the ones who played the single recital piece – were different. Despite the fact that they might play their single piece with ability and skill, they were incapable of reading the musical score or recognizing its worth. Moreover, few, if any, had the true love of music, which the Muse had long ago commanded. True to form, few would ever play Piano after their recital. This new generation merely went through the motions without much feeling or understanding. What they did understand, was that after the recital, they would receive gifts of money. After the performance, the family would throw a magnificent banquet that would last until all hours of the night. Quite often these festivities cost far more than the family could truly afford.
The elders grew fearful. “How silly it is to spent all that time and money just to teach our children a single piece of music,” they said. “And for what? For the sake of a single recital and a great feast? It is a tragedy. Our children no long truly know how to play Piano, speak P’santayr, or have that great love and devotion to music which has always been our heritage. Where will it all end?”
But the elders came to realize that they themselves were – at least in part – to blame. They were the ones who took to speaking P’santayr only when they did not wish their children to understand. Then too, they were the ones who let the very culture of Piano slowly slip through their fingers, preferring instead the ways of their non-Pianist, Outsider neighbors.
Fortunately, the elders, working in consonance with their children and grandchildren, came up with a solution that not only solved their growing problem, but actually caused a musical renaissance among the Pianists. In short, they . . .
(At this point, the manuscript, beset by generations of ravenous moths and worms, became unintelligible, thus leaving posterity to ponder just what that solution was . . .)
It’s all a Matter of Perspective . . .
Perspective – how we look at things – is truly interesting. A child of 9 views an adult of 30 as an old one. Yet, that same 30-year old sees himself or herself as a young adult. To a 75-year old, the 30-year old is not much more than a child. Then again, a person who is 4’ 11’’ sees a six-footer as a giant, while the person who is seven feet tall looks down upon the “midget” who is merely 6 feet. As someone once said: “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.” Perspective is, indeed, an important thing to keep in mind. The following story proves that point:
Once upon a time, the rabbi of a small town was paid an early-morning visit by his assistant, the rabbi’s gabbai.
“Rabbi,” the gabbai said, somewhat out of breath. “I am afraid that I have some terrible news for you.”
‘What is the problem?” the rabbi asked in an even tone.
“Well you see, master, our enemies have somehow poisoned the village’s entire water supply.”
“Oh my God,” the rabbi exclaimed. “And people are dying from drinking the poison?”
“No sir,” the gabbai responded, moving nervously from one foot to the other. “It is even worse than that.”
“What in the world could possibly be worse than their dying from drinking the poisoned well?” the rabbi asked, his face betraying a mounting fear.
“Drinking from the well doesn’t kill,” the gabbai explained. “What it does do is that it makes all who drink it go mad. I tell you, they go absolutely crazy! They are doing and saying the strangest things. They say that up is down and that down is up. They walk on their hands and sit on their heads. They are crazy!”
“And how many people have drunk from the well?” the rabbi asked, a worried look creasing his wizened brow.
“As far as I can tell – and I believe I am correct – we are the only people who haven’t had the water. And that is the terrible thing Rabbi,” the gabbai moaned, “This means that we are the only sane people left in the village.”
“I’m afraid it’s even worse than that,” the rabbi said in a sad, sad voice.
“What do you mean ‘even worse than that?’” the gabbai asked. “What could be worse than that?”
“You see, my dear gabbai,” the rabbi explained, “If what you say is correct – and I have no reason to doubt your words – if what you say is correct, than you and I are the only insane people in the village. It’s the rest of the people who are sane, for we are the only two who are different!”
Yes indeed: It’s all a matter of perspective – of how we look at things.
Thinking Can Be Nothing Short of Miraculous!
Once upon a time, during the Spanish Inquisition, it was the custom of the King to hold debates between learned Rabbis and bishops of the Catholic Church. The purpose of these debates – known as disquisitions – was for the bishops to prove that Judaism was and is an inferior, unworthy religion. Further, the King would command (under pain of death) that all the Jews of wherever the disquisition was being held had to attend. In this way, the king reasoned, the entire Jewish would see that one religion was superior to the other. He believed that seeing this, the Jews would either willingly change religions or die. And in either case, so the king reasoned, he and his church would turn out the winner.
Turns out that the bishops would always best the Rabbis in debate – even if the Rabbis were, in reality, smarter or more learned. How could this be? Simple. The King guaranteed the outcome by threatening the Rabbis with terrible death should they actually win! In other words, the Rabbis would always enter the disquisition knowing that even before a single word had been uttered what the outcome would be: lose or be killed.
Once, the King brought his traveling disquisition to the great city of Seville, where an enormous number of Jews lived. On the day of the disquisition, all the Jews of Seville, as commanded, gathered in the great synagogue. What made this disquisition different is that the king attended, along with a select group of his closest friends – Spanish lords and ladies. Moments before the disquisition began, the Rabbi of Seville was told that should he win the debate, he would die. Hearing this, the Rabbi determined that in order to be true to God, his religion, his fellow Jews and himself, he had to win the disquisition.
And so the debate began. For each negative point the bishop raised about the Jewish faith, the Rabbi had a brilliant answer. For every question the Rabbi raised about the bishop’s faith, the bishop had no response.
“It is not that one religion is better than the other,” the Rabbi said. “Rather, Judaism is perfect for Jews, and Catholicism is perfect for Catholics. Furthermore,” the Rabbi said, turning his back on the bishop and looking directly at the King, “No one has the right to command another person to adopt a particular religion or way of life. This is a matter between God and the individual.”
In the end, everyone assembled in the great synagogue – including the King and all his noble friends – knew that the Rabbi had come out on top. The King was beside himself with anger – both at his bishop for losing the disquisition, and the Rabbi, for making a fool out of both his bishop and, so he thought, his religion.
Arising from his place of honor in the front row, the King bellowed: “Because of the grave insult you have given here today, I command that you, Rabbi, and all the Jews of Seville, be put to death!”
The Rabbi was shocked at the King’s decree. Summoning his courage, he faced the King and said, “Your majesty, while I can perhaps understand your anger against me, I cannot fathom what you have against all these innocent men, women and children. If it be your will that I should die, so be it. I don’t like that decree – in fact I loathe it – but I will nonetheless accept it. But for the love of God I beg you to spare the lives of the rest; to do otherwise would be both unjust and unbefitting a King of your stature and grandeur.”
Continuing to fume the King pondered the Rabbi’s plea. While he pondered, all his noble friends looked his way, awaiting their royal patron’s decision. After what seemed an eternity (at least to the Rabbi and the assembled Jews), the King announced, “I have made a decision. Whether you all shall live or all shall die is up to you and you alone, dear Rabbi!”
“What do you mean?” the Rabbi asked.
“Simply stated,” the King replied, “I shall take two pieces of parchment. On one, I shall write ‘you all shall live.’ On the other, I shall write ‘you all shall die.’ I will then fold and place both pieces in a small box. You will then select one. Whatever piece you select will determine your fate. Either you all shall live or you all shall die.” The assembled Jews were dumbfounded; the noblemen merely amused. For them, the King’s ploy was like a pleasant game.
The King then called for two pieces of parchment, a quill and a small bottle of ink. Once provided, the King proceeded to write – first on the one and then on the other. While he was so doing, the Rabbi stared intently at the King’s hand. Being a very learned man the Rabbi could tell what the King was writing merely by watching the movement of the quill. A cold shiver went up the Rabbi’s spine when he realized that the King had written ‘You all shall die’ on both pieces of parchment! The King then placed the two pieces in a small box, which he then gave to a servant, who in turn held it out to the Rabbi.
“Now choose Rabbi!” the King said in a loud, threatening voice. The Rabbi stood still, not moving a muscle.
‘We have a grave problem here,’ the Rabbi thought to himself. ‘It does not matter which piece of parchment I select. We all shall die. And to make matters worse, I cannot tell everyone here what I know about what the King has done, because that would cause him even further anger. And who know? Perhaps then he would not merely kill all of us; perhaps he would make matters worse by resorting to slow, painful torture. No, I must not make him out to be a liar in front of all his friends.’
“Well?” the King shouted. His voice boomed like a clap of thunder throughout the synagogue.
“One moment, my lord,” the Rabbi said in a clear steady voice. “I am thinking.”
“And what is there to think about?” the King asked.
“What is there to think about?” the Rabbi asked. “Well, I am contemplating all of God’s great gifts to man. If I am to meet my death – along with those of my family, friends and congregants, I want to leave this world in contemplation of the Holy One Praised Be He. Is that too much to ask?”
“I’m not asking you to run across the Pyrenees on your knees,” the King taunted, “Merely to select one of two pieces of parchment. Be on with it.”
The Rabbi continued standing still. In his mind, he was going through the various prayers of praise that he had known since his earliest days. Not only was he stalling for time – hoping for an answer that would stay the hand of fate – he was, as he said, honestly contemplating the glory of God. When he came to the pray: “Praised be you O Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who has given to the rooster the wisdom to discern between day and night,” the Rabbi knew he had found a way out of his horrible dilemma. . . .
‘Thank you dear God for giving us a mind with which to think,’ the Rabbi said under his breath. ‘It is incredible what the mind can do, given the necessity,’ he thought. He then proceeded with great confidence. Placing his hand in the box, he selected one piece of parchment. But before the King could say a word, the Rabbi put the parchment in his mouth and swallowed it.
“What in the world did you do that for?” the King asked, astonishment in his voice.
"Oh let us just say that I’ve always wanted to know what parchment tastes like,” the Rabbi responded. “Besides, what does it really matter in terms of our ultimate sentence of life or death? Obviously whichever parchment I have selected and swallowed, will become known to everyone once you read the parchment that remains. If the parchment in the box says ‘You all shall live,’ then I have obviously selected its opposite. But if the remaining parchment says ‘You all shall die,’ then everyone will know that I selected the piece that spares our lives.” Saying these words, the Rabbi stared intently at the King. He knew that the King would never reveal his treachery in front of all his friends – namely, that he had written ‘You all shall die’ on both pieces of parchment.
“If it please my lord the King,” the Rabbi said, “Please read to us what is on the remaining piece of parchment. In that way, we shall all know our fate.” Because of the manner in which the Rabbi spoke, all the Jews of Seville understood that somehow, a miracle had just been performed before their very eyes.
Looking at the Rabbi with eyes like daggers, the King mechanically put his hand into the box, took out the piece of parchment, and handed it to his servant.
“READ!” the King trumpeted. He continued looking at the Rabbi, but now his stare began to change from one of anger to grudging respect. The King knew that this Rabbi was truly wise, and that his God had performed a miracle on behalf of all the Jews of Seville.
“You all shall die!” the servant read aloud. With those words, a feeling of relief and thankfulness went up from all the assembled Jews.
“So be it,” the King said in a much softer voice. “The Rabbi has done very well indeed, and I am a man of my word.” With that, the King and all his assembled friends got up to leave. Looking at the Rabbi one last time, the King showed the bearded leader the slightest hint of a smile. He then nodded his head slightly to the Rabbi and turned to leave the synagogue.
For years and generations to come, the Jews of Seville told the story of the great miracle performed that day. What no one ever realized was that the miracle was really no miracle at all – just the result of a good mind doing some hard quick thinking.
Yes, thinking can be nothing short of miraculous.
Try it and see!
The rabbi and the roman matrona
Once upon a time, there was a young, wealthy, rather pretty Roman woman who was referred to as ‘Matrona.’ She loved nothing more than plaguing a wise, equally young rabbi with a series of petty, nonsensical questions. Truth to tell, she wasn’t all that interested in what the rabbi answers might be. Rather, she hoped that one day she would stump him – cause him to say, “I don’t know.” Then, she felt, she would be able to prove to herself (and perhaps the young rabbi as well) that all this talk about God and religion was without merit – as meaningless as a faded rose petal – and that she was, in fact, smarter than the man she questioned..
Take but one example. One day, she asked: “Can your God, whom you claim to be all-powerful, create a rock that is so heavy He cannot lift it?” As was her habit, she arched her eyebrow, smiled a devilish smile, and continued: “It seems to me that if the answer is ‘yes,’ then there is something He cannot do – namely lift the rock. However, if the answer is ‘no,’ – that he cannot create such a rock – then there is still something he cannot do. So what is the answer?” she asked with a mischievous look in her eye to the devilish smile on her lips.
The rabbi understood that Matrona didn’t care what the answer might be; she was merely in the market for gloating at both him and the God he so dearly loved. But the rabbi was far smarter than the inquiring Matrona. And so he said, “Actually, there is no answer to your question, because it is completely absurd. Long ago, one of our great sages taught us that the one thing we can never ask of God is that He be absurd, for absurdity is not reality! Have you any other questions?”
This was merely one of literally dozens of times the rabbi had bested her. On a particular day when Matrona came to visit the rabbi, she brought with her a question that she truly believed the rabbi could never satisfactorily answer. “You know rabbi,” she said, “In all the years we have been having these little question- and-answer sessions, I have learned a great deal about what you think and believe. For instance, I know you think that Moses was the greatest of the prophets, and that he lived to be 120 years of age. I know that amongst your people it is an article of faith that this God gave the Torah – the law – to that man Moses on Mount Sinai. I also know you believe that your God created the world in six days and then rested. Am I not correct?”
“Yes Matrona,” the rabbi said somewhat warily, “You are certainly correct. So what is your question this time?”
“My question,” the Matrona said with a large telling smile on her face, “is simply this: If God created the world in six days and then rested on the seventh, what in the world has He been doing ever since?”
“What has He been doing ever since?” the rabbi repeated, fearing that she might finally have posed a question for which there was no answer. “Ah, well,” he started, all the while thinking as fast as he could, “You see . . . ah . . . ever since God rested from His labors, he has been . . . has been . . .” Suddenly an idea popped into the rabbi’s mind, and he said bluntly, “He has been arranging marriages – acting as what we call a shadchan – a marriage broker.”
“In other words,” Matrona said, “He has been pairing off people so that they might marry?
“Precisely,” said the rabbi, his face refusing to betray a hint of sentiment.
"Is that it?” the Matrona asked with a smirk.
“What do you mean ‘is that it?’” the rabbi smiled, hoping that he had her going in a direction of his choosing.
“Well,” the Matrona said, choosing her words with care, “It seems to me that if that’s all God has been doing throughout history, that this God of yours is way too capricious – too whimsical – for my taste. I mean, bringing people together so that they might become married is the easiest thing in the world. It certainly does not take some all-powerful God to do that!”
The rabbi was overjoyed with her response, which was precisely what as he hoped it would be.
“If it’s as easy as you say why don’t you try your hand at it?” the rabbi asked. “Prove to me and yourself that making perfect matches is mere child’s play and no job for an all-powerful God.”
“I’ll go you several better than that!” the Matrona replied, beginning to take her leave of the rabbi. “In fact, I will see you tomorrow . . . and armed with positive proof that this God of yours is both foolhardy and . . . and . . . absurd!”
“I look forward to seeing you,” the rabbi said, ushering her to the door. Once across the threshold, Matrona began walking very fast, and soon broke into a run. She couldn’t wait to get back to her estate and begin the process of proving the young rabbi wrong – completely and irrefutably wrong.
Immediately upon returning to her estate, Matrona sent out a call for all the men and women who worked for her to gather in the courtyard. Before too long, some four dozen workers, servants, cooks and field hands had assembled in the central courtyard, wondering why Matrona had called for them in the middle of the day when they should, in fact, all be hard at work.
“I have wonderful news for all of you,” the Matrona proclaimed loudly to her assembled staff. “Before another hour has passed, each of you will be married.” The workers looked at each other in stunned disbelief. Who in the world did the Matrona propose they marry?
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said walking in their midst. “You want to know just whom you’re going to marry. Well, as your Matrona and, for today, your matchmaker, I will pair you off with the person you are supposed to marry.” With that, she stopped, placed her hand on her chin, and wondered precisely which was the best way to proceed. As she pondered, the workers stood about in mute silence.
“Ah! Of course! It’s all so very simple!” the Matrona said as if no one were there. Turning her attention to the workers, she said: “What I want you to do is to make two lines here in the courtyard, facing each other. One line shall consist of men, the other of the women.” The workers quickly formed the lines.
Walking through the gap between the lines like a field general inspecting troops, Matrona began pointing and waving her arms. What was she doing? As the minutes went by, it became apparent that she was pairing off the men and women by height, size, hair and eye color, and complexion of skin. Before too long, she had some two dozen couples standing next to each other. She then proclaimed:
“By the power vested in me as Matrona of this estate, I now proclaim that each of you is a married couple, joined throughout eternity. You may now all go back to your huts, where you will feast on wine and cake and begin the process of being husbands and wives. You may also have the rest of the day off and do not have to report to work until noon tomorrow. Now, go and be happy!” With that, the workers began leaving the courtyard in stunned amazement. Matrona returned to her large home, gleefully looking forward to the next day when she could visit the young rabbi and tell him of her great triumph and his grave error.
After eating a very light supper, Matrona went up to her bedroom, hoping against hope that she would quickly fall asleep and the morrow would hasten. Unfortunately though, try as she might, sleep would not overtake her. She was simply too excited thinking about her coming encounter with the rabbi to even doze. Every ten minutes seemed like an eternity. Would this be the longest night of her life? Finally, sometime after 2:00 am, she fell into a very light sleep.
Somewhere in the middle of the night, that which passed for sleep came to an abrupt end. Opening her eyes and looking about her enormous bed chamber, it slowly dawned on her that she had been awakened by loud noises – sounds of screaming, cursing, and arguing . . . and the breaking of glass. Jumping out of bed, she put on her robe, ran across the room, and threw open the large oak-framed window that looked out on her courtyard. Peering through the darkness, she saw some two dozen couples fighting, biting, scratching and screaming at each other.
"What are you doing?” Matrona demanded. “This is your wedding night. You should be the happiest people in the world! Instead, what do I find but you acting like members of a stampeding mob! Whatever is the matter with you? Have you all gone crazy?” Slowly, the anger and frenzy started abating as one by one, they began looking up in the direction of the Matrona.
“Answer me!” Matrona demanded. Looking about the group, they agreed upon one older woman – one of Matrona’s personal house staff – to speak on their behalf.
“Begging your pardon Matrona,” the woman said, “and with all due respect to you whom we all serve, who in the world are you to tell us to whom we should be married? You have absolutely no right – and again I say this with all due respect – to tell anyone for whom they are destined. We are fighting and screaming because you have, in so many instances made the worst possible choices. Truth to tell, we don’t want to be married to each other. We would all prefer to remain unmarried until we meet the right person for ourselves. That power does not rest with you! So far as we are all concerned, it comes from an authority that is even higher than you.” Finishing her very bold words, all the assembled servants cast their eyes to the ground, in dread fear of what would happen next.
To their complete surprise, Matrona was silent! After several minutes, she spoke in a soft, apologetic voice: “Please, please, I beg you, forgive me for the terrible wrong that I have done. It’s just that I thought . . . I thought . . . oh, I don’t really know what I thought. Please, if you can forgive me, I will be most appreciative and understanding.” With that Matrona closed her window and returned to her bed. The men and women of her estate breathed a collective sigh of relief and then off in the direction of their huts. But this time they returned alone.
The next morning, the rabbi, who had slept very well, waited in the front room of his small house for Matrona’s arrival. As he sipped his cup of tea, he imagined her coming up his garden path anxious to continue yesterday’s conversation. He wondered if the look on her face would betray either triumph or defeat. He did not have long to wait. Within a few minutes, she came into view. Before he could see her face, he saw her posture – that of a person suffering disappointment.
“Good morning Matrona,” the rabbi said softly, holding open the door so that she might enter. “You seem rather tired and downcast this fine day. Is something the matter? Tell me, how did things go for you at your estate?”
Looking somewhat past the rabbi, Matrona said, “It would seem that once again you have taught me a valuable lesson.”
“And what lesson is that?” the rabbi asked concerned that he had never seen her quite so defeated or depressed.
“What lesson?” you ask. “Why the lesson that for each person there is another – a someone, shall we say – to with whom they are meant to spend a lifetime. I for one do not understand how it all comes about.” With that, she sighed a sigh that almost brought tears to the rabbi’s eyes.
“Yes,” the rabbi said, gently escorting her to a chair in his sitting room, “This is certainly true. In the language of my people, we refer to this special someone as their bashayrt – their destined one. In fact, we even say that when two people fall deeply in love with one another that it – the very act of realizing that that love exists – is bashayrt.
“It must be akin to a moment of mystery,” the Matrona said, wiping a tear from her eye.
“I would suppose so,” the rabbi said, stroking his short black beard. “I have performed many marriages in my time as the rabbi of this community, and it has never ceased to amaze me how certain people find each other. But truth to tell, I myself have never experienced what you very wisely call a ‘moment of mystery.’” You see, I have never met my bashayrt.”
“Neither have I,” the Matrona said with a derisive laugh.
Looking at Matrona, who by now he had known for many years, he said, “You know, in all the years we have been philosophical adversaries, I have never asked you a question. May I do so now?”
“Yes, certainly,” Matrona replied, looking at her friend the rabbi.
“Do you maybe understand why God has not provided you with your bashayrt? Why you have remained virtually alone all these years?”
“Yes,” Matrona answered tentatively, “I suppose I do. It probably begins with the fact that I have been fighting all these years against a belief in this God of yours. I mean, why should God provide a bashayrt for one who does not even give His existence any credence or confidence?”
“You do have a good point,” the rabbi said in a soothing way.
“I guess it is finally time for me to stop fighting it and start studying this God of yours more seriously. You know, I have never really had the inner strength to admit it until now, but all those times you patiently answered my questions, I was secretly delighted. Oh I know that on the surface I must have seemed disappointed to have been proven wrong time and again. But what you have taught me in bits and pieces actually makes a bit of sense.”
The rabbi smiled. “And so?”
“And so,” Matrona continued,” Do you think it would be possible for me to begin asking questions with a purpose?”
“And what purpose is that Matrona?” the rabbi asked.
“I think I would like to become Jewish. It is a system and a way of life that incorporates so much wisdom, caring and logic. It just makes very good sense. I don’t know if I am worthy enough. What do you think?”
“I think that it is a long and difficult road to become a Jew. But I am more than willing to become your teacher, if you would like,” the rabbi said.
“That would be my choice,” the Matrona smiled. “And who knows, maybe someday God will act as my matchmaker and provide me with a bashayrt.”
“Who knows?” the rabbi said. “Stranger things have been known to happen.
The Rabbi and Matrona then began the process of study. After many years, Matrona was ready to appear before the rabbinic court, be immersed in the ritual bath, and officially become one of the Children of Israel. And, in due time, God did provide her with a bashayrt.
She married the rabbi . . .
The wisdom of .....?
I. Reuven and Paltiel
Once upon a time long ago in the City of King David – that is Jerusalem– two men lived next door to one another. The one, named Reuven, was an olive oil merchant. The second, Paltiel by name, sold flour. Although the two had lived and worked next door to each other for many years, they were not what one would call fast friends. Not that they had any hatred or bad feelings for one another. No, they were just two very different types of individuals.
Reuven the olive oil merchant was a very hard working sort. Ever since he was a young man, had had worked and saved – always looking ahead toward the future. He was well known for his honesty, kindness and generosity. Of him it might easily be said “He would give you the shirt off his back.”
Not so his neighbor Paltiel. The flour merchant, unlike his neighbor, was not a terribly industrious individual. He was much more interested in having a good time today, and not worrying about tomorrow. Oh he was likeable enough; it’s just that given a choice between work and play, Paltiel would always choose play. Unlike Reuven, Paltiel did not have a reputation for all that much honesty, kindness or generosity. That is why everyone in the City of David was so amazed when Reuven was arrested one day for stealing a fortune from Paltiel. It happened this way . . .
One day, Reuven was in his living quarters, just behind his olive oil shop. In those days, it was customary for merchants to live where they had their places of business. In like fashion, Paltiel lived behind his flour shop. All that separated their shops and apartments was a single long wall. Unbeknownst to Reuven, Paltiel had bored a small peephole in the wall, which permitted the flour seller to look directly into the olive merchant’s small apartment. Whenever Paltiel was not spying on his neighbor, he would place a small cork in the hole. The cork was the same color and texture as the wall. When in place, the hole was completely invisible. As such, its existence was totally unknown to Reuven.
On the day in question, Reuven was sitting on his bed, counting his money. Paltiel was on the other side of the dividing wall, his eye placed firmly on the secret peephole. He watched his neighbor with great fascination:
“One hundred fifty-five, one hundred fifty-six, one hundred fifty-seven,” Reuven carefully counted, making small stacks of the precious gold and silver coins. His count eventually reached one hundred and seventy-four coins. All the while, Paltiel was licking his lips, greedily wishing that this small fortune were his.
‘Some people have all the luck in the world,’ Simeon thought to himself. ‘Reuven doesn’t even know how to enjoy all that money; all he ever does is work, work, work. If it were mine, I would surely know what to do with it,’ he thought.
In truth, Reuven knew exactly what the money was for. He was putting it away for the day when he was too old to work. It was his sincere wish not to be a burden to either his family or the community in his old age. Also, he wanted to always be in a position to help those in need. Yes, he knew a lot more about the purpose of money than his neighbor Paltiel gave him credit for having.
Of course, there was a very good reason why Paltiel did not have one hundred and seventy-four coins; he squandered everything he made. His philosophy was ‘live for today, tomorrow doesn’t matter.’ Where Reuven worked hard and saved, Paltiel lived from day-to-day; earn a coin, spend a coin – this was his way.
As he was secretly watching his neighbor count the coins, Paltiel kept thinking evil thoughts. He imagined Reuven suddenly clutching his heart and keeling over dead. Then he could run next door and take all the coins without anyone being the wiser. On the other hand, perhaps a fire would break out and Reuven would be forced to flee. Then Paltiel could grab the coins and run. These thoughts kept running through his head as he watched the olive oil merchant. But what was he doing now?
Reuven took the mass of coins and placed them in a tan leather pouch. He then tied the pouch with a red ribbon, wrapped it up in a light blue woolen blanket, and placed the blanket in an old brass strongbox. He then got down on his knees and placed the strongbox in a wooden footlocker, which he carefully shoved under his bed. When he had finished, he got up and left the apartment. All the while, Paltiel was deeply wrapped up in his evil thoughts . . .
In less than a heartbeat, Paltiel had the answer to his problem – the problem of being penniless. He knew how to get his hands on Reuven’s money without anyone being the wiser! He quickly covered up the peep hold with the piece of cork and ran through his small flour shop out into the street.
“Help! Someone . . . anyone . . . help me!” Paltiel cried. “I have been robbed of all my money! Please, won’t someone help me?”
A crowd of neighboring shopkeepers and passersby soon gathered around the frantic Paltiel, all talking at once and trying to calm him down. Within a few minutes, a member of the Jerusalem Guards – a Shomer – came on the scene.
“Tell me what happened,” the Shomer said, calmly taking out a small piece of chalkboard on which to write. “Take a deep breath and tell me what happened.”
“My money . . . it’s gone!” Paltiel groaned. “I had a fortune in gold and silver coins – my life’s savings – it’s gone . . .”
The Shomer scribbled a few words on his slate board. “And have you any way of identifying these coins should they be found?” he asked, looking directly at Paltiel. Something did not strike the Shomer as being right. He had known Paltiel for many years, and knew him to be a basically lazy man. He was the last man the Shomer would have ever imagined having amassed “a fortune in gold and silver coins,” as Paltiel had declared. Was he telling the truth?
“Why yes,” Paltiel answered, “I will certainly be able to identify them. And what is more, I can tell you a lot more.”
“Such as?” the Shomer asked.
“Well, you see, the coins are all in a tan leather sack. The mouth of the sack is tied up with a red ribbon, and the whole thing is wrapped up in a light blue woolen blanket. Please, you’ve got to help me. It’s all the money I had in the world . . .”
“When did you first notice that the sack with all your coins was missing?” the Shomer asked, scratching his head.
“Less than five minutes ago,” Paltiel cried. “Do you think I would wait a day or an hour, let alone even a minute before I reported such a terrible crime?”
“No . . . I suppose not,” the Shomer answered with just a hint of doubt in his voice. He then began peppering Paltiel with question after question:
• Do you have any idea of who would want to steal your coins?
• Do you know precisely how many coins were stolen?
• Was anyone aware of your fortune?
• Where did you keep the coins?
“Let me try and answer your questions one by one,” Paltiel said, his chin down, not looking directly at the tall guard. First, I do not have the slightest idea who would want to do this to me. I try to live an honest life and don’t believe that I have ever knowingly hurt anyone. Second, I certainly know precisely how many coins were stolen from me. . .”
“How many?” the Shomer interrupted.
“If you please, I will withhold that information until the time they are found – presuming that they will be. In that way I will be even better able to prove that they are really mine and that I have not made up a story. As for your third question about whether anyone knew of my fortune, all I can say is that it’s got to be somewhere nearby. I kept the blanket in the closet of my living quarters. Would you please make a house-to-house search? I just have this feeling that the money is right here in the neighborhood.”
“Oh that such a terrible, wicked crime should be committed in the City of David,” the Shomer said. Then he added in a low tone, under his breath, “Assuming that it really did.” The Shomer, a young man named Avnayr, was not alone in his suspicion . . .
And where was Reuven while all this was taking place? Why, in his shop, minding his own business. Had he gone out into the street with the rest of the crowd, he would have heard of the theft and perhaps have put two and two together. But such was not to be the case. . .
Later that day, Avnayr entered the shop of Reuven the olive oil merchant. Reuven had known Avnayr and his family for many years. When the young Shomer entered the shop, Reuven greeted him warmly.
“Avnayr! What brings you to the shop today? Normally your brother Gershon comes by for the oil. Is there something wrong with him today, God forbid?”
“No, thank God,” he is quite well,” Avnayr responded, trying hard not to look the olive oil salesman in the eye. “I am almost embarrassed to tell you that I am here on official business today.”
“Official business? Reuven responded with a smile. “What sort of official business could a distinguished member of the Jerusalem Guard have with a lowly seller of olive oil? Has my license expired? Have there been complaints about the purity of my oil or the balance of my scales?”
“No, no, nothing like that,” Avnayr answered. “I am here because of this morning’s terrible robbery.”
Reuven opened his eyes wide in amazement. “What’s that you say? A robbery here in the City of David? Impossible! Who would do such a horrible thing?”
"That is precisely what I’m trying to find out,” Avnayr said, still not able to look his old family friend squarely in the eye. “It seems that your next door neighbor Paltiel has been robbed of quite a large amount of gold and silver coins.”
“What’s that you say?” Reuven asked cupping his hand to his left ear. “He’s been robbed? Amazing! Simply amazing, I tell you!”
“And why do you say that?” the Shomer asked.
“For two reasons,” Reuven replied. “First, who would ever have thought that Paltiel had any money in his possession? I mean, I am not one to listen to idle gossip or to put my nose into other people’s business; but you have to admit, Paltiel doesn’t seem like the sort of man who would have any considerable amount of money on hand.”
“Yes, it certainly came as a surprise to me too,” Avnayr agreed. “And what is the second reason for your amazement?”
“What’s that you say? The second reason? Oh . . . yes . . . you see, it just so happens that I have quite a lot of gold and silver coins in my possession. Doesn’t it strike you as just a bit odd that two men living right next door to one another should both have a large amount of gold and silver coins in their possession and that only one should be robbed?”
“Yes, it certainly does,” the Shomer agreed. “But would it be possible for me to see where you keep your coins?”
“Why is that necessary? Revuen asked, in a shrill tone, a chill beginning to run up his spine. He realized that he must be sounding a bit alarmed, and tried to calm himself. “Is that really necessary?” he repeated in a lower, more measured tone.
"Yes, I’m afraid it is. But don’t worry, Reuven, it’s just part of the ongoing investigation.”
“Well, so long as you put it that way,” Reuven said, ushering the young Shomer behind the counter and through small door that led to his apartment. Avnayr made a mental note that Reuven seemed a bit distracted and wary. What could it mean?
Reuven led the Shomer over to his bed, where the older man slowly lowered himself onto his knees. Leaning over from this position, he reached his two hands under the bed and with some difficulty, dragged out a large wooden footlocker. When it was in the center of the room, he opened it and produced a small brass lock box. Standing up with the box in his hands, he placed it on a corner table, and then began fishing around in his pockets for a key. He found the key in the last pocket he checked. Unlocking the box, he opened its lid; Avnayr immediately caught sight of what looked like a light blue woolen blanket –- the very type of blanket that Paltiel had described earlier!
“Tell me Reuven,” the Shomer said, pointing to the blanket. “Would there possibly be a tan leather sack wrapped up in the blanket?”
“How’s that?” Reuven asked, his back to the guard. “A tan leather sack? Why yes! How in the world did you know that?”
“And would the sack just happen to be tied up with a red ribbon?” Reuven felt his knees give out from under him as he slid to the floor. Avnayr quickly caught him.
“What’s wrong Reuven?” the Shomer asked with concern in his voice. “Are you feeling faint?”
“You could say that,” Reuven whispered. “It’s just that you have twice described something you have yet to see. How did you know that the sack was tied up with a red ribbon? Is this some kind of trick or is my mind playing games with me?”
“No, it definitely is no trick,” Avnayr answered, his voice taking on a more official, decidedly less familiar tone. “That is precisely how Paltiel described things to me. He said that all his coins were in a tan leather sack tied with a red ribbon, and that the sack was then wrapped in a light blue woolen blanket.”
“And I suppose he told you precisely how many coins he had?” Reuven asked, despair in this voice.
"No, he said that he would hold off on telling me that until I had located the sack, which apparently I have now done. Come on; why don’t the two of us go next door to his shop so that he might identify his property . . . if indeed, it is his.”
“And if he does, am I then to be arrested?” Reuven asked weakly. “Avnayr, you know me. You know that I would never do such a foul, evil thing!”
“What I know and what I see are two different things Reuven,” the Shomer said in a deadly serious voice. “Come with me.”
The two, along with the sack-in-the-blanket, walked next door to Paltiel’s shop. As soon as they entered, Paltiel, seeing the light blue blanket in the Shomer’s hands, began crying out: “My money! My money! Thank God you’ve found my money!” He began reaching for the sack.
“Not so quickly,” Avnayr said, pulling the sack away from Paltiel’s outstretched hands. “First, there is the little matter of the amount. You have yet to tell me precisely how many coins were stolen from you.”
“The precise number was one hundred and seventy-four,” Paltiel said, spitting out each word as if his life depended on it.
Reuven fell into a dead faint . . .
When he came to, Reuven was lying on a cot in the back of Paltiel’s flour shop. Avnayr and Paltiel were sitting at a table counting the coins. “One-hundred-seventy-one, seventy-two, seventy-three, seventy-four,” they counted. When they finished putting the coins back into the sack, Avnayr turned to Reuven.
“Reuven,” he said, “Have you any proof that you did not steal these coins and that in fact they are yours?”
“Only my word,” Reuven croaked.
"Ah, but it is my word against his,” Paltiel interrupted. “And I have certainly got both truth and the angels on my side. How else could I possibly know how many coins you would find? And that they would be in a tan leather sack tied with a red ribbon?”
“You’ve got a point there,” the Shomer agreed. But in his mind, Avnayr felt that something was wrong . . . very wrong. He sensed that the money really belonged to the olive oil merchant and not the flour seller. But how in the world could he prove it? ‘It would take the wisdom of . . . of . . .’ he thought to himself. He could not think of anyone who might be that wise. Avnayr felt terrible as he stood and said:
“Reuven, I am afraid you will have to come with me. For now, you are under arrest for the theft of Paltiel’s one-hundred and seventy-four coins.” As they were making their way to the door, Paltiel held out his hand to Avnayr and said “Thank you for restoring my money to me.”
“Not so fast,” the Shomer replied. “We shall need this money as evidence. It will be returned to whomsoever it belongs when the trial has been completed.”
“Trial? What trial?” the two merchants asked in one voice.
Marching together, Avnayr, Reuven and Paltiel walked up the street to the headquarters of Shomrim ha-I r – the City Guards. As they walked, the passersby could not help but notice that Paltiel had a very content look on his face, while Reuven looked as if he were marching to his death.
How in the world would anyone be able to prove to whom the coins truly belonged? It would take the wisdom of . . . the wisdom of . . .?
II. The Judge’s Dilemma
Reuven and Paltiel were taken before the Chief Judge, whose name was Tzedek. Tzedek was known far and wide for his wisdom, compassion and strong sense of justice. Standing before Judge Tzedek, Avnayr the Shomer said:
“Your honor, we have before us a very difficult case. It involves the two men before you, Reuven the olive oil merchant and Paltiel the flour seller. Paltiel discovered that his money was missing – presumably stolen. When questioned, he gave a precise description of that which was stolen: a tan leather sack secured by a red ribbon which in turn was wrapped in a light blue woolen blanket. Such a sack, ribbon and blanket were found in Reuven’s living quarters behind his shop. When I discovered the evidence that had been stored under Reuven’s bed, Paltiel told me precisely how many coin were allegedly stolen. Then I opened the sack and counted the coins. I found the number he had mentioned: precisely one hundred and seventy-four gold and silver coins.”
“I see, I see,” the judge said, stroking his flowing gray beard. “And how did you happen to be so fortunate as to check under Reuven’s bed?” the judge asked in a quiet, quizzical voice.
“Well actually, your honor,” Avnayr responded, “I did not exactly look under the bed myself. When I told Reuven that some money had been stolen, he told me that he himself had quite a few coins. In fact, he said . . .” Here, Avnayr checked his notes.
“He said: ‘Doesn’t it strike you as just a bit odd that two men living right next door to one another should both have a large amount of gold and silver coins in their possession and that only one should be robbed?’ Then he led me into the back room of his shop where he lives, and pulled out a footlocker from under his bed. When he produced a light blue woolen blanket, I knew what would be inside.”
“I see, I see,” the judge said once again, still stroking his beard. “From what you say Avnayr, it would appear that what we have here is an open-and-shut case of robbery. Reuven the olive oil merchant has stolen one hundred and seventy-four gold and silver coins from his neighbor, Paltiel the flour salesman. Yes, that is certainly what is appears to be.”
Upon hearing this last statement, Reuven felt a glimmer of hope. Perhaps Judge Tzedek was hinting that he, Reuven, was not the culprit after all!
“May I say something, your honor?” Reuven asked, stepping forward.
“Yes, of course,” the judge answered, motioning Reuven to a spot in front of the bench.
“Your honor,” Reuven began, “You have known me for many, many years. You have also known Paltiel, my neighbor for a long time as well.”
“This is certainly true,” Judge Tzedek answered. “What is your point?”
Reuven began walking around, collecting his thoughts. After a few moments, he paused, turned toward the judge, and said, “Your honor, you know me. You know Paltiel. You tell me. Do you think that I am capable of stealing another man’s property? Why would I do such a thing?”
The judge sat at his bench, softly stroking his beard for several moments. A deathless silence pervaded the courtroom. Finally, Judge Tzedek spoke:
“At this point, is not for me to say whether or not I think you would steal the coins. Yes, Reuven, I know both of you. I know your reputation for honesty, generosity and hard work. I know Paltiel’s reputation as well,” he said, gesturing toward the flour seller, who until this last remark, looked as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Upon hearing Judge Tzedek’s remark, ‘I know Paltiel’s reputation as well,’ the flour merchant’s face froze into a mask of concern and uncertainty. Realizing that this might betray him, he quickly forced himself to once again appear as if he was totally at ease and carefree. The judge continued.
“In the rendering of justice, it is essential that I as an impartial judge not be swayed any prior personal knowledge I may have of the people before me. This is to say that whatever I may think or know about you or Paltiel should not – indeed cannot – matter. All that can matter are the facts at hand. And so far as I can determine at this early juncture, there is sufficient reason for you, Reuven, to be arrested and tried for this crime.”
Reuven staggered upon hearing these words. Arrested! How could this be? Just a few hours ago he was a happy, productive member of society. And now? Now he was under arrest, charged with the heinous crime of theft! And of his own money! How in the world would he ever be able to prove his innocence?
“Trial is set for nine o’clock tomorrow morning,” Judge Tzedek pronounced. “Until then, I am afraid that you, Reuven, will have to remain in custody. That is the law.” With that, the judge banged his gavel. Court was adjourned for the day. Reuven was taken to the jail.
While the olive oil merchant languished in the city jail, feeling as if his world had just come crashing down, Paltiel was busy at work removing all evidence of the little peep hole. He wanted to make sure that no one would ever learn his little secret – of how had had been able to spy on Reuven’s living quarters. Without that knowledge, no one would have a single shred of evidence or proof against him. He would be home free, the money his . . .
That evening, Judge Tzedek took his evening meal with his wife Aliza. She could tell by the way he pushed the food around his plate that he was a troubled man.
“Whatever is the matter Tzedek,” she asked. “Is it the case of Reuven and Paltiel that is bothering you so?”
“How do you know about the case?” he asked, putting his fork down, the food untouched.
“Why I would imagine that every man, woman and child in the City of David knows about the case,” Aliza said. “You must admit, it is a terrible crime.”
“Yes, of course it’s terrible. That people should steal money from one another – it is a sin! The Bible teaches us ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ Whoever committed this crime will have to pay by going to prison for a long, long time.”
“Whoever committed the crime?” Aliza asked in mock amazement. “Then you think it is possible that Reuven did not steal Paltiel’s money?”
“My dear wife,” the judge said, pushing away from the table, “I know in my heart of hearts that Reuven would never do such a thing. This man Reuven is just and honorable. He is both hard working and generous. Never in all the years that I have known him has he ever been anything less than a gentleman. I consider myself to be a pretty good judge of character, and simply cannot believe that he committed this crime.”
“And Paltiel?” Aliza asked. “What do you think about him?”
Here the judge permitted himself a weak smile. “Paltiel is a scamp and a scoundrel. He is only concerned with today – with having a good time. If he could figure out a way to sell air to all those who breathe, he no doubt would. Here too I have a feeling in my bones; that feeling tells me that Paltiel is the crook, not Reuven.”
“That is my feeling as well,” Aliza said soothingly. “So why are you so troubled? It seems to me that were you to find Reuven innocent, the only one who might disagree with the verdict would be Paltiel.”
“This is all well and good,” Tzedek answered, his voice taking on a distant quality. “But it is simply not how justice works. We cannot decide disputes based on feelings or inklings. We have to rely on facts, on evidence. And all we have at the moment are feelings which run counter to the facts. But the facts clearly show that the money Paltiel claimed as his was found under Reuven’s bed. The evidence clearly and unmistakably points the finger of guilt at the olive oil merchant.” The judge heaved a sigh, got up from the table, and turned to walk out of the room.
“But you really do not believe that Reuven is guilty, do you?” Aliza asked.
Turning toward his wife, the judge answered in a whisper, “no, I do not.”
“What then are you going to do?” his wife asked. “I mean, it seems to me that you have to somehow prove that Reuven did not in fact steal the money.”
“I know, I know,” the judge signed, already halfway out across the room. He stopped, turned toward his wife and said: “The only way I can find Reuven innocent of this crime is if there will be an eye witness – one who can come forward and testify as to precisely what did or did not occur. But alas, I fear there is no such witness. And that probably means that a man I know in my bones to be innocent will be found guilty. If only we had an eye witness . . .” The judge exited the room.
Suddenly, Tzedek reentered the room, slapping his forehead with the palm of his right hand and breaking out into laughter.
"What is it?” his wife asked, “have you come up with an idea?”
“Why didn’t I think of it?” He mused aloud, not answering his wife’s question. “Yes, that certainly would solve the problem. His laughter grew until there were tears rolling down his cheeks. Soon, he was holding his sides, laughing so hard that Aliza feared he would fall over. His laughter was becoming contagious.
“What are we laughing about?” Aliza stammered out. She too had tears rolling down her cheeks, although she didn’t have the slightest idea why.
“Don’t you see?” he said, holding his sides. “We do have eye witnesses, precisely one hundred and seventy-four of them!”
“The coins?” Aliza asked in amazement. “How in the world can coins be witnesses to a theft?” As her laughter subsided, Aliza began thinking about what her husband had just proposed. Then walking over to the judge, she said: “I suppose you are right. The coins actually are witnesses. But how in the world can you make coins testify when they can’t even speak?”
“That is what’s so funny,” Tzedek said, wiping his eyes with the back of his sleeve. “Not funny ‘ha-ha,’ but funny sad,” the judge answered beginning to get more serious. “The one reliable account we have in this case, the only perfect testimony, is that of the coins. But they cannot speak. If only they could, I am positive that they would proclaim Reuven’s innocence and Paltiel’s guilt.”
“So what are you going to do?” his wife asked, daubing at her eyes with a handkerchief.
“I am not sure,” Tzedek answered. “All I know at this point is that somehow, in some way, I must allow the coins to speak for themselves. Without their testimony, an innocent man will be punished and a guilty man will profit from his crime.”
With that, the judge turned and once again walked out of the room. As he approached his book-lined study, he mused to himself: ‘How in the world can one make coins of silver and gold speak? How? There must be a way. But it would take the wisdom of . . . the wisdom . . . ah, no one is that wise. It would take the wisdom of . . .’
At precisely nine o’clock the next morning, Reuven, Shimon and Avnayr appeared in Judge Tzedek’s court. The visitor’s section was filled to overflowing. Hundreds of people had come to see the trial unfold. Throughout the City of David, the main topic of conversation was the case of the honest, upright Reuven, versus the ne’er-do-well Paltiel. A vast majority of Jerusalemites agreed with Judge Tzedek that Reuven was innocent and that Paltiel, far from being the victim, was actually the guilty party. But alas, the only facts in evidence pointed in the exact opposite direction.
The trial produced few surprises. Avnayr reported the same facts as the day before. Paltiel proclaimed the money to be his. How else, he argued, could he possibly know that when Avnayr opened the tan-colored sack, he would find precisely one hundred and seventy-four coins?
“Where did the money come from?” Judge Tzedek asked.
“Why from my humble shop,” Paltiel proclaimed. “I have worked hard all my life and have saved whatever I can.”
“This comes as a bit of a surprise to us all,” the judge said, suppressing his – and virtually everyone else’s – sense of disbelief. “I mean, with all due respect Paltiel, you have never exactly been known for possessing a serious work ethic.”
“I will freely admit that I do like having a good time,” Paltiel answered. “But I am not on trial here; Reuven is. It seems to me that I am not required to offer any additional proof that the money is mine.”
“Yes, I supposed that you are technically correct,” the judge agreed with a sigh. “But still, it does come as just a bit of a surprise.”
When it came Reuven’s turn to speak, he was at a loss for words. All he could say was that “of course” the money was his; that he would “never, ever steal so much as a crumb from another human being.”
“But how could Paltiel know about the light woolen blanket, the tan sack, the red ribbon and the one hundred and seventy-four coins?” the judge gently asked. “Try and help me understand this, if you will.”
“For this, I have no explanation – absolutely no idea,” Reuven said sadly. “Believe me, I wish I could. The only thing I can think of is that somehow he saw me counting my money and knew how many coins I had and how I stored them.”
"But how?” the judged again asked. “From what I recall, your living quarters have no windows through which anyone could spy on you. And from what you have said, Paltiel has never even been in your room.”
“Yes, all that you say is true,” Reuven said in desperation. “Still, with all this damaging evidence, you just have to believe me; I did not steal any money. It is mine.”
‘I know, I know,’ Judge Tzedek said to himself under his breath.
By four o’clock that afternoon, the trial was complete. Summarizing the facts of the case, Judge Tzedek said, “It would seem clear from the evidence provided by our Shomer Avnayr that the money belongs to Paltiel. The court has no other knowledge. And yet, there would not appear at first glance to be any eye witnesses to this terrible crime . . .” Here the judge paused and thought for a moment. Then he quickly continued, as if thinking aloud:
“Actually, there are witnesses to the theft . . . the coins themselves. They know for certain to whom they belong. They know for certain if they were stolen. I therefore command that five days from now, the coins will appear in court and testify. That is all!”
Judge Tzedek pounded his gavel, thus ending the court session. As he left the court, he berated himself, thinking ‘Why in the world did I say something so preposterous? Have I gone crazy? How could I publicly commit myself to such an outrageous promise? Now I am going to have to figure out a way to make the coins speak. Dear God, give me strength!’
As the throng of people exited from the courtroom, there was a loud buzz of excitement. The coins would be called to testify? How was that possible? Whatever did Judge Tzedek have in mind? It defied all logic and common sense; coins testifying on their own behalf! Without question, Judge Tzedek was known for his wisdom and insight, but was he that wise? Was anyone that wise? Who could make coins of gold and silver speak? It would take the wisdom of . . . the wisdom of . . . ?
III. Making the Coins Speak
Judge Tzedek was beside himself. More than that, he was terribly angry with himself. “How in the world could I have ever let those words get past my lips?” he asked his wife, who was sitting beside him on their couch. “Have I gone completely mad? Now people are going to be expecting the impossible – that the coins come into court and testify! I must be losing my mind!”
“Now Tzedek,” his wife said, trying to comfort him. “I am sure at the time you must have thought that it was the right thing to say. And who knows? Maybe you will find a way to make the coins testify. After all, you are an incredibly wise man.”
“Not that wise,” the judge said most glumly. “I sincerely doubt that there is anyone except God Almighty who is that wise. Oh Aliza,” he said taking his wife’s hand in his, “what am I to do? I have put Reuven into a terrible situation. He thinks that come five days from now, he will be found innocent. What if I cannot keep my inane promise?”
“I fear that I don’t have a ready answer for you,” Aliza said. “All I do know is that you will find a way and Reuven will go free. Of this I have absolute faith.”
“I am truly grateful that you believe in me,” Tzedek said in a soft voice. “But I cannot help believe that your confidence is completely misplaced. As a judge, I am sworn to uphold both law and justice. Sometimes they are not the same thing. In this case, the law says that I must make my decision based upon nothing but the facts. And what do the facts reveal? That Paltiel has been wronged by Reuven. Justice, on the other hand, demands that I give a true verdict. I am terribly fearful that the facts will simply not allow me to do this – to render a true and just verdict. I fear that finding an innocent man guilty would be in the long run be an even graver, more serious crime than the theft itself.”
“How can that be?” Aliza asked, stroking her husband’s troubled brow.
“With theft, one can always demand that the thief repay the victim. In the case of sentencing the wrong man, nothing can ever right that wrong. It is like perfume that accidentally spills out of a bottle. No matter how hard you try or how swiftly you react, some of the aroma will always linger. If I sentence Reuven and it turns out that he really was innocent, I will have ruined his reputation forever. There will always be more people who remember the accusation than the exoneration.”
“But certainly you must believe that people are capable of better than this?” his wife ask.
“One can only hope,” the judge whispered.
The next several days crept along at a devilishly slow pace. For Tzedek, each waking moment was consumed with the question of how to make the coins speak. Try as he may, he could not come up with an answer. Sleep was out of the question. Each night his slumber was interrupted by images of grotesquely large coins screaming out accusing words: “We find Judge Tzedek guilty of the crime of injustice! Guilty! Guilty!! Guilty!!!” And so it went each night. By morning, Tzedek would be in a terrible state, barely able to face another day.
For the residents of the City of David, the five-day period also had its madness. In every shop and stall, on every corner and byway, people seemed to be talking of nothing else. How, they wanted to know, would Judge Tzedek make the coins speak? Everyone – from the eldest man and woman to the youngest child at play – spoke incessantly about the case, the trial, and whether or not Judge Tzedek would be able to fulfill his outrageous promise. Some even took to wagering money over the outcome of the case. Not so much whether Reuven would be found guilty or innocent, but whether or not the judge would be able to make the coins speak.
With less than twenty-four hours left until the trial’s resumption, Tzedek had yet to resolve this thorny issue. All he had to show for this thinking, pondering, imagining and worrying was a nagging headache and a haunting awareness of his own inadequacies.
Fearful that her husband might suffer a breakdown, Aliza suggested that he might benefit from taking a walk in the park. “Perhaps a change of scenery will help your powers of concentration,” she recommended. “If nothing else, the cool air just might relieve the pain in your head.”
“My darling wife,” Tzedek moaned, “the only thing that will relieve the ache in my head is coming up an answer – the answer. I must make the coins speak. Ah, if only I possessed the wisdom of . . . the wisdom of . . .”
“You keep saying that over and over,” Aliza chided. “So tell me: who is that wise?”
“Believe me Aliza,” the judge responded getting up and putting on a sweater, “If I knew who was that wise, I would run, not walk to ask advice. But I fear that God has yet to create a man or woman who possesses that much wisdom or creativity.” With that, Tzedek left his home and ventured over to the park at the base of King David’s palace.
Arriving in the park, Tzedek walked around aimlessly for an hour or more. Breathing in the clean crisp air, he tried to eliminate all thoughts from his mind in the hope of starting afresh. Failing at this repeatedly, he sought the refuge of a park bench. Tzedek sat down, closed his eyes, and tired to visualize the coins testifying before a densely packed courtroom. In his imagination, he both saw and heard the coins declare ‘We belong to Reuven the olive oil merchant. We have been stolen by that cur Paltiel. Paltiel is the guilty party!’
Anyone passing by would have thought that Tzedek was as content as anyone on earth. For here was a man basking in the morning sunlight, eyes closed, a wan smile on his face. What they could not have known was that beneath the closed eyes and peculiar smile was a man troubled to his very soul.
Tzedek’s reverie was interrupted by the sound of children at play. Opening his eyes, he saw a group of eight or night children. They ranged in age from about five to ten. The youngest, a pale lad with wavy reddish hair, seemed to be their leader.
“Let’s play a game of trial!” the young boy said. “I will be Judge Tzedek,” he said pointing to himself. Pointing to two other boys, he proclaimed, “You will be Paltiel and you Reuven.”
Hearing this, Judge Tzedek could not help but chuckle. ‘It has even come to this,’ he thought to himself. ‘Even the youngsters have become so immersed in the case that they make a game out of it. They should only have an easier time of it than I!’
The youngsters quickly arranged themselves into a mock court setting. The little redhead playing the part of judge seated himself behind a box. In his hand he held a rock; this would serve as his gavel. Banging the rock on the box, he called out in a high clear voice, “Court is now in session! We will hear the case of Reuven and Paltiel! Reuven here,” he said, pointing to one of the boys, “is accused of stealing one hundred and seventy-four gold and silver coins from his neighbor Paltiel. Reuven, how do you plead?”
Jumping up, the boy replied “Innocent your honor.” He was a bit older than the ‘judge.’ Tzedek reckoned him to be about seven or eight. “I tell you that those coins belong to me. I would never, ever steal. To steal is a sin. You must believe me, I didn’t do it,” the young ‘Reuven’ pleaded with what the real Tzedek thought to be admirable conviction.
“Thank you. You may be seated,” the ‘judge’ responded. The little one playing the part of Reuven took a seat on the grass.
“Now, Paltiel,” the young judge asked, “What do you have to say for yourself?”
“What do I have to say?” the second child – a girl of seven – said in a voice filled with realistic astonishment. “I am not the one on trial here. The police didn’t arrest me. They arrested Reuven for stealing my money. MY MONEY! All I can say is that I pray your honor will do the right thing and find this man guilty.”
Judge Tzedek (the real one that is) watched this little drama with faintly growing interest. It simply amazed him that the children were so caught up in the case. ‘Wouldn’t it be something,’ he mused, ‘if that little fellow came up with the right solution?’ Lost in this fanciful thought, he turned his attention back to the children at play.
The ‘judge’ listened to arguments of the children playing the roles of the Shomer, Paltiel, and Reuven. Everything went pretty much according to the real trial. Before too long, the children’s trial got to the same point as the real one; the time when the judge would have to announce his decision.
“Bailiff,” the little redhead said in a loud voice, “Bring me a large bowl and some water.” What was this? A large bowl of water? Whatever for? Suddenly the real Judge Tzedek began giving the ‘trial’ a bit more attention. Maybe this little one was on to something! The mock trial was certainly taking a new twist.
A little girl of 8 or 9, playing the part of the bailiff, “carried” in a make- believe bowl and pitcher of water and set them down before the little judge. Tzedek was so caught up in the play-acting that he could almost see a real bowl and pitcher.
“Now,” the little judge proclaimed with a devilish grin, “pour the water into the basin, and prepare to drop the coins in to the water.”
“Why?” the children asked with one voice.
“It is all rather simple,” the little boy said. “From the evidence we have gathered in this court, it would seem fairly certain that the coins belong either to Reuven the olive oil merchant or to Paltiel the flour seller. The only true witnesses to the crime in question are the coins themselves. I am now calling upon them to testify on their own behalf!”
“But how is that possible?” a member of the ‘courtroom’ audience asked.
“That’s weird,” said a second.
“I think he’s crazy,” piped in a third. All the children began buzzing with anticipation.
“Quiet in the court!” the little redhead demanded, banging his rock on the box. “You are all out of order.” The children began quieting down. He looked around his assembled ‘courtroom,’ as if seeking permission to continue. From over on his park bench, the real Judge Tzedek was having a hard time controlling his impatience; he wanted the youngster to continue in the worst way. When order was at last restored, the ‘judge’ continued speaking:
“We all know that Reuven here deals in olive oil. That means that he most of the time he has a little bit of oil on his fingers. And this would mean that whatever he touches will have tiny traces of oil on it. But Paltiel,” the boy continued, looking at the second child, “deals in flour. Whatever he touches probably has tiny traces of fine flour on it. Now, once we drop the coins into the basin, all we have to do is look and see if any drops of oil rise to the surface. If they do, then we will know that the coins really belong to Reuven.”
“And if no oil appears on the surface?” the child playing Paltiel asked.
“That will mean that the coins belong to you. Don’t you see? If there would be any flour left on the coins, it would dissolve in the water – nothing would rise to the surface. Now bailiff,” he proclaimed, “prepare to put the coins into the water!”
That was it! Judge Tzedek had his answer! He suddenly knew how to make the coins testify! And to think that he had learned it from a young child at play. A very, very wise young child.
The judge quickly rose from the park bench and hurried back to his courtroom. Within half an hour, the real trial resumed. The first order of business: to call the coins to the stand in order to testify . . .
IV. Justice is Done
A hush settled on the crowded courtroom as Judge Tzedek entered. For days, people had talked of nothing save his bizarre promise to make the coins speak. The moment of decision seemed to be at hand. Would the judge be up to his remarkable pledge?
Rapping his gavel, the judge loudly proclaimed, “This court will now be in session. Testimony in the case of Reuven and Paltiel shall continue.” A murmur of anticipation wafted about the courtroom.
“So far in this case,” the judge began, “We have heard testimony from the arresting officer, Avnayr, Paltiel the flour merchant, and Reuven, the accused. To this point, we have been able to determine only two indisputable facts: first, that one hundred and seventy-four gold and silver coins have been stolen, and that second, these coins belong either to Paltiel and were stolen by Reuven, or else belong to Reuven and were stolen by Paltiel. This much we do know. What we do not know is precisely who stole from whom; who is the victim and who the thief? Who shall go free, and who shall be imprisoned? All we really have to this point is one man’s word against another’s. Justice demands that we take a further step. Although the deposition thus far presented by Avnayr the Shomer would seem to point the finger of guilt at Reuven, this court will, on its own initiative, call for further testimony. It is far better to let a dozen guilty people go free than to convict even one innocent party. And that is why this court now calls upon the one hundred and seventy-four coins to step forward and testify!”
Paltiel desperately tried to hide his feelings – which were of sheer terror. Reuven, on the other hand, had his eyes closed and was praying silently.
“Bailiff,” the judge ordered, “Please go and fetch a large bowl and a pitcher of water.” What did the judge have in mind? the people wondered. What did a large bowl and pitcher of water have to do with deciding Reuven’s ultimate guilt or innocence?
Within a minute, the bailiff returned with the bowl and pitcher of water. “Now,” the judge commanded, “Place the bowl on the main table in front of the bench, and pour the water into it.” The bailiff did as he was told. The judge got up from his seat and, leaving the bench, walked over to the table, where the bowl and sack of coins reposed.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the judge began, staring intently at the objects on the table in front of him. “Reuven, as we well know, is a seller of olive oil. Oil – and particularly olive oil – has a tendency to remain on the fingers, even after a good washing. It is heavier than water. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that if these coins belong to Reuven, they would have some trace of oil on them. By the same token, Paltiel over here,” the judge said, turning to look at the by now cowering flour merchant, “likely leaves a fine powdery residue on whatever he touches.” Paltiel lowered his eyes, as if suddenly nothing was quite so fascinating as the sandals he was wearing.
“Now,” the judge continued, “I am going to drop these coins into the basin. If it is the case that they belong to Reuven,” he said, looking directly at the olive oil merchant, “then we can reasonably expect to see small globules of oil rising to the surface of the water. For as we all know, oil and water do not mix.” The judge poised to drop the coins into the basin. Suddenly, he stopped.
“On the other hand,” he said, turning and looking at the greatly distracted Paltiel, “if they are the property of one who deals in flour, we can reasonably expect to see nothing more than perhaps a slight whitening of the water. For as we all know, flour has a tendency to dissolve in water.”
All eyes in the courtroom were glued to the front table where the judge was about to receive the coins’ ‘testimony.’ Taking the leather sack in his left hand, he proclaimed, “We shall now receive evidence from these one hundred and seventy-four coins as to who their rightful owner truly is . . . ” The judge began slowly dropping the coins in to the water. After what seemed like an eternity, all the coins were submerged into the basin. The judge peered into the bowl, stroked his beard, and looked up, an inscrutable look on his face. He slowly walked over to Reuven and said in a soft voice: “Reuven, I am sorry, so very, very sorry . . .”
What could this mean? Was Reuven the guilty party? The look on Paltiel’s face was brightening by the second. ‘Perhaps I have gotten away with it!’ he thought to himself. ‘Perhaps this fool of a judge has been outsmarted by his own device and the money is all mine!’
“I am so terribly sorry,” the judge continued, standing opposite Reuven, “that you had to go through all this pain and uncertainty. For now we know without a shadow of a doubt that which many of us suspected from the very beginning . . . that Paltiel is the guilty party!” Here the judge whirled around and pointed a finger directly at the flour salesman. Paltiel sank heavily into the chair as if he were weighted down by an enormous boulder. In fact, he was weighted down – by the weight of his own guilt.
“How dare you steal this honest man’s money and then try to ruin his reputation!” the judge said sternly to the forlorn flour merchant. “In this life we have precious little beyond our good names and reputations. In stealing your neighbor’s money, you are guilty of theft. But in attempting to steal away his good name and reputation, you are guilty of a far worse crime. It is almost as if you tried to murder him.” The judge turned away from Paltiel and began walking back to the bench. When at last he had seated himself, he picked up his gavel and proclaimed: “This court hereby sentences Paltiel to ten years in prison. During these years, he is hereby commanded to write a personal letter to each and every citizen of Jerusalem, explaining his crime and begging their forgiveness. Further, he shall be responsible for the total cost of the stationary, envelopes, ink and postage involved in carrying out this task. And lastly,” the judge said, pointing a finger at Paltiel, “No two letters can be the same. Each one must be original!”
“But your honor,” Paltiel protested, “I don’t have that kind of money. Where in the world can I hope to get my hands on that amount of money in order to fulfill my sentence?”
“With the court’s permission,” Reuven interjected, “I will be only too happy to advance my neighbor the money. Do you have any objection to that, your honor?” Reuven asked, looking at Judge Tzedek.
“No, not at all,” the judge answered, looking in amazement at the olive oil merchant who, just minutes before, stood on the brink of going to jail for a crime he had not committed. “But why?” Why would you make such a generous offer?” the judge asked.
“Why?” Reuven said in a soft voice. “Because I wish to teach my neighbor that in this world, justice and mercy should always go hand-in-hand. It is through an act of justice that he is punished. But it is also through an act of mercy that he shall hopefully learn from his mistake and be redeemed.” Paltiel looked at his long-time neighbor – the one he had attempted to destroy – with a profound sense of disbelief.
“Court is now adjourned!” the judge said, tapping his gavel as he started rising from his seat. “Take the guilty away to jail where he may begin serving out his sentence.” Everyone in the courtroom rose. Reuven walked over to the basin, scooped out a small handful of coins, and went to where Paltiel was standing. Taking Paltiel’s hand, Reuven placed the coins in his neighbor’s palm. “I think this should cover the cost of your future labors,” he said. “When you have completed your sentence, please come and see me. You will likely be in need of a job and a place to stay. Perhaps I can be of some assistance . . .”
Paltiel was led away with a bewildered look on his face. Before reaching the door leading out of the courtroom, he turned, and speaking in a heart-rending voice said: “Forgive me Reuven. I now see that I have been a brute all my days. I promise by all that is holy that I shall one day make all this up to you. Please, please, tell me you forgive me.” Anyone hearing Paltiel’s words would have known that for once – perhaps the first time in his life – he was telling the truth. From that point on, he was to be a changed man.
But this is not the end of the story . . .
V. The Wisdom of . . .
Needless to say, the spectacular conclusion to the trial set everyone in the City of David to talking. People were simply amazed by Reuven’s unexpected offer to assist Paltiel. His simple act of mercy humbled even the hardest heart. They were also convinced that Judge Tzedek was the wisest man in the whole world. Who else could have figured out how to make coins ‘speak?’
As Judge Tzedek was leaving the court, he was shocked to find that he was being followed by dozens upon dozens of people. With every passing step, the crowd following him grew larger. Before he had gone too very far, his progress was halted by the crush of well-wishers – all seeking to shake his hand and congratulate him on his wisdom, his brilliance and his courage.
“JUDGE TZEDEK IS THE WISEST MAN IN THE WORLD!” they were shouting. “THREE CHEERS FOR THE WORLD’S WISEST MAN!”
“My friends please,” the judge attempted to shout over the crowd, so that he might be heard. “While I am not insensitive to your praise, I must, in all honesty tell you that I am not the wise sage you think me to be. Not at all . . .”
“DON’T BE SO MODESST,” the assembled crowd answered in one voice. “We now know that in order to solve the world’s most difficult problems, one most possess the wisdom of Tzedek.”
The judge was vigorously shaking his head in denial. “No, please . . . please . . . listen to me! You must believe me. I was not the one who came up with the idea of how to make the coins speak. I repeat: it was simply not my idea!”
“But if not you, then who?” the throng of well wishers wanted to know, assuming that Tzedek was merely being self-effacing and overly modest.
“Believe me when I tell you that it was a little boy. A child of no more than five or six and wise beyond his years. He was the one who came up with the idea, not me.”
“Right. Sure,” the assembled gathering answered with good-natured sarcasm. “And just who is this little boy who possesses the wisdom of Tzedek?”
“I do not rightfully know,” the judge answered somewhat sheepishly. “I saw him in the park yesterday playing with a group of children. They were play acting the trial between Reuven and Paltiel. The little boy of whom I speak, he acted out the role of judge. And I tell you, it was he who came up with that utterly brilliant idea for pouring the coins into the water . . . not me.”
“It’s not that we disbelieve you, your honor,” a man in the crowd said. “But please, just to satisfy our curiosity, could you perhaps introduce us to him?”
“Yes, certainly,” the judge answered. “Let us just hope that he is in the park today.”
With that, the judge led the ever-growing throng over to the park. Looking about, the judge hoped that he would be able to recognize the boy – if only he were there. After a few minutes of searching, the judge pointed to a little boy and proclaimed: “There he is! The boy of whom I spoke!”
Seeing a large crowd of adults descending upon him, the boy broke into a run. He had no idea what they wanted of him; he certainly knew that he didn’t want anything to do with them.
“Please, stop, we mean you no harm,” the judge yelled after him. “I only want to ask you a simple question.” The boy slowed down until the judge and his followers could catch up with him. When he finally came to a stop, the judge approached him and said:
“You are the youngster who was out here yesterday with your friends playing, aren’t you?”
“No,” the boy responded with a tiny voice and a blank expression.
“But I saw you with my own eyes,” the judge said, giving him an ‘adults can tell when children are lying’ sort of look.
“No, not possible,” the boy answered.
“You must be mistaken. I know I saw you with a group of children just yesterday. You were playing ‘trial.’ You played the part of me – the judge. Surely you must remember.”
“No,” the boy answered a third time.
“Young man,” the judge said, with a hint of frustration in his voice, “How is it possible that anyone as wise as you could be a liar? Why would you want to lie to me, a judge? I know you were here yesterday with your friends. I just want you to tell me the truth.”
“Well,” the boy said in a voice that only the judge could hear, “Only if you promise not to tell my father where I was. If he knew I was out in the park playing with those children, I could get into a lot of trouble.”
“Why?” the judge whispered. “Were you supposed to be in school? Is that it – were you were skipping class? Are you are concerned lest your father find out?”
“Not exactly,” the boy answered. “It’s just that I am not supposed to be in the park – or anywhere – unless I am accompanied by . . . by . . . a certain man.”
“What man?” the judge asked.
“The man who is my protector,” the boy said in a sad whisper. By this point the boy’s lips were but a few inches from the judge’s ear. No one in the crowd could hear what they were saying to each other.
“WHAT’S HE SAYING?” the assembled group wanted to know. “WHO IS HE?” Turning away from the boy toward the crowd, the judge placed a finger to his lips. The multitude immediately quieted down. Returning his attention to the little redhead, the judge asked: “Can you at least tell me who you are?”
“I really would prefer not to,” the boy said mysteriously.
“How about at least telling me where you live. Certainly you can do that?”
Turning away from the judge, the boy pointed to the west. Following the direction of his finger, the judge found himself looking directly at the Palace of King David at the top of the hill!
“If that is where you live, then you must certainly be one of King David’s sons. Is that correct?”
The boy nodded, a sheepish grin on his face.
"So tell me. Which of the King’s many children is so wise and brilliant that he should know how to make coins speak?” the judge asked, putting his arm around the boy’s shoulders.
“My name is Solomon!” the boy answered. “But if my father finds out that I was down here in the park yesterday, he will be really mad. You see, I ran away from home for the morning. I just wanted to get away and play with people my own age. My father has this idea that anytime I go away from the palace I am in danger of being kidnapped or something. It’s not all that much fun being cooped up there in that miserable palace. So, from time to time, I just run away.”
“I see,” the judge answered with compassion and understanding. “I certainly can understand your father’s point of view. But then again, I understand yours as well. Perhaps I can help you with this little problem.”
“How is that possible?” Solomon asked, brightening just a bit.
"With your permission, I will accompany you back to the palace and tell your father what you were doing in the park yesterday. When I finish describing how you helped save an innocent man from being unfairly convicted, he will realize that it was meant for you to be in the park. Then he will forgive your little escapade.”
“Do you really think so?” Solomon asked.
“I know so,” the judge answered, beaming confidently. “Especially when I tell him that we now have a new expression in our vocabulary.”
“And what is that?” the boy asked.
“Why ‘The wisdom of Solomon,’” the judge replied. “From this day forth, whenever anyone seeks to explain the ultimate level of brilliance or intelligence needed to solve a thorny problem, they will say that it requires ‘The wisdom of Solomon.’”
And so it has been ever since . . .
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Once upon a time, there was a man of great wealth named Lord Nahum. This man owned a vast estate on which were ponds and orchards, flocks and herds, mines and timber, stables and hives. All of these were highly profitable. He wasn’t a bad sort, just a bit overly self-assured and given to streaks of what one might call “spontaneous mischief.” He also liked to make wild bets and wagers. Fortunately, he was also quite honest; once he set the terms of a bet, he would live up to them no matter what the cost.
His estate was managed by a number of overseers who had been with him for years. Each overseer was responsible for one aspect of Nahum’s enormous enterprise – the pond or the orchard, the flock or the herd, the mines, lumber or the honey. Each paid an annual fee to Lord Nahum for the right to oversee one portion of the estate, and in return, received a percentage of whatever profits that were derived from the fruits of their labor.
One day, the owner summoned three overseers to come visit him in the library of his mansion. At precisely ten o’clock of that morning, the three stood before Nahum who sat behind an ornately carved mahogany desk. The three men were, respectively, the ones responsible for Nahum’s timberlands, orchards and ponds – Anshel, Shimon and Abba. The three had absolutely no idea of why the powerful lord had called them to the mansion – and truly rare occurrence – and as such were all a bit nervous to find themselves standing in his presence. Despite the presence of three richly-embroidered wingback chairs in front of his mahogany desk, he had pointedly not asked them to be seated.
“Gentlemen,” he began, looking at the three men who were standing uneasily at attention before him. “I have a proposition for you – a proposition that could make you a great deal of money.” The three looked at one other; all had quizzically hopeful looks on their faces. Whatever could Lord Nahum have in mind?
“What I propose is this,” Lord Nahum said, brushing a nonexistent crumb off his desktop. “I am going to ask each of you three questions; three difficult questions. Whoever provides the correct – or should I say, the best – answers . . .” Here Lord Nahum paused, looked directly at the three overseers and beamed brightly. Taking up where he had left off, he continued, “. . . will be granted an even higher percentage of the profit, without ever again having to pay the annual fee.” Anshel and Shimon smiled broadly, licking their chops in anticipation. Abba looked down at his shoes, wondering what this was all about. “On the other hand,” Lord Nahum continued, rising from the throne-like chair that groaned under the weight of his well-fed posterior, “Whoever fails to provide answers I like, will forfeit his position as overseer.” Anshel and Shimon, both of whom were crafty, clever and self-assured, looked at each other in eager anticipation of the potential windfall before them. Abba, who was honest, simple and unworldly, continued looking at his shoes, fearful of what might well be a looming catastrophe. His heart began to race.
“Now mind you, I don’t claim to know the answers to the questions I am about to ask,” Lord Nahum said. “So far as I’m concerned however, each question does have one – and only one – correct answer.” Placing his palms on the edge of the desk, Lord Nahum asked: “Are there any questions before we proceed?” Anshel and Shimon looked at each other, sharing a knowing glance, followed by a barely perceptible nod. Anshel spoke:
“Lord Nahum, would it be alright with you if Shimon and I were to confer and then answer your questions as a . . . a team?” Both men looked at their employer with what they hoped were pleasing smiles.
“Well, I guess that will be alright,” Lord Nahum said. “But do understand that if yours is not the answer that pleases me, you both suffer the consequences. Agreed?”
“We certainly agree,” Anshel and Shimon said in unison, not doubting for a moment that their answers would be vastly superior to those of the pond overseer.
“What about you Abba?” Lord Nahum asked somewhat phlegmatically. “Do you wish to join in with these two on one set of answers?” Abba looked from Lord Nahum to Anshel and Shimon and then gave a barely perceptible shrug of the shoulders.
“I do not believe they would wish me to join them,” he said quietly. Nahum looked to the two, who nodded their heads in agreement. Indeed, they did not want Abba joining in with them. Looking back to the rapidly aging pond overseer, Lord Nahum said:
“So it is set. You, Abba, will answer for yourself. And you, Anshel and Shimon, you will provide one set of answers for the two of you. Are we in agreement?”
“Yes,” all three said.
“Good. Now, here are the three questions.
The first is: what’s the biggest thing in the world?
The second is: what is the fastest thing in the world?
And the third is: what’s the best thing in the world?”
Anshel and Shimon, who had a long history of partnership, looked happily at one another, as if they were already on the trail of three perfect answers. Abba, who was a simple man, stared out into space.
“Let us say that you have until the clock strikes twelve to come up with your answers,” Lord Nahum told the three overseers. Shimon and Anshel nodded in avid agreement; Abba sat in stony silence, his face a mask of fearful uncertainty. Lord Nahum arose and invited the three overseers to take seats in front of the mahogany desk. The three sat; Lord Nahum exited the room, leaving his overseers to their mental peregrinations.
Shimon and Anshel moved their close together and engaged in an animated conversation accentuated with so many gestures that to the casual observer, it might seem that they were communicating in pantomime. Abba, on the other hand, got up from his chair and moved to a couch on the far side of the room, where he sat by himself like some ancient statue. After about ten minutes, Shimeon and Anshel, wearing broad happy faces and even broader smiling eyes, shook hands; they had obviously come to an agreement on their answers to Lord Nahum’s three questions. For his part, Abba was even more lost in depression and uncertainty. In his imagination he could see Lord Nahum pointing a finger towards to door, commanding him to leave his estate – and thus his employ – forever.
“Whatever will I do to earn a living?” Abba pondered. “I’m just not capable of coming up with three perfect answers; I’m not nearly as smart or as clever as Shimeon and Anshel . . .”
Several hours later, Lord Nahum reentered the library and made his way to his chair behind the ornately carved mahogany desk. Seating himself, he looked at the three overseers who, once again, were standing before him.
“Well, have you all come up with your answers?” he asked a hint of merriment in his voice. “Who wishes to go first?” Looking at the three overseers, it was apparent that Shimeon and Anshel were champing at the bit to give their answers.
“Gentleman,” Lord Nahum said to the two men who oversaw his timberlands and his orchards, “It will give me great pleasure to hear your answers first. So here we go.”
“First,” Lord Nahum said, counting off one finger, “what is the biggest thing in the world?”
“Your heart,” Shimeon and Anshel said in unison. “No one could have a bigger, more kind, generous or understanding heart than you, My Lord.”
“Uh huh, yes that’s certainly a wonderful answer,” Lord Nahum responded with a surprising lack of enthusiasm. “And now, on to the second question,” he continued:
“What is the fastest thing in the world?”
“Why your Arabian stallion!” the two overseers answered. Certainly there is no creature in the world that can keep pace with him. You’ve bred and raised the finest, fastest horse on the planet!”
“Well now, that is certainly a delightful answer,” Lord Nahum said without further comment. “And now, for the third question,
“What is the best thing in the world?”
“Without question, the very best thing in the whole wide world is being in the employ of such a wonderfully magnanimous person as yourself!”
Upon hearing the two men’s shared answers, Lord Nahum arose from his seat, tugged on his coat so that it might cover a bit more of his well-fed belly, and said, “I thank you for the time and effort you obviously put into coming up with your marvelous answers. . .”
The two men beamed in anticipation of Lord Nahum’s decision – a decision which no doubt pay them a handsome reward; of remaining on the estate rent-free for the rest of their lives. The two overseers approached Lord Nahum, their hands outstretched in gratitude. . .
"Not so fast,” Lord Nahum said quietly, facing his palms towards the two. Shimeon and Anshel let their hands drop to their sides. Then Lord Nahum continued quietly:
“I may not be a genius, but then again, I am certainly nobody’s fool. Your answers were obviously meant to tickle my ego . . . which to a certain extent they have. But that’s not why I posed the three questions; I really, truly wanted to hear good, serious answers. And you, Shimeon and Anshel, have not even tried. I am neither so shallow nor self-centered as to be satisfied with hollow flattery. In a sense, you have insulted my intelligence, substituting sweet talk for serious thought. So therefore, according to the rules I set out before posing my questions, you are hereby relieved of your posts on my estate . . .” As he was saying these words, Lord Nahum pointed towards the door of the library; the door through which the two men would exit for the last time before leaving the estate.
Shimeon and Anshel stared at Lord Nahum in disbelief; a wave of nausea overtook them. The two plodded out of the library in silence, berating themselves for having so badly underestimated their Lord and Master.
That left Abba, whose eyes followed his now former colleagues as they exited through the massive mahogany door, angrily slamming it shut.
“Well Abba,” Lord Nahum spoke to the overseer of his ponds. “Are you prepared to answer my three questions?” Lord Nahum smiled as Abba quivered.
“Wi . . . wi . . . with My Lord’s kind p . . . p . . . permission,” Abba stammered, “would it be possible for me to go to my cottage and th . . . th . . . think over my answers and th . . . th . . . then re . . . re . . . return tomorrow? I fear that I am n . . . n . . . not ready.”
Lord Nahum paused for a moment, as if in thought. Then, his smile broadening, he told the man before him, “Certainly Abba . . . by all means, return to your cottage and then come back in the morning. I look forward to hearing your answers.” With that, Lord Nahum waved Abba away and resumed his seat behind the massive mahogany desk.
Abba quickly departed from his Lord and Master and made his way back to the cottage he shared with his daughter Nurit, a bright and beautiful young woman of 22 years.
Chananiah and the Golden Hair
I. It All Started With a Box . . .
Once upon a time long ago, there lived a bright and decent young man named Chananiah. Chananiah lived with his mother Shulamit and his father Baruch, a man well known and greatly respected for his wisdom, piety and love of animals. One day, Baruch summoned Chananiah to his bedside. The elderly man said to him:
“Chananiah my son, I am getting old and the time for me to die is fast approaching. Before I die, there are four things I must tell you – four things I will want you to do once I am gone.”
With tears welling in his eyes, Chananiah said: “whatever you wish of me, you know I shall do.”
“When I die, his father said, “I want you to give me a proper burial and then mourn for me for thirty days according to the customs and rituals of our ancestors. Anything longer than that will make of you and your mother perpetual mourners. All things have limits. Life has limits. So too do grief and mourning. Remember this, my son: one never truly gets over loss. If you are healthy – both mentally and spiritually – you hopefully get to a point of accepting loss. That is about the best any of us can ever hope to do. This is the first thing I want you to promise me.”
Holding Baruch’s hand, Chananiah promised that he would abide by his father’s wishes.
“Secondly,” his father said, “I want you to remember to continue reading, studying and learning every day of your life. Life without the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom is a life not worth the name. Always remember that learning need not lead to anything tangible; it is its own reward, and the rewards can be very, very great. Learn as if you are going to live forever, but live as if you are going to die on the morrow”
“This too I promise,” said Chananiah.
“Third, I want you to promise me that you will continue our family tradition of caring for animals, no matter how large or small, no matter be they wild or tame. For these too are God’s creatures, and deserve to be respected and protected. Remember, we have not been placed on this earth to be its masters, but rather its stewards. It is our solemn obligation to do all we can to keep this world as orderly and pristine as we found it.”
“You know that I shall follow your command,” Chananiah said.
“Now Chananiah,” his dying father said, sitting up slightly in his bed, “the fourth thing is a bit unusual. At the conclusion of the thirty-day period, I want you to go to the marketplace. When you are there, I want you to purchase the first thing you are offered, no matter what it is. Additionally, you shall under no circumstances haggle over the price. Whatever price the seller will at first request – this is what you shall pay. Do you understand? Do you agree?”
“Yes father,” Chananiah said, although his face showed that he didn’t necessarily understand. “Whatever is first offered me, I shall purchase it, regardless of what it is and what its price may be.”
“Good said the father, slipping back into a supine position. “Have you any questions my son?”
“No father. Although I certainly don’t understand this last matter, I know you must have good reasons. I shall do exactly as you ask. Now please, try and get some rest.” With that Chananiah left his father’s room while the old man fell into a deep sleep – a sleep from which he never reawakened . . .
Several days later, Chananiah’s father Baruch passed away. True to his word, the son buried his father in the time-honored tradition of his ancestors. He mourned his passing for thirty days, during which time he immersed himself in study and taking long walks in the woods. During these walks, he was often accompanied by animals. It was almost as if they sensed his grief.
On the thirty-first day after his father’s death, Chananiah rose early, put on his best suit of clothes, and went to the marketplace. Arriving there, he started walking about, looking at all the wares the various merchants had for sale. After five or six minutes of mindless browsing, a man approached him.
“Kind sir, might I interest you in . . .”
“Yes,” said Chananiah, even before the man could finish his sentence. “Whatever it is that you are selling, I shall gladly buy. What price are you seeking?”
“Ah . . .ah . . .” the man stammered in disbelief, never having found a customer so willing to buy an unknown article of merchandise. Figuring the well-dressed stranger for a rich fool, he asked for a tremendous price.
“Shall we say fifteen pieces of silver?” the merchant asked. Now, fifteen pieces of silver was an enormous amount of money; more money than Chananiah had on his person.
“I shall pay you fifteen pieces of silver,” Chananiah announced in an almost trance-like state. “But you must wait for me to go home and get the rest of the money. I only have eight pieces of silver with me at the moment.
“Eight pieces will be more than adequate,” the greedy salesman said, presuming that Chananiah was merely making an excuse to get out of his sight. Indeed, the seller would have been more than delighted to receive the eight coins.
“No,” Chananiah protested, “you said you wanted fifteen pieces of silver, and that is precisely what I shall pay. If you would be so kind as to wait for a half hour, I shall return with the rest of the money.”
“But don’t you even want to know what you are buying for all the money?” the man asked, not believing his good fortune at running across such a strange and gullible young man.
“No, not really,” Chananiah said, turning in the direction of his home. “It is merely enough that you have offered it for sale. Please wait for my return.”
The man watched in amazement as Chananiah walked off. For some unfathomable reason, he knew that the eccentric young man would return as he had promised . . .
Precisely thirty minutes later, Chananiah returned and paid the man his fifteen pieces of silver. It was only then that Chananiah saw what he had purchased: a carved wooden box about the size of a small treasure chest. It was a pretty, well-constructed box to be certain, but surely not worth fifteen pieces of silver. When the merchant placed the box in his hands, Chananiah was disappointed to find that it weighed next to nothing – it was likely empty. Thanking the man, he turned and walked slowly back to his home.
When he returned home, Chananiah’s mother was anxiously waiting for him at the front gate.
“And so, Chananiah,” she said, “I see you fulfilled father’s last wish.”
“Yes mother,” he answered. “Here it is: the first thing offered to me at the marketplace.” With that, he showed Shulamit the carved wooden box.
“What’s inside it?” she asked eyeing the object with faint disappointment.
“From its weight, I would guess virtually nothing,” Chananiah said. “But that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I have fulfilled father’s final wish.”
“The least we can do is open it up and see what it looks like on the inside,” Shulamit said, talking his arm.
When they got into the house, Chananiah placed the box on a table in the center of the main room. He opened the lid and looked inside. There he found a second, smaller box, with the same carved design.
“Well, it’s actually a better buy than I thought, Chananiah chuckled. “Two boxes for the price of one!”
“Come on, come on,” Shulamit urged, “open the second box and see what’s inside of it.”
Chananiah opened the second box only to find a third, even smaller carved wooden box. It was identical to the two larger boxes – pretty and functional, but again, certainly not worth anywhere near fifteen pieces of silver.
“Do you suppose there is yet another box inside this one?” his mother asked.
“There’s only one way to find out,” Chananiah answered good-naturedly. “Let’s see.” With that, Chananiah slowly began opening its lid. Before he got it halfway open, a tiny frog with the most beautifully luminous eyes jumped out and landed on the top of the second box! It seemed happy to be free of its small wooden prison. Chananiah couldn’t help but stare at the frog’s beautiful eyes; they were almost magical in their intensity – certainly nothing he had ever seen in a frog.
“Imagine that,” Chananiah said, beginning to laugh. “A frog of our very own. And it only cost fifteen pieces of silver! Why this has to be the most expensive frog in the history of the world.”
“Yes, but I think I’m worth it,” said a tiny voice with a musical lilt.
“What did you say?” Chananiah asked his mother. “Did you say something? It didn’t sound at all like you.”
“No Chananiah, I thought it was you who had spoken in a strange voice.” They looked at each other and then slowly turned their gaze to the tiny creature, which had by this point hopped off the second box and onto the table. Could it have been the frog? Impossible! Frogs, as everyone knows, simply do not possess the power of speech.
“Like I said, I think I am easily worth fifteen pieces of silver,” the tiny musical voice repeated. It was the frog!
“Tell me I haven’t purchased a talking frog!” Chananiah said in disbelief. “How is this possible? I remember reading about a talking donkey in the Bible, but a frog? It’s just not possible.”
“Actually,” the frog continued,” I’m not really a frog in the normal sense of the word. You see my father was Adam and my mother Lilith, the goddess of the night’ that makes me a “demigod.” And because of my mother, I am also what you might call ‘enchanted,’ in the sense that I can exist as whatever creature I please. Moreover, it pleases me at this point in my life to live as a frog. You see I love ponds and lily pads; therefore, I am a frog. It’s really quite a good little life.”
“In all my born days,” Chananiah said to tiny creature, “I never thought that I would be having a conversation with a frog. Tell me, how did you happen to become locked up in these boxes? Do you have a name? Mine is Chananiah, and this is my mother, Shulamit”
“As to how I got in that box, I am not certain. One night I went to sleep on my favorite lily pad; the next thing I knew I was trapped in the smallest box. How that box came to be placed within two others is well beyond me, I assure you. As for my name, ever since I decided to live life as a frog, I have called myself ‘Tz’farDaya,’ but my friends on the pond call me simply ‘Daya.’”
“Then Daya it shall be,” Chananiah said. “Now, my little friend, would you care to stay and have a bit of lunch with us? And then after our meal, perhaps you will tell us a bit more about yourself.”
As things turned out, Daya moved in with Chananiah and Shulamit, and became a part of their family. They treated the little frog like their own child. They truly loved each other, and went everywhere together. As time went on, the frog grew. At first, she slept in the smallest of the three carved wooden boxes. When that became too small, she moved to the middle-sized one. And when she eventually and inevitably outgrew the third, largest box, Chananiah made up a sleeping space in a dresser drawer.
Months and months went by. Before they knew it, Daya had been a part of their family for one year, two years, then three. One day Shulamit saw that something was troubling her son. When she asked what was wrong, he took her into the kitchen, sat down at the table, and whispered: “It’s Daya.”
“Whatever is wrong with Daya?” Shulamit asked clutching her hand to her breast. “Is she, God forbid, sick?”
“Shh,” said Chananiah, putting a finger to his lips. “We don’t want Daya to overhear us. No, thank God, nothing is wrong with her. The problem is that she has gotten so big and eats so much. We are beginning to run very low on money; I don’t know how we’re going to be able to continue living like we do. The few coins I make giving advice to the people who come with their questions and problems don’t seem to be enough. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure what to do.”
“May I offer a suggestion my dear friends?” With that, Daya hopped up on the table. “I couldn’t help overhearing what you were talking about Chananiah. Believe me, I understand. I certainly do not wish for either of you to go wanting because of me. I think the best thing for all of us will be for me to return to my beloved pond and lily pad. There I can live amongst all the other creatures and fend for myself. And believe me, I leave with nothing but love in my heart for both of you.”
Chananiah and Shulamit began weeping. In their hearts, they knew this was the only solution. Nonetheless, it saddened them to think of life without their beloved Daya.
Sensing their thoughts (something Daya was always good at) she said: “Please don’t think that this is the end of our relationship. Why, in some ways, it is only the beginning . . .
“How is that possible if you are leaving?” Chananiah asked.
“Well, ah . . . We can always visit each other,” Daya said in a slightly halting voice. After a moment’s silence, she continued more confidently: “The pond is less than half an hour away. Tomorrow morning we go. And please, bring the three wooden boxes with you.””
Why?” Chananiah asked wiping away his tears with a handkerchief.
“Oh I have my reasons,” Daya said, with a hint of mystery in her voice.
The next morning after breakfast, the three set out for Daya’s favorite pond. Arriving there, the frog, now quite large and beautiful, began hopping about from pad to pad. Seeing her frolic so, Chananiah and Shulamit felt a bit better about their imminent parting of the ways. They felt less guilty for “abandoning” her, and sensed that at least she would be happy and healthy.
“Friend, how do we say good-bye?” Chananiah asked. “What words can we say?”
“Words are not necessary,” Daya answered. But a few gifts certainly are. Please, open the boxes and take them apart.”
Chananiah did as Daya requested. When the three boxes were aligned side-by-side Daya said: “Now, peel back the lining from the inside of the smallest box.” Again, Chananiah did as requested. Behind the lining he found a square piece of parchment about two inches to a side. It had mysterious writing on it from border to border.
“Whatever is this?” Chananiah asked, turning the yellowing piece of parchment over in his hand.
“Oh it’s a magic little something that will grant you a very special power. Roll it up Chananiah, and place it beneath your hat.” Chananiah again did as he was requested.
“Now,” Daya continued, “if you will be so kind, do you see that raven sitting in the carob tree over yonder? Ask him how he’s feeling.”
“What?” asked Chananiah in amazement. Talk to a raven? But that’s not possible. I mean, he’s a bird and I’m a man . . .”
“Please Chananiah,” Daya said, “won’t you at least humor me?”
“Oh all right,” Chananiah said. Looking up at the carob tree, he pointed his gaze at the raven of whom Daya had spoken. “And how are you this fine day Mr. Raven?” Chananiah asked, feeling a bit foolish and hoping that there weren’t any strangers around to hear him speaking to a bird.
“I’m doing well, thank God, and you?” said the raven.
“I can’t believe it,” Chananiah said, “he understood my words. And I . . . I . . . understood everything he said. How is that possible?”
“It’s like I told you,” Daya said. “That little piece of parchment possesses magical powers. Whenever you place it under your hat, you will be able to speak and understand any and all of God’s creatures; anyone and everyone from Aardvarks to Zebras.”
“It’s like a dream come true!” Chananiah said in amazement. “That I, who so dearly love all of God’s creatures, should now be able to speak with them! How can I ever thank you enough Daya for this great gift?”
“Tsk, Tsk,” said the frog. “It is I who should be thanking you. I have never met anyone who has a better, more intuitive grasp of animals. It is only fitting that you should be able to speak and be understood in all their languages. Now, what I want you to do is to say the following: ‘Birds of the heavens, birds of the sky, come flying in quickly with your gifts from on high.’”
Looking upward into the brilliant blue heavens, Chananiah repeated Daya’s words: “Birds of the sky, birds of the sky, come flying in quickly with me your gifts from on high.”
Within a few short minutes, half-a-dozen birds were winging overhead, each a different sort of feathered marvel. They all came to light at Chananiah’s feet. Under their wings were tied various strange-looking roots and herbs.
“What are these?” Chananiah asked, pointing to the various bulbs and tubers strapped beneath their wings.
“These are all roots and herbs possessing magical powers,” said one of the birds, a lovely Blue Grosbeak. “They can cure burns, cuts and broken bones just by rubbing them over the injured spot. They are now all yours. Use them in good health.” And with that, the six birds removed the roots and herbs from beneath their wings and flew away.
“This is simply too wonderful for words,” Chananiah said. “Now in addition to being able to speak with the animals, I can help ease their pain. Oh thank you Daya, thank you!”
“You are more than welcome old friend,” Daya chuckled, bowing low to the ground. But we are not yet finished. Now I want you to call “Lambs of the pasture, lambs without measure; come calling on me and bring me your treasure.” Chananiah stared at Daya as if he didn’t understand. “What are you waiting for?” Daya prompted. “Go ahead.”
“OK, here goes,” Chananiah said. “Lambs of the pasture, lambs without measure; come calling on me and bring me your treasure.” Within a few minutes Chananiah was surrounded by half-a-dozen lambs, their wool thick and luxurious.
“Reach your hand inside the wool and see what you find,” Daya said. Chananiah rolled up his coat sleeve and proceeded to put his hand into the wool of the first lamb. The wool was so thick it reached almost to his elbow. When he pulled his arm back out, there, clutched in his hand was a fistful of gold and silver coins!
“Whatever is this?” Chananiah asked in amazement.
“These lambs carry a fortune in coins,” Daya replied. “You see, you and Shulamit spent virtually all you had fulfilling your father’s dying wish. And to make matters worse, you denied yourself so much just to take care of me throughout all these years. So I thought it would only be fair for me to repay you. Take the coins Chananiah; I am certain that you will use your newfound wealth and riches for the benefit of others.”
Chananiah went from lamb to lamb, pulling out all the coins hidden in their woolly coats. When he had finished, he had a pile of coins far in excess of anything he had ever seen. Suddenly he was rich – very, very rich. “How can I ever repay you for your kindness? I mean, because of your wonderful gifts, I can speak and understand the animals, cure wounds and injuries, and now – and now I can help those less fortunate. What more could anyone want?”
“Well,” Daya said with a smile, “there is still one more gift. This time I want you to say “Dogs of the forest and dogs of the field come to Chananiah and bring me a meal. Go ahead Chananiah. The dogs are awaiting your command.”
“As you wish,” Chananiah said. Then, cupping his hands to his mouth, he called out: “Dogs of the forest and dogs of the field come to Chananiah and bring me a meal.” Within minutes Chananiah saw six dogs coming over the hill toward the pond. They were harnessed to a small wagon laden with every kind of food one could imagine: fruits and vegetables, loaves of bread and bottles of milk, eggs and meats, cheeses and chocolates. “But Daya,” Chananiah stammered, “why?” I certainly have enough money to buy anything I desire for the rest of my life.”
“I know you Chananiah,” Daya replied. “You’re going to use that money not for yourself, but for others. This food, it is for you and your mother. At least as much as you desire. I would bet anything that you will give most of it away to the poor anyway. Am I right old friend?”
“That I cannot deny,” Chananiah said. And then, surveying all that sat before him, he said: “This is all too much for words. You have repaid me far more than I deserve. What can I say?”
“Only that you and Shulamit should come visit me as often as possible and that you continue obeying your father’s wishes. Remember to study and to learn, to treat all God’s creatures with tenderness, and to be a brave, honest man.”
“Yes, of course Daya,” Chananiah said. “I guess there is nothing left but to return home and get back to work. There is much to be done. We shall return in a few days and see how you’re doing. Good-bye for now my dear friend.”
“God be with you my brother,” said the wise young frog. With that, Chananiah and Shulamit turned and slowly walked away, the doGodriven wagon following close behind. When Chananiah and Shulamit had walked about 100 yards, they turned and waved, saying, “We shall see you soon dear Daya.”
Daya waved to them. But under her breath she said: “we shall see each other, but not as soon as you might think. Have a successful voyage into the unknown my beloved . . . “
II. The Nasty King
Now the king who ruled the land where Chananiah lived was a rather nasty man with a really nasty temper. In matter of plain fact, no one could recall the last time the kingdom had been ruled by a nice monarch. For as long as anyone could remember, the kings of that realm were vain, self-centered men interested only in their own pleasures. It seemed that just as soon as one nasty ruler departed the throne, another, even viler monarch would replace him. The current king, a contemptible man named Ahaz, was no different. Being just as self-centered as those who preceded him, he spent his time acquiring the best of everything: the best wines and food, the best clothes and horses, the best jewels and advisors. And that is why when he heard about an extraordinarily wise young man named Chananiah, he knew that he had to have him as one of his royal advisors.
One day, a royal servant came to Chananiah’s house. He had no problem finding the place; he had been told to look for a house with a long line of people queuing up outside. These were the people who would come on a daily basis seeking advice and counsel from the young scholar. It was said that Chananiah was rich and generous, wise and kind. There were even rumors that he knew how to speak the languages of the birds of the sky and the beasts of the field, and could perform miraculous feats of healing.
The royal servant elbowed his way to the front of the line, demanding to see Chananiah. He raised such a ruckus that soon Chananiah appeared at the front door.
“What can I do for a servant of King Ahaz?” Chananiah asked moving away from the door. He was now standing among the people waiting to see him.
“How do you know who I am?” the servant asked, taken aback by the scholar’s extreme youth.
“Well it’s really quite simple,” Chananiah answered. “Who else but a servant of King Ahaz would be dressed in the robes of a royal messenger and be so insistent in not waiting on line like all the others? What can I do for you? If the king sends you, it must be truly important.” Chananiah’s suppliants – those who were waiting to see him – watched and listened with fascination, for they had never been so close to the throne – even if merely in the personage of a royal messenger.
“Yes it is important,” the messenger replied. “The king commands your presence at the palace this afternoon. You are to return with me at once.”
“With all due respect, my good man,” Chananiah said, “you can see that there are many people who have been patiently waiting all morning to see me. I would not feel right just leaving them here.”
“GO TO THE PALACE YOUNG MASTER!!” the patient suppliants responded as one. “WE WILL WAIT FOR YOUR RETURN!”
Smiling, Chananiah went back in to the house, informed Shulamit that he was going to the palace, and donned his best jacket and cap.
“Whatever might the king wish of you?” Shulamit asked with fear in her voice. “I hear that King Ahaz is not a very nice man and always gets his way. Aren’t you just a bit frightened my son?”
“You ask a question that I cannot answer. I have no idea what King Ahaz wants with a simple man like me. As to being frightened, the answer is no; I have nothing to fear. I have done nothing wrong. Now, please wait here and I will return as soon as I can. Perhaps you can give all those who wait a bit of lunch while I’m gone.” With that Chananiah kissed his mother and set out for the palace accompanied by the royal messenger.
When Chananiah arrived at the palace, he was quickly ushered in to the Room of the Royal Throne. There, seated upon an enormous jewel-encrusted throne sat King Ahaz. He appeared to be neither young nor old, neither fat nor thin, neither handsome nor ugly. He had longish red hair, a ruddy complexion and two mismatched eyes – one blue and the other green. Chananiah bowed low before the king.
“May it please your majesty,” the young scholar began, “I am Chananiah, the son of Baruch, a simple man from the village. In what manner may I offer assistance to my lord?” The king rose from his throne. He was clothed in a long robe of rich sable.
“Are you the same Chananiah who is said to be as wise as Solomon of old?” The king spoke in a voice unlike any Chananiah had ever heard: loud and harsh like the crackling of thunder. The king motioned for Chananiah to arise.
“If it pleases my lord,” Chananiah said, “I cannot take credit for what others call me. I admit that I do study a great deal from our Holy Books and do offer a bit of advice from time to time. But as for being as wise as the great Solomon – far be it from me to make such a claim.”
“Then you are the one I seek!” roared the king. “For I have heard that this young man Chananiah is also quite humble. Now, I suppose you are wondering why I called you here this day.”
“Yes my lord,” Chananiah answered looking the king full in the eye. “But I know that my lord is a very busy man and will quickly tell me why I have been summoned.”
“Well said,” the king responded, his voice now lowered to something approaching a conversational tone. “As you may know, I possess the best of everything – the choicest wines and delicacies, the finest horses and best advisors . . . “
“. . . and so my Lord wishes me to become one of his royal advisors.” Chananiah said, finishing the king’s thought.
“Yes. Precisely. And I would like you to begin right now. I want you live here at the palace, where you will have a room in the Chamber of the Royal Advisors. Do you agree?” Chananiah was certainly wise enough to know what even a simple man could understand: that the monarch’s request was not a request at all, but rather a command.
“Yes my lord,” Chananiah said, once again bowing low. I have only one request to make.”
“Speak,” said the king.
“If it pleases my lord, I would like to be able to return to my home at the end of each workday, rather than residing here at the palace. You see, I have in the village an elderly mother whom I take care of. Additionally, there are many people who come to my home each day seeking my advice and opinions. I cannot let them down.”
“As you wish, Chananiah,” said the king. He was actually beginning to sound human. “I agree that you should be permitted to return home each day just as soon as your work is completed.” With that, King Ahaz sat back down on his throne and thumped his scepter on the ground three times. Immediately, the same royal messenger who had delivered Chananiah to the king appeared.
“Take him to the Chamber of the Royal Advisors at once!” the king commanded. Taking Chananiah by the arm, the servant led him out of the Royal Throne Room down a series of corridors until they reached a room with a tall oaken door. On the door was a bronze plaque, which read ‘Chamber of the Royal Advisors.’ The Royal Messenger opened the door and ushered Chananiah inside.
The Chamber was a vast room filled with soft couches and long tables. It had bookcases running from ceiling to floor. Sitting around the room were nine men and women: the Royal Advisors.
“May I introduce to you Chananiah, the son of Baruch, the newest member of the Chamber of Royal Advisors,” the messenger intoned. “Take your place amongst the advisors to my lord, King Ahaz.” With that, the messenger turned, exited the room and closed the tall oaken door.
The nine advisors looked Chananiah up and down in the manner one might check out a horse they were considering for purchase. They did not seem an overly friendly lot. One, a short elderly man with a menacing eye came up to Chananiah and, without even introducing himself asked, “So tell us, Chananiah son of Baruch, what impressions have you of our Lord and Master, the great King Ahaz?”
“I find him to be an angry man,” Chananiah answered. “Is he always so loud and menacing?
“Without question,” a second advisory answered.
“Have you any idea what makes him so angry?” Chananiah asked. “I mean, it is neither good for his health nor the health of this kingdom if he is always angry and loud.”
“Why is he so angry?” the leader mused aloud. “This we do not know. We long ago gave up trying to figure it out. The best we can do is to offer him advice and pray that he does not become upset or wroth with us. Have you any ideas?”
“Hmm,” Chananiah mused, pulling on his right earlobe. After gathering his thoughts for a moment or two, he said: “Is the king by any chance married?”
“No he is not,” one of the younger advisors answered. “Why do you ask?”
“It seems to me that perhaps, just perhaps,” Chananiah said, taking in the measure of his new colleagues, “that if he had a wife, he might become a nicer, more fulfilled person. I know that my late father Baruch – may he rest in peace – greeted each new day with joy in his heart because of my mother, Shulamit. Perhaps that is what the kind is lacking and that is why he is so testy.”
“You may well have a point there,” another royal counselor said. “But do you want to be the one to tell him? I cannot imagine how angry the king would become with the advisor who would say to him: ‘I think that if you got married you would no longer be such a nasty king.’ Can you see yourself telling him that Chananiah, son of Baruch?” The advisor sounded quite dubious.
“Yes and no,” Chananiah answered. “I can see the suggestion being made, but not by me alone. I think that it would be far wiser for us to speak as one – to suggest that the king might want to consider marriage. But I think that we should make our recommendation for a totally different reason than the one we have mentioned amongst ourselves just now.”
“Such as?” the Chief Advisor asked.
“Well,” Chananiah said, thinking out loud, “perhaps it would be wise for us to say something like ‘Your Majesty, have you ever thought about who will replace you when your end comes? We all hope and pray that you live to be one hundred and twenty years. But the fact remains that none of us – even you, My Lord – is immortal. Would it not be a terrible shame if when you leave this world, there is no son or daughter to take your place?’” Chananiah looked around the room. He saw in the eyes and faces of his colleagues that they agreed with his approach.
“When do we next sit with King Ahaz as a council?” Chananiah asked.
“This afternoon toward the end of the second watch,” the Chief Advisor said. He was a wrinkled crone with a streak of impatience. “Are you going to bring this matter to his attention when next we meet?”
“What harm is there in making a simple recommendation? And especially if it comes from all of us as a council?”
“We shall see what we shall see,” the aged Chief said. “We hereby grant you permission to speak on our behalf. But beware: you may be placing all of us in grave peril . . .”
That afternoon, King Ahaz entered the Chamber of Royal Advisors at precisely the end of the second watch. He spoke angrily with his counselors for less than an hour on a whole host of topics. As the session drew to a close, he said: “If there be nothing else to discuss, I shall leave you to your appointed tasks. I will see you tomorrow.”
“Your majesty, if I might venture an observation on behalf of my august colleagues?” Chananiah said, rising from his seat on a couch near the window.
“Speak,” the king said with a decided lack of interest.
“Your majesty, “I, that is we, have been giving a particular matter quite a bit of thought here today that we think might be highly beneficial to you, My Lord. Now, as you know, we pray for your health and long life each day, and desire to see nothing but good for you. And . . .”
“GET TO THE POINT!” the king thundered. “I HAVEN’T GOT ALL DAY!”
“Precisely,” Chananiah said, backing up as if he had been hit by a blast of foul wind. “It is our considered opinion that the king should consider taking a wife – a fine woman who can present My Lord with a child who will be his successor . . .”
“A wife you say? I have never really given the matter much thought. As all the senior advisors well know,” the king said, slowly looking around the room, “I do not like to spend my time thinking. That’s what I pay all of you for!”
“But your majesty,” Chananiah pleaded, “what will happen to your kingdom when you die? And please do not for one second think that we are looking forward to that tragic day; far from it. It is just that you have built up so much here and we would not want to see it disappear with you. Please, will you give our suggestion a bit of thought?
“VERY WELL!” the king shouted with mounting anger in his voice. “I shall have my decision tomorrow when next we meet. NOW BACK TO WORK ALL OF YOU!” As the king arose to take his leave, all the advisors jumped to their feet. Within seconds, the king had departed from the chamber, the echo of a slamming door resounding in their ears.
The next day, at the end of the second watch, King Ahaz returned to the Chamber of Royal Advisors. He looked terrible; worn and haggard with circles under his mismatched eyes. His hair was mussed and his mood most foul – even for him. The advisors, Chananiah included, were concerned. What would be their fate?
“I have just gone through one of the worst nights of my life. By first light I had not gotten one second’s-worth of sleep. And do you know why?” he said, walking over to where Chananiah was seated. He stared at his newest advisor, freezing the young man with his withering glance. “Because you have forced me to think! I told you how much I hate thinking.” Here he paused, yawned, and ran his hand across his sleep-deprived eyes. “Anyway,” he continued, “by the time I got out of bed this morning, I had a terrific headache – the combination of thinking and going without sleep. So I decided to walk in my garden in the cool of the morning, in the hopes that it would help ease the pain in my head. I’m walking and walking, when all of the sudden a reddish bird passes overhead once, twice, three times. By now, it has my attention. I look and see that it has dangling from its mouth – this.” With that, the king reached into his pocket and extracted a long golden hair. A single strand. He passed it around for all the advisors to see.
“This hair helped me make my decision. Hear me well, for I shall not repeat myself. I shall seek a wife! I shall become a husband!” The advisors began smiling tiny smiles amongst themselves.
“HOWEVER,” he continued, bringing an immediate end to their wave of good feeling, “I SHALL ONLY MARRY THE WOMAN WHOSE HAIR THIS IS!” With that, he stormed out of the room and slammed the door.
Before they could digest all the king had imparted, a royal messenger entered the chamber with a proclamation. Unfurling the vellum document, he read its words in a dire voice of warning: “I, King Ahaz, sovereign of the realm, do hereby proclaim that I shall take a wife. But only to the woman whose long golden hair was dropped by a red bird on my shoulder this morning. The Council of Royal Advisors is hereby commanded to find that woman, whoever and wherever she may be. You have precisely six months from today to complete this task. Should you fail in your mission, each and every member of the Council of Royal Advisors and their families shall be put to the sword! This I swear. [signed] King Ahaz.” Completing his task, the royal messenger re-rolled the document, presented it to the aged Chief Advisor, turned smartly, and exited the chamber.
For several moments, there was a stunned collective silence in the chamber. It was finally broken by the Chief Advisor himself, who, turned to the youngest and newest member of the council and said menacingly:
“Chananiah what have you done to us? You are only on the job for but a single one day and already you have put all of us in terrible and dire jeopardy. I think it is only fitting that you should be the one to go on this hopeless journey of discovery. And woe to all of us if you fail in your mission.”
The advisors were all glowering at Chananiah, as if he were their mortal enemy. And in a sense, he was; after all, it was his piece of advice that had placed their lives in peril.
“I swear to you by all that is holy,” Chananiah stammered, “that I shall succeed. And not just for the sake of you and me and all our families, but for the entire kingdom. Pray for me. With God’s help, I shall return six months from today with a new queen for our kingdom.” Chananiah turned and left the chamber. The seeming sureness of his gait belied the great fear he felt in his very bones.
That evening over dinner, Chananiah told his mother all that had occurred during his first day as a member of the Council of Royal Advisors. Needless to say, she was frightened beyond measure.
“But what if you fail, my son?” she implored. “Then we shall all sure die!”
“Do not think in those terms,” Chananiah soothed, stroking her hair. “There is a God in the heavens who no doubt watches out over fools like me. We just have to place our trust in Co. Now, let us get some sleep if we can. I must start out on my journey at sunup.”
The next morning, Chananiah packed provisions for his journey into the unknown. He took food and money sufficient for a trek of half-a-year. He also took a small bag containing the magic roots and herbs given him by the birds of the sky and the special parchment that gave him the power of animal speech. Kissing his mother, he set out for he knew not where.
As he disappeared from view, Shulamit thought that her heart would break. What would the future bring?
III. Chananiah’s Journey
Armed with his supply of food, money, healing herbs and the magic parchment, Chananiah headed north, toward the hill country. As he walked, he thought to himself, ‘I have to find the woman with the golden hair. I must find her within three months. Otherwise, I will not have enough time to return home. I only have six months to complete my task.’
Chananiah uttered a heartfelt prayer: “Dear God. Grant me strength and courage; help me locate this woman, whoever and wherever she may be, so that no harm may come to my dear mother, the Royal Advisors or their families. Amen.”
Chananiah’s daily routine consisted of arising at dawn, saying his morning prayers and starting out on the day’s search. He would not stop for breakfast – which consisted of only a roll, a bit of cheese and a few sips of water – until he had covered at least five miles. Depending on the terrain – hills or valleys, sandy deserts or dusty trails – the first five miles could easily take several hours. Quite often, he would be so busy traveling that he simply skipped the midday meal. By the time the sun went down and he ended his daily trek, he would barely have enough strength to eat his meager dinner.
Whenever he would come to a town, village, farm – even a collection of huts – he would go about displaying the long golden hair to whatever people as might assemble. Being inherently shy by nature, it was most difficult for Chananiah to approach strangers, show them the golden hair, and ask if there was any chance they knew the woman to whom it might belong. When asked the obvious question – “Why?” – all he could do was say, “It is rather complicated.” What made his task even worse was the reception people gave him; almost without exception people assumed that he was mad – some sort of obsessively love-struck lunatic. Despite his shyness and the less-than-hospitable reception, Chananiah knew he had no choice but to keep on with his quest. His life and the lives of many others depended on it.
One week passed; then two then three. It seemed to Chananiah that he had stopped in at least a dozen towns and villages; he had ceased counting the number of people with whom he had spoken.
He was beginning to worry.
One afternoon in the middle of his fourth week on the road, he stopped in a forest for a brief rest. Leaning up against a tree, he thought he might take a brief nap. Try as he may, he could not fall asleep; the noise of a chirping bird kept him awake. Looking up, he saw a magnificent Red Tailed Hawk leaning against the central branch of an old gnarled walnut tree. The bird looked to be in pain, if Chananiah was any judge of avian body language. Remembering Daya’s magic parchment, he took it out of his sack and placed it under his cap. He had to find out what was wrong with the bird. No sooner had he placed the parchment under his cap then he heard the hawk crying out, “OH! MY WING, MY WING! PLEASE DEAR GOD, PUT ME OUT OF MY MISERY!”
“What is wrong with your wing?” Chananiah asked, craning his neck upward to get a better look. “Is there something I can do to help you?”
“I must be delirious with the pain,” the hawk whimpered. “I actually thought I understood a human!”
“You are not delirious,” Chananiah said, cupping his hands around his mouth, so that the bird could hear him more clearly. “You do understand me, just as I understand you. Now tell me: what happened? Perhaps I can be of assistance.”
“How is this possible that we speak the same language? It is impossible!”
“Never mind that for now,” Chananiah said. “That is not important. What is important is that we get you some relief from your pain. What’s wrong?”
“I was flying around looking for food. I cannot remember if it was yesterday or the day before. The sky was darkening and I was so intent on finding food that I didn’t pay attention to the coming storm. Before I knew it, a tremendous clap of thunder scared me so that I flew right into the trunk of this tree, breaking my left wing. I have been perched here waiting to die ever since. It is all over for me. Once you break a wing, there is no hope.”
“Maybe not,” Chananiah said, beginning to shinny up the tree. “Just stay calm and I will come up and get you. When we reach the ground, I will attempt to repair your wing.”
“I do appreciate your concern,” the hawk said with great difficulty, “but you must not know much about birds. As I just told you, once we break a wing that is it. It is like with horses and their legs. There is no power in the universe that can mend a broken wing.”
“With all due respect,” Chananiah said, “I think I can. Now just stay calm and still.”
Chananiah continued up the tree’s central trunk. Reaching the hawk, he gently placed it in his sack, strapped the sack around his shoulders, and began gingerly climbing back down. When the two reached the forest floor, Chananiah took the Hawk out of the sack, gently placed it on a blanket, and dug one of the Daya’s herbs out of his pocket. Rubbing it back and forth against the broken wing, the hawk moaned in pain. After no more than 15 seconds, the moaning began softening. Then until it stopped altogether.
“Well, at least you have numbed my wing to the point where I cannot feel the pain,” the hawk said, with gratitude in his voice. “But I fear I shall never fly again.”
“Why don’t you just try flapping it once or twice?” Chananiah said. “You never can tell.”
With that, the hawk did as Chananiah suggested. At first tentatively, then with mounting confidence, the hawk flapped the broken limb back and forth. Within less than a minute, he was airborne. His wing had been mended!
“How is this possible?” the hawk asked in amazement. “This is some sort of magic. Or is it all a dream? First I dream I’m having a conversation with a human; then the human mends a broken wing! It has got to be a dream.”
“It definitely is not a dream, my friend,” Chananiah said, obviously just as pleased that the hawk was now whole. “That you are now flying about is real . . . very real.”
“Who are you magic man? How can I ever repay you? And how does this all come about?” the hawk asked, all the while hovering overhead.
“My name is Chananiah, and if you will have a bite of lunch with me, I will tell you how I come to speak your language and am able to heal your broken wing.”
The hawk landed at Chananiah’s feet and the two proceeded to share a brief, tasty lunch. While dining, Chananiah explained the magic parchment and healing herbs, gifts from Daya the daughter of Lilith the demigod. The hawk listened in rapt attention.
When they had finished eating, Chananiah said: “I really have to be on my way. I have a very important task to complete within a very short period of time. I am just grateful that you are now able to fly and fend for yourself.”
“Before you go,” the hawk said, “I want you to know that I owe you my life. If there is ever anything – and I mean anything – I can do for you, just call for me and I’ll be there. My name is Naitz. Remember, I am always available to help you, my friend.”
“Thank you Naitz,” Chananiah said, getting to his feet. “I will certainly keep that it mind. Remember to watch out for storms. I would hate to think of you getting into such a jam again.”
With these final words, Chananiah began walking toward the edge of the forest. Naitz began flying in the opposite direction. In his heart, Chananiah felt both joy and fear: joy for having been able to save Naitz from certain death; fear that he might not be able to complete his task.
Another relatively uneventful week came and went. By this time, Chananiah was well out of the forest and had arrived in the middle of farming country. Going from small farm to small farm, he displayed the golden hair and told of his quest. Still, he had no luck finding the woman to whom it belonged. His despair was growing with each passing day. All he could think of was the king’s angry promise to do away with Shulamit, the Royal Advisors and all their families, if he did not succeed.
One day at the beginning of the fifth week of his journey, he came across a Golden Retriever whose leg was caught in a trap. The dog was howling in pain. Placing Daya’s magic parchment under his cap, Chananiah convinced the dog that if he would lie still and not thrash about, he could be helped. True to his word, Chananiah released the dog’s leg from the trap. He saw that the limb was badly mangled. Using another one of the magic roots, Chananiah was able to bring about an almost immediate cure. The dog was astounded. Within minutes, the retriever was up on all fours, jumping around and licking Chananiah from head-to-toe in gratitude.
“Who are you Mr. Human that you can perform such incredible magic?” the dog asked in between heartfelt licks.
“My name is Chananiah, and it is not really magic. It’s . . . it’s . . . well, I guess you could call it magic. I’m just happy that you are out of danger and feeling better.”
“Feeling better?” the dog said in amazement. “I’m feeling like a young pup. And I have you to thank for that. My name is Calba, and I want you to know, Chananiah my friend, that if you are ever in need of me or any of my canine friends, all you have to do is call and we will be there.”
“You’ve got a deal, Calba. May God be with you.” And with that, Chananiah continued on his journey.
Toward the end of his second month on the road, Chananiah arrived on the coast in the city of Yafo. He was no closer to finding the woman with the golden hair than the day he departed. Deeply discouraged, he went down to the beach and sat down heavily in the sand. He watched as three men struggled with a long fishing pole to land an enormous Dusky Grouper. Their method of fishing was quite unique: the smallest man stood closest to the water, hands firmly on the flexible pole. The second, larger man had his arms around the waist of the first. The third man, who was by far the biggest and strongest of the trio, had his arms around the waist of the second. This third man, standing near the end of the pole, acted as their ‘coach.’ He would count ‘One, Two Three PULL – One, Two, Three PULL,’ and they would all tug in unison.
Chananiah watched their unsuccessful efforts for a few minutes and then turned his attention to the brightly spotted fish. It was obviously fighting valiantly for its life. Up and down, up down it went, crashing back into the surf, each time making a deafening ‘thud’ as it hit the water. Wondering whether or not fish could speak, Chananiah placed the parchment under his cap. Straining to hear above the sound of the surf, Chananiah actually heard the fish cry out “HELP! I DON’T WANT TO DIE! I HAVE A HUSBAND AND MANY CHILDREN! WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE HELP ME?”
Jumping to his feet, Chananiah ran down to where the three fishermen were pulling on the pole. Putting his arms around the waist of the third man, Chananiah began tugging along with them: ‘One, Two, Three, PULL – One, Two, Three PULL!’ On the third try, the giant Grouper – which was more than five feet in length and easily weighed 125 pounds – came leaping out of the surf and landed smack on the sand. It wriggled about for dear life.
Up to this point, the three fishermen had not realized that their sudden success was due to the addition of a fourth man. Seeing Chananiah, they went up to him to express their thanks. Chananiah immediately said to them: “I must have that fish. How much do you want for her?”
“Ugh . . . how do you know ‘he’s’ a ‘she?’” the largest man asked.
“It’s just a guess on my part,” Chananiah said looking all the while at the fish writhing in the sand, struggling for its life. “How much do you want for it?” he asked a second time, sounding quite anxious. “I’ll pay anything you ask.”
Seeing the look in Chananiah’s eyes, hearing the tension in his voice, they thought he must be mad. ‘Perhaps,’ they thought, ‘we can take advantage of him and ask a ridiculously high price. And perhaps, just perhaps, he is crazy enough to pay it!’ After a 15-second discussion amongst themselves, the large man – who seemed to be their leader – said: “How about five pieces of silver?”
“It is yours,” Chananiah said, reaching into his sack and pulling out a handful of gold and silver coins. He counted out five pieces of silver and handed them to the large man. Under normal circumstances, the fishermen could not have hoped to sell the Grouper for any more than three or four copper coins, so this was a tremendous windfall for them.
Chananiah’s next act served as positive proof that he was indeed a raving lunatic; he unhooked the Grouper from the fishermen’s pole and lugged it back into the water! Immediately, the fish began swimming out to sea.
“What in the world did you do that for, you fool?” the fishermen demanded. “Don’t you realize that you have thrown away a fortune on a stupid fish? If nothing else, you could have fed a small army of people for a week with that one Dusky Grouper.”
Looking out to sea, Chananiah told them “So far as I know, once I purchased that fish, it was mine to do with as I pleased. And it was my pleasure to let it go. How do you know she didn’t have a family and children to take care of?” The three fishermen looked at Chananiah as he was possessed by an evil spirit. They quickly left him, afraid that whatever was ‘possessing’ his mind might soon affect them as well.
As Chananiah went back to where he had left his few belongings, he heard the Grouper call out from the sea: “Thank you whoever you are for saving my life. I heard your explanation to those murderous fishermen. You are absolutely right; I do have a family and children. How do you come by this knowledge? And how is it that you speak the language of fish, human?”
Wading out into the water, Chananiah called out: “My name is Chananiah, and how it happens we speak each other’s language is not all that important. What matters is that you are safe and can now go back to your family. I was merely following the lesson and example set by my late father Baruch, of blessed memory. He taught me to have compassion for all God’s creatures. Now go in peace.”
Before the fish headed out to sea, she said: “My name is Dagah. If ever I can be of assistance to you, just call and either I or one of my fellow fish will be there for you. Again Chananiah, thanks from the bottom of my heart for saving my life.”
“Go in peace Dagah,” Chananiah called out. But by that point, she was too far away from the shore to hear. Chananiah watched as Dagah swam out toward the horizon. After a few minutes, he lost sight of her.
Chananiah returned to his parcel of belongings. The sun was beginning to go down. Under normal circumstances, he would have had his supper and then turned in for the night. But not this night. He had to continue on the road. With the third month fast approaching, he knew that time was running out. Would he succeed at finding the woman with the golden hair? And if he did, would it be in enough time to return her safely to the Kingdom of the contemptible King Ahaz?
IV. An Unwilling Princess
From the coastal town of Yafo, Chananiah continued his journey until he came to the tiny Kingdom of Eilat. He was now dangerously close to passing the halfway point in terms of time; he had been on the road for nearly three full months. And although he was happy to have been of assistance to his three new friends – Naitz, Calba and Dagah – he was still extremely worried. Even if he found the woman with the golden hair, would he have enough time to return to the Kingdom of Ahaz?
Entering Eilat, he made his way to the central market area. There he found hundreds of people all busily engaged in the buying, selling and trading of everything from apples to zithers. For what seemed like the thousandth time, Chananiah went from person to person and from stall to stall, showing the long golden hair, telling his story, and asking if anyone might know the woman to whom it belonged. And for what seemed like the thousandth time, the people with whom he spoke treated him like a fool or a madman.
More than one person asked Chananiah “What’s this all about? Are you looking for the woman you love? Has she run away from home?” All Chananiah could say was that he had his reasons, and that the woman must be found.
Now it so happened that one of the people who heard Chananiah that day was a young servant to Princess Charna, a member of the royal family of Eilat. The servant girl’s name was Nomi. She found the man’s story both incredible and somewhat sad. She thought to herself: ‘There must be thousands, if not tens of thousands of women in the world who have golden hair. How in the world can he ever expect to find the one woman to whom a single strand belongs? Why even my mistress has golden hair!’ She felt sorry for the man. ‘He must be searching for the woman of his dreams,’ she thought. ‘Whoever that woman is, I hope she realizes just how lucky she is to have a man who loves her so much that he is willing to make himself look like a fool before the entire world.’ Nomi of course had no idea that Chananiah’s search was not looking for himself, but rather for his master, King Ahaz.
Returning to the palace that overlooked the central market district, Nomi proceeded to the Royal Bathing Chamber, where she began preparing her mistress’s bath. After pouring out the water and adding the fragrant scented oils that Princess Charna loved, Nomi laid out the soaps, towels and ointments. Soon the lovely Princess Charna entered the bathing chamber and made her way into the water. Returning to the Royal Bed Chamber, Nomi straightened out the brushes and combs that her mistress would use on her luxurious hair. After about a half hour, Princess Charna, clothed in a soft silken robe, entered the Royal Bed Chamber. She walked straight over to a large wooden vanity, and seated herself before its mirror.
“Nomi,” she asked, “have you a few moments to brush my hair? There is no one who does a better job than you.” Nomi went over to where her mistress was seated, picked up a silver-backed brush, and began applying it to Princess Charna’s long golden hair. As she was brushing, Nomi began paying particular attention to the length and color of the princess’s hair. Could it be? Should she even bring up the stranger’s unusual story?
“My Lady,” Nomi finally said, while continuing to brush Princess Charna’s hair. “The strangest thing happened down in the market place this morning. There was a man going from stall to stall and from person to person displaying a long golden hair. It looked about the same as yours. He was asking questions.”
A smile played on Princess Charna’s lips. “What sort of questions?” she asked, closing her eyes.
“Actually,” Nomi responded, “he was really only asking one: who belonged to the golden hair.”
“Whatever for?” the princess asked.
“I’m not really sure,” Nomi said, “but I think he must be looking for the woman of his dreams.”
“And he has no other means of identifying her save a single strand of hair?” the princess asked. “He doesn’t know her name, her family or where she lives? Only the color of her hair?” Nomi nodded. The servant girl’s was face clearly visible to Charna in the mirror.
“I think I feel very sorry for him,” Princess Charna said as Nomi continued brushing. “He might as well be chasing after the West Wind.”
“Actually, My Lady,” Nomi said, “He did mention one thing that might narrow his search. He said that the hair was dropped from the mouth of a bird and landed on someone’s shoulder. Sounds strange, doesn’t it?”
“From the mouth of a bird?” the princess asked, opening her eyes. “That is indeed strange. Did he by any chance say when this occurred?”
“If I heard him correctly, I think he said something about it having happened three months ago, although I may be wrong.”
“Three months ago?” the princess asked, standing up and facing Nomi. “Nomi, I just got a chill running up my spine. About three months ago I was standing out on the balcony looking over the countryside, when all of a sudden a large reddish bird began circling overhead. It circled about once, twice, three times, and then it looked like it was going to land right on me. But before it could alight, it reached out with its talon and plucked out a single hair. Then it flew off. I remember thinking to myself how strange it was. Do you think . . .?
“. . . that you could be the woman for whom he is searching?” Nomi said, finishing her mistress’s sentence. “I do not know. But you must admit that if it is a coincidence, it is a very strange one at that.”
“Yes it is,” the princess said. “Nomi, I want you to go back down to the marketplace, find that man, and bring him back to the palace. Then perhaps we can get to the bottom of it all.” “I’m on my way, My Lady,” Nomi responded, leaving the Royal Bed Chamber. Princess Charna got up and went over to the large window overlooking the Royal Garden. Her faint smile was now a bit more noticeable . . .
About an hour later, Nomi returned with Chananiah. Princess Charna noted that he was not much older than she. He was really quite handsome, and had the kindest brown eyes she had ever seen.
“What is this all about?” the princess asked. “My servant tells me that you are on a quest, looking for a woman who belongs to a single strand of hair.”
“Yes, My Lady,” Chananiah responded, while staring hopefully at her hair. It certainly was the correct color and length – but then again, many, many women had long straight golden hair. He noticed that she had the most haunting pair of eyes, the likes of which he had never seen. Or had he? He then proceeded to tell her the tale from start to finish. He told her about King Ahaz and how he had gotten the Royal Advisors’ to suggest that perhaps his Royal Majesty should marry. He also recounted the episode of the large reddish bird and how the king had decided to marry only the woman to whom the single golden hair belonged. Chananiah did not tell her anything about King Ahaz in so far as his personality, for fear that, should she be the right woman, she would be scared off. Chananiah finished his tale.
“I think it is very likely that I am the woman who belongs to the golden hair,” Princess Charna said. Chananiah breathed a sigh of relief and uttered a voiceless prayer of thanksgiving. Princess Charna proceeded to tell her story of the large reddish bird that had swooped down and grabbed a single golden hair from off her head. She concluded her tale by adding, “I must admit that I am flattered to be asked, but I have no desire to become the wife of King Ahaz. I am already a princess, so becoming a queen does not mean all that much. And besides, I am truly happy in my own kingdom, amongst my own people. I’m sorry, but I will have to say no to your otherwise magnanimous proposal.”
Chananiah felt as if the entire world had caved in on him. To have come so far, against such terrific odds – and now this! He began pleading with Princess Charna. “Please reconsider, My Lady. Our kingdom is a truly wonderful place to live. It has beautiful mountains and lovely meadows, air scented with orange blossoms and babbling brooks. Why it has everything a person – a queen – could ever want.”
“Indeed, it does sound tempting,” Princess Charna said, “but I have made my decision. I have lived the majority of my life here in the Kingdom of Eilat. Here I was born, and here I shall stay. But I do thank you.”
“Would ah . . . ah . . . it make any difference to you if you were to know that your decision will . . . ah . . .ah . . . affect the lives of many innocent people?” Chananiah asked, deeply troubled by the prospect of having to tell the entire truth about Ahaz, his temper and his terrible threat.
“In what way?” Princess Charna questioned, concern beginning to darken her delicate features. Chananiah then explained to her the true nature of the situation – of King Ahaz’s nasty disposition, the hope that marriage would change him, and his threat to kill all the Royal Advisors and their families.
Princess Charna listened patiently. When Chananiah got to the end of his tale, she said, “And you expect me to even consider marrying such a cruel and ruthless man? My decision is even firmer having now heard all you have to say. Believe me,” the princess concluded, rising from her seat, “I am truly sorry, but there is nothing I can do to help you.”
Normally a man of vast patience and understanding, Chananiah refused to take no for an answer. He kept pleading, begging and cajoling, until finally the princess said somewhat heatedly: “Enough! I will go with you and marry your abominable king! But first you must perform two small tasks for me.”
“Anything my lady!” Chananiah said with glee in his heart. “Name anything you like and it shall be my great pleasure to be at your beck and call. I shall climb the highest mountain, swim the deepest sea, mine the finest . . .”
“Don’t get so carried away until you hear what I am requesting,” Princess Charna said, in a softer, more settled tone.
“Yes, My Lady,” Chananiah said, a bit embarrassed by his enthusiasm. “Just what is it that I can do for you?”
“Well,” Princess Charna said, beginning to walk toward the window. “When I turned sixteen, my father, King Melekh, gave me a beautiful gold ring. On its face there was a sparkling emerald surrounded by four diamonds, three rubies and two sapphires. I regret to say that I lost it while swimming. It meant the world to me. You see, it was the last gift my beloved father gave me before he died.”
“You have my sympathies,” Chananiah said. “I know what it is like to lose a father. You see, mine died about three years ago.”
“Then you can well understand why that ring is so important to me,” Charna said. Looking directly at Chananiah, she said: “I want you to find it for me.” Chananiah’s hopes, which had been riding on high, came crashing down in an instant.
“Find your ring?” he asked in amazement. “Nothing would give me greater pleasure. But where would I start? Where were you swimming when it disappeared? In a lake? A pond? A river? A stream?”
“Why did you say a pond?” Princess Charna asked. “So far as I know, no one swims in a pond.”
“Well,” Chananiah said, “you must admit that it is one of the many places that have water.” He looked at her with pleading eyes. Then he added plaintively, “Please my lady, will you not give me more to go on?”
“Who said I had to make it easy on you Chananiah?” the princess asked with a smile on her beautiful face. “Remember, I am only giving you this opportunity because your story has touched my heart. Otherwise, I would have absolutely no desire to go off and marry your wicked king. By making your task as difficult as possible, I am not precisely saying ‘no,’ but I am far from having to pack my bags and go off with you. All I will tell you is that I lost the ring while swimming. Period. Now go off and try to find it. You have precisely twenty-four hours.” With that the princess exited the Royal Chamber.
“What have I gotten myself into?” Chananiah moaned. “How in the world am I supposed to find a ring with absolutely no idea of where to start looking? She did not even tell me how long ago she lost it! I may as well give up.”
Chananiah left the palace and made his way down the hill.
V. An Impossible Task
After leaving the palace, Chananiah wandered around aimlessly for the better part of an hour. He was in a daze. ‘How can I ever hope to find that silly ring?’ he asked himself. ‘It’s obvious that Princess Charna has no desire to return with me to the Kingdom of Ahaz. Why then does she have to resort to playing games?’ Chananiah’s aimless meandering had brought him to the edge a gently running stream. He sat down, put his head on his knees, and thought long and hard. Suddenly it hit him. Perhaps he could find the ring after all! Following the stream, first at a walking pace and then at a trot, he found its source – a river. Taking the magic parchment out of his sack, he placed it under his cap, leaned over the river’s rushing water, and cried out: “Dagah! Dagah! If you or any of your friends can hear me, this is Chananiah. I desperately need your help. Please come at once if you get this message.” Then he sat back down and waited, praying that his plea would be picked up and somehow sent along to Dagah.
Five minutes. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes went by. After nearly half an hour, Chananiah felt certain that Dagah had not received his message; that he was a fool to even believe for a half-moment that such a thing could occur. Standing up, he was on the verge of leaving the river bank when he heard a tiny voice calling out his name: “Chananiah! Chananiah! Are you there?” I bring greetings from the great Dagah. How may she help you?”
Rushing back to the water’s edge, Chananiah beheld a magnificent Painted Platy swimming purposefully back and forth. It had an iridescent black body with a brilliant yellow profile. Bending down to the water, Chananiah said: “I am Chananiah. Thank God Dagah has received my message. Tell me, what is your name, and why do your refer to my friend as ‘The Great Dagah?’”
“My name is Novah,” the Platy answered in a much louder voice. “And all fish refer to her as ‘The Great Dagah’ because she is cousin to the King of the Deep, The Noble Leviathan. In our watery world, all of Leviathan’s relatives have the royal title ‘The Great.’”
“So Dagah is a member of the Royal Household?” Chananiah asked in astonishment. “Why didn’t she tell me this when we first met?”
“She is a very modest Grouper,” Novah replied. “She would have come herself, but as you are no doubt aware, Groupers must live in the salty sea, and this river is made of fresh water – which is just fine for Platys. When she heard of your request for assistance, she sent out a message that eventually reached me. I have come on her behalf. What can we do for you?”
Overwhelmed with the prospect that he still might find Princess Charna’s ring, Chananiah told Novah the entire story – as much as he knew. “And so you see,” Chananiah said, concluding his tale, “We simply must find that ring with the next twenty-three hours. Do you think The Great Dagah can assist me? Without that ring, Princess Charna will never go back with me to marry King Ahaz. And without that marriage taking place, a lot of innocent people – myself included – are going to lose their lives.”
“All I know,” Novah said, still swimming rapidly back and forth, “is that you saved the life of The Great Dagah. Because you are her friend and savior, we will do all within our power to help you. I will go now and get word back to The Great Dagah. She will know what to do. Please be back at this spot tomorrow morning just after daybreak.”
“Remember,” Chananiah said, “you are looking for a gold ring. It has a large emerald at its center, and is surrounded by four diamonds, three rubies and two sapphires.”
“I promise not to forget,” Novah said. “If necessary, I will keep repeating it aloud to myself until word reaches The Great Dagah.” With that, Novah turned and effortlessly went back upstream – something that is not easy for a Platy to do.
Chananiah went away from the river and wandered back to the village nearest the palace. He realized that he ravenous and had not had a good night’s sleep in quite some time. He found a small inn with a vacant room, treated himself to an enormous meal, and fell in a deep, deep sleep . . .
While Chananiah slept, Novah was swimming as fast as she could in order to get word to Dagah. From Salmon to Trout, and from Red Snapper to St. Peter’s Fish, word of Chananiah’s urgent request traveled throughout Leviathan’s watery domain. Just before sunset, news of Chananiah’s plight reached Dagah. Pondering the situation, Dagah immediately went to request an audience with her cousin, The Noble Leviathan, King of the Deep. Her request was quickly granted.
Entering Leviathan’s royal chamber, Dagah told her cousin as briefly as possible (for time was of the essence) the story of how Chananiah had saved her life on the shores of Yafo. She then related the tale of the golden hair, the contemptible King Ahaz, Chananiah’s desperate journey, and now this – Princess Charna’s missing ring.
“And so, you see, my beloved and noble cousin,” Dagah concluded, “We simply must do everything within our power to help Chananiah. If it were not for him, I would not be alive today. Will you help him?”
“It is our sacred obligation,” Leviathan said, “for after all, you have given your solemn word. And what are we if we go back on our word? Nothing, absolutely nothing; for our word is our name, and our name is our reputation. In the end of days, all things may be taken from us, but a fish with a good name, still has wealth.”
Dagah nodded in agreement, proud to be related to such a wise and noble ruler.
“Moreover,” Leviathan added, “It shall be my pleasure to return the favor by helping this Chananiah out of a desperate situation. We shall find the princesses’ ring,” Leviathan said with kindness.
“Do you have a specific plan, my cousin?” Dagah asked. “I mean, we really have next to nothing to go on. We have virtually no clue as to where this princess was swimming when she lost her precious ring. She would not provide Chananiah with a shred of detail. It’s obvious to me she’s hoping that it not be found.”
“So it would seem,” Leviathan replied. “But in any event, his cause is a good one, and help him we must. ‘He who saves one life is treated as if he had saved all of humanity.’ So say the humans. We creatures of the deep have received the same wisdom from our ancestors. Now, since Chananiah has saved your life, we must do everything without our power to save his.”
“So what do you propose?” Dagah asked.
“Simply this,” Leviathan said, sounding as if he had known what he was going to say forever: “I shall convene an extraordinary meeting of the Royal Council of the Deep. As you know Dagah, this council consists of one representative from each and every fish that inhabits the waters. Once convened, I shall command them to go back to their various schools and spread the word of Chananiah’s mission. They shall then each of them search their individual domains, be they in oceans or rivers, in ponds or in lakes. I am quite certain that the ring shall turn up before too long.”
"Please do not forget, my dear cousin,” Dagah said, “that we only have until sunup to find the Princess’s ring.”
“So what are we waiting for?” Leviathan asked. With that he summoned the Wide Mouthed Bass who was his Royal Assistant, and ordered him to convene the Royal Council the Deep. Word went out from school to school that Leviathan was expecting them within the hour. Swimming at breakneck speed, the representatives of all the various fish under the heavens and beneath the waters came to the appointed chamber.
Upon convening, Leviathan spoke briefly to the assembled Council: “It is my pleasure to ask my dear cousin, The Great Dagah, to address this august assembly. What she is about to say is of utmost importance. Consider her words as if they came from my mouth. Her request is my command. Dagah, please begin . . .”
Dagah swam to the center of the Council Chamber and began reciting her tale. She told the assembled dignitaries of how she had come to meet Chananiah and be in his eternal debt. She then related her solemn promise to help him whenever the need might arise. The fish listened in rapt attention as Dagah gave details of Chananiah’s mission – of having to locate the woman with the golden hair and thus save the lives of King Ahaz’s Royal Advisors. She concluded by tell them how, having located the woman, Chananiah was now faced with the near-impossible undertaking of finding her emerald ring.
“ . . . and so, distinguished members of the Council,” Dagah concluded, “It now falls to all of us to help this brave and noble human by finding Princess Charna’s ring. Leviathan commands each of us to return to our respective schools and species and begin a thorough search. We will have to be resourceful, looking in every cave and grotto, beneath every rock and shell. We must not let a single grain of sand go unexamined. But remember, we must find that ring before sunup tomorrow. And woe to the fish or school that finds the ring and even thinks about not turning it in!”
The members of the Royal Council of the Deep all nodded in solemn agreement and beat a hasty retreat back to their individual kingdoms and queendoms. They sent word through their sundry captains and lieutenants to the various members of the schools. In every case, the command was the same: find a golden ring set with a large emerald, surrounded by four diamonds, three rubies and two sapphires. While they searched, Leviathan and Dagah waited in the Chamber of the royal Council of the Deep. While they waited beneath the surface of the deep, Chananiah slept the sleep of the dead.
The hours of the night passed swiftly. When, by three o’clock, no word had reached the royal Chamber, Leviathan and Dagah began worrying. Four-fifteen. Four-thirty. Finally, at eighteen minutes to five, the delegate from the School of Minnows came proudly swimming into the Royal Chamber. In her mouth was a ring of gold!
“Behold,” she proclaimed, dropping the ring in front of the Great Leviathan. “We of the School of Minnows have found Princess Charna’s ring. We found it resting on the bottom of a pond many hundreds of miles from the Kingdom of Eilat. Even if Chananiah had chanced upon that pond he never would have found it; the green of the emerald blended in with the algae all along the bottom.” The minnow was obviously quite proud of his school’s accomplishment.
“Well done indeed!” Leviathan applauded with obvious pleasure. “Now, because you have done such a fine job, you, the Delegate of the School of Minnows, shall have the honor of returning the ring to Chananiah. Go at once with all deliberate speed!”
Picking up the ring, the minnow swam off as fast as his fins would permit. By this time, Chananiah had awakened, said his morning prayers, had an impoverished meal and hurried back to the appointed spot. Although greatly refreshed by his deep sleep, he nonetheless felt quite uneasy – and understandably so. He knew that everything was riding on whether Leviathan, Dagah, Novah and their friends could find that ring. Would they succeed? If not . . .”
Chananiah began walking to and fro, too nervous to remain in one place. He kept looking towards the East, trying to determine the time. He figured he had less than three-quarters of an hour to get the ring and return it to Princess Charna. Why was Novah (or whoever might be coming in her place) so delayed in returning? Was it a sign that the ring could not be found? ‘You would think that even if they failed in their attempt to find it, the least they could do would be to come and tell me,’ Chananiah thought to himself. Then it dawned on him: he had not placed the magic parchment beneath his cap! Opening his sack, he started searching for the magic parchment. It was not in the sack! Where could it be? Retracing his steps in his mind’s eye, he tried to recall every event and movement of the night before. He remembered going to the small inn, eating a hearty dinner, and then going up to the tiny room where he had slept so soundly. Wait a minute! He remembered taking off his cap before going to bed – hanging it on the bedpost. That was it! The parchment must have fallen out of his cap and landed on the bed, the floor or perhaps under the blanket. The parchment was back at the inn!
Racing back to the village, Chananiah found the tiny inn. Retrieving the key from the chambermaid, he quickly ran up the stairs to his former room. Unlocking the door, he ran over to the bed and began madly tearing away at the bedclothes. Nothing. He turned the mattress upside down and shook the pillows this way and that. Still nothing. He got down on his hands and knees and looked under the bed, the nightstand and the small dresser. No parchment. Where could it be? Chananiah got up off his knees and left the room, his head hung in both sorrow and fear. Had he come so far just to fail? And all because of his own forgetfulness? He knew that he would never be able to live with himself – which, under the circumstances, wasn’t going to be that long. Chananiah knew that he was the ultimate source of his own failure.
Slowly making his way downstairs, Chananiah went over to the front desk and gently placed the room key on the counter top. Turning to leave the inn, he heard a voice from behind him saying: “Sir . . . Sir. . . have you perhaps lost this?”
Spinning around so fast his cap flew off his head, Chananiah saw the aged innkeeper, who had a broad grin on his face and the magic parchment clutched tightly between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand!
“Wherever did you find it?” Chananiah asked, racing over to the desk. “How can I ever repay you for finding it? You have no idea how happy I am that it has not been lost. I was terribly frightened that it was gone forever.”
“You have just paid me,” the innkeeper said. “Your obvious joy at being reunited with this little piece of . . . of . . . whatever it is . . . that’s reward enough.” The innkeeper handed the parchment over to Chananiah.
“So where did you find it?” Chananiah asked.
“Oh, I found it sitting over by the wash basin in your room. You must have placed it there when you were washing up this morning. At first, I thought it was just a little useless scrap of parchment. But upon closer examination, I saw that it had words written in a language totally foreign to me. I figured that it must be something important to you, so I took it with me. Tell me,” the innkeeper said in a whisper, drawing near to Chananiah, “what is it?”
“Why it’s a magic parchment that permits me to speak and understand the languages of all God’s creatures – birds and fish, dog and sheep.”
“Of course it does,” the innkeeper said, obviously humoring the young man before him. “If you want it to be a magic parchment that permits you to speak to animals – or to leap over mountains for that matter – then this is what it is,” he said with a happy chuckle. “I can see that it’s important to you, and that’s all that counts.”
“No, really,” Chananiah said, “It really does permit me to communicate with animals. You see, I bought this frog named Daya, and she . . .” Chananiah suddenly stopped speaking. It dawned on him that he simply did not have the time to tell his tale. And even if he did, there was every likelihood that the innkeeper simply would not believe him.
“I really must be going,” Chananiah said, turning toward the door. “Thank you so very much for finding my little treasure. Whether or not you believe me is of little importance. Just know that you have done a deed that is far more important than you shall ever know. Thank you once again. And may God bless you . . .” By the time Chananiah said these last few words he was already halfway out the door.
Running as fast as his feet could fly, he tore back to the stream, his hand clasping the cap to his head for fear that it would fly off. As soon as the stream started coming into view, he began yelling out: “Novah! Novah! Are you here? It is Chananiah!”
“Novah is not here,” a voice said from the stream. “I hope you are not disappointed that a mere minnow has come in her place. My name is Nasi, and I am the Delegate of the School of Minnows. I have been given the extreme privilege of returning Princess Charna’s ring to you.” With that, Nasi leapt out of the water far enough for Chananiah to take possession of the ring.
“However can I thank you and all the fish of the deep?” Chananiah said, eyeing the ring in the emerging sunlight.
“There is no need. It is we who must thank you,” Nasi responded. “Go in peace, and hurry back to Princess Charna.”
“Please give my warmest regards to The Great Dagah and her cousin Leviathan,” Chananiah said. “I shall never forget them – or any of you.”
“And we shall never forget you Chananiah,” replied Nasi, the Delegate of the School of Minnows.
Chananiah arrived back at the palace of Princess Charna with only ten minutes to spare. Immediately upon his arrival, he was ushered into the Royal Throne Room, where he found the beautiful princess seated on her throne of silver.
“What news do you bring, Chananiah,” Princess Charna asked. “Did you have any luck finding my precious ring?”
“Why yes, I did have a measure of good luck,” Chananiah said with feigned modesty. In reality, he was close to bursting with joy. Stifling an urge to sing at the top of his lungs, Chananiah instead bowed low and presented the ring to the princess. Charna could not believe her eyes.
“My ring! Wherever did you find it? I did not think that anyone could find it in a million years. But you found it in less than a day. Tell me Chananiah, however did you do it?”
Straightening up, Chananiah said: “I must, in all honesty, say that I had the assistance of some wonderful friends. Without their help, your ring would still be beneath the watery depths. And now, My Lady, I think it is time for you to pack your belongings. We have a rather lengthy journey ahead of us back to the Kingdom of Ahaz.” Chananiah’s joy was overwhelming. His eyes sparkled with happiness; his words had a musical lilt.
“Have you then forgotten the terms of our agreement?” Princess Charna asked. “I said that I would go with you back to the Kingdom of Ahaz on condition that you performed two tasks for me, not merely one. You still have one duty to perform.”
Chananiah felt as if he had been dropped from a mountaintop. How could he have forgotten that he had promised to undertake two missions for Princess Charna? ‘I must have faith,’ Chananiah said to himself. ‘Certainly if I could find this ring without a single clue as to its whereabouts, I can perform a second task, no matter how difficult. How could anything be trickier than finding that ring?’
“What is it that you will require of me this time?” Chananiah asked.
Princess Charna gracefully removed herself from the throne. Walking over to Chananiah, she took his hand and said, “I must admit I never thought you would be able to find that ring. Now that you have, I am most grateful, for I love it very much. Now, as for your second task, I am sorry to have to tell you that it makes the first assignment look simple by comparison. If I were a betting woman, I would wager any amount you ask that you will not be able to fulfill it. Now please wait here while I go get two items you will need for your next labor.” With that, Princess Charna made her way out of the Royal Chamber.
Chananiah felt as if he was back at square one. Whatever could Princess Charna want that was even more difficult than that which he had already accomplished?
VI. The Waters of Heaven and Hell
"I am truly sorry,” Princess Charna told Chananiah when she returned to the Royal Chamber. She was carrying two pitchers; one was gold, the other silver. “In all of the excitement over finding my ring you must have forgotten that you agreed to fulfill two tasks for me,” she said.
“I guess I did,” Chananiah moaned. “Normally I have a pretty good memory.” Looking at the Princess with sad anticipation in his eyes, Chananiah asked, “What do you wish me to do this time? Move a mountain, fly out the window?”
“Before I tell you Chananiah,” the princess said, putting the two pitchers down on an ornately carved wooden table, “I want you to know that I am not doing this to be mean, and I certainly am not playing games with you.”
“Oh I know that,” Chananiah said, desperately trying to have his words sound as convincing as possible; for indeed, he did know in his heart of hearts that Princess Charna was neither playing games nor attempting to be cruel. “I did sense from the very first that you are an honest woman,” he continued. “There is something disarmingly true – and familiar – about your eyes.”
“Thank you,” Princess Charna said, lowering her eyes as she spoke. Chananiah could tell that she was humbled by the compliment. After a few moments of silence, the princess looked at Chananiah and said, “The only reason I am putting you through these two . . . ah . . . call them ‘trials’ if you will, is simply because I do not want to leave my own kingdom and marry your King Ahaz.”
“So why are you even giving me a chance, slim though it may be?” Chananiah asked.
“Because you made such a heartfelt plea I knew I would have to give you – and fate – a chance. If you can successfully fulfill this second, more difficult assignment, then I will know that my returning to the Kingdom of Ahaz is meant to be – is meant to serve a higher purpose.”
“Higher than saving the lives of countless innocent people?” Chananiah asked, leaning closer to the princess.
“We shall see what we shall see,” the princess responded, enigmatically. “But I do believe that it was not by sheer chance that that red bird plucked a single hair from my head and then delivered it to your king precisely at the time when you had challenged him to contemplate marriage. Nor do I believe for one second that your finding my ring – however you did it – was merely a matter of extraordinary luck. I sense that you were fated to find it for reasons we perhaps shall one day understand. You see, I am of the opinion that everything has a reason or purpose, even when it beyond the bounds of reason or understanding.”
“And do you also believe that I am fated to succeed in my second mission?” Chananiah asked hoping that she would say ‘yes.’
“Only time will tell,” the princess answered. “I can tell you one thing though: if you somehow successfully conclude this second assignment, I will be happy for you.”
“And why is that, considering that you really have no desire to leave here?” Chananiah asked.
Averting her eyes, the princess said, “I will be happy because that means we can spend more time together on the journey back to your kingdom.” The princess’s face reddened ever so slightly. Was she blushing? “You see,” she continued, “I am becoming rather fond of you . . .”
“. . . and I of you, My Lady,” Chananiah said, realizing even as he gave voice to the words escaped that he was likely falling in love with her. Standing suddenly and straightening his tunic, Chananiah told her, “But let us remember a very important fact.”
“Which is . . . ?”
“. . . Which is that should I succeed, you must marry King Ahaz.”
“Yes, of course,” Princess Charna sighed.
“Yes . . . and so . . . what is the second, even more difficult task you wish for me to perform?” Chananiah asked.
Princess Charna picked up the two pitchers from the table. Thrusting them towards Chananiah, she said: “I want you to fill up these two jugs for me.”
“Yeees,” Chananiah said, drawing out the one-syllable word. “Fill them up with what? What’s the catch?”
“The catch is that I want you to fill the golden pitcher with water from the springs of Gan Ayden, the Garden of Eden. This second pitcher,” she said, indicating the silver one,” you are to fill with water from the cauldrons of Gehenna, of Hell.”
Chananiah stared at the princess in disbelief. “The waters of Gan Ayden and Gehenna? What does that mean? How am I supposed to fill pitchers with water from places which no one knows for certain even exist? And how long do I have to complete this assignment?”
“Sorry to say, but you’ll have to answer the first question yourself, Chananiah. All I can tell you is that both places really, truly exist, and that the waters of Gan Ayden are as different from those of Gehenna as heaven is to earth or the canary to the vulture. So far as time goes, once again you have twenty-four hours. I think you’d better get to work.”
Chananiah bowed to the princess and started for the door. Just as he was about to exit the room, Princess Charna said, “Oh, I almost forgot.”
“What now?” Chananiah asked, afraid to hear what was coming next.
“Just that I wish you good luck,” the princess said. From the look on her face, Chananiah knew she meant it.
Once again, Chananiah left the palace wondering how in the world he would ever be able to accomplish his mission. As he walked down the hill carrying Charna’s two pitchers, he thought long and hard. He had the feeling that perhaps, just perhaps, Princess Charna had given him a hint or clue. He thought about her words: ‘The water of Gan Ayden is as different from that of Gehenna as heaven is to earth or the canary to the vulture.’ Chananiah was pretty certain that within these words was a clue . . .
Chananiah walked straightway to the forest. Anyone who had seen him taking his purposeful strides would have assumed that he knew precisely where he was headed and precisely what he was going to do. In reality, they would not have been that far off.
Chananiah walked until he was surrounded by tall trees on all sides. Placing the magic parchment under his cap, he called out: “Naitz! Naitz! This is Chananiah. I need your help!” Then he sat down, awaiting the bird’s arrival.
Within the hour – which seemed more like a year – he heard his name coming from the top of a tall cypress tree. Looking up, he was delighted to see a friendly face – that of Naitz, the Red Tailed Hawk.
“What can I do for you, Chananiah?” the bird asked. Just name it and I shall do everything within my power to assist you. After all, I do owe you my life.”
“I am not sure precisely what you can do to help me,” Chananiah said, standing up and craning his neck in order to see Naitz. “Let me tell you what the situation is. Then, perhaps together, we can figure something out.”
Chananiah then showed Naitz the two pitchers and explained Princess Charna’s baffling request. From the urgency with which Chananiah told the tale, Naitz understood just how important the task must be. So much so that he did not even ask Chananiah the purpose of the princess’s command.
When Chananiah had finished telling the tale in brief, he asked Naitz, “Do you have any idea of what the princess is talking about? Do you know anything about the springs of Gan Ayden or the cauldrons of Gehenna?”
“No, not exactly,” Naitz said, talking flight from the tree and making his way down to the forest floor. Alighting, he walked over to Chananiah and said, “But you know whenever we birds have a difficult question or wish expert advice, we seek the wisdom and counsel of the Learned Yanshoof.”
“And who is The Learned Yanshoof?” Chananiah asked. “Who is he?”
“You almost answered your own question,” Naitz chirped. For in asking ‘who?’ you have imitated how Yanshoof sounds to humans who, unlike you, don’t possess a magic parchment.”
Chananiah thought for a moment. Then it hit him. “Oh, I get it,” he said. “Yanshoof must be a wise old owl. Right?”
“Yes and no,” Naitz responded. “The Learned Yanshoof is definitely an owl, but I don’t think he’d be terribly pleased to hear himself described as ‘old.’ He is actually quite young to be so wise – sort of like you.”
“Thanks for the comparison,” Chananiah said. “But please, go on.”
“With pleasure,” Naitz said.” Yanshoof is a good friend of mine. We’ve known each other for quite some time. I am sure he will want to help us once he knows all the details. Wait here and I will go fetch him.” Naitz took to the air and was soon out of Chananiah’s sight.
Within a matter of minutes, Naitz returned, calling to Chananiah from the top of the same cypress. “Chananiah, look upward; I have returned with Yanshoof.”
Turning his gaze upward to the top of the tree, Chananiah saw a youngish gray owl sitting and rocking back and forth on a small branch. Its large oval eyes were a deep and lustrous black.
“Tell me your tale Chananiah,” Yanshoof began in a singsong voice, “and I shall do my best to give you advice.”
Chananiah quickly went through his story for yet again. By the time he had finished, he was out of breath. “Do you have any idea how we might locate and retrieve these waters?” Chananiah asked.
“Let me think for a few moments,” Yanshoof replied. “No good advice ever comes without deliberation. When I was an owlet, my mother taught me that even when you know the answer to something immediately, you should give pause for some thought.”
“And why is that?” Chananiah asked.
“Why? So that the questioner thinks they’re getting their money’s worth! That is why!” Yanshoof responded with a queer hooting sound. He must have thought his response quite funny, for soon he was holding his sides and laughing so hard that he almost fell off his branch. ‘What an odd little owl this Yanshoof is,’ Chananiah thought to himself. ‘Oh well, so long as he is as wise as Naitz claims, who cares how odd he seems?’
After several minutes of rocking back and forth in laughter, Yanshoof called down to Chananiah, “I believe I have the answer to our problem. I will explain everything to Naitz, who will then come down to where you are and give you instructions on how we’re going to proceed. Good luck to you Chananiah. May everything turn out for the best.”
Naitz listened intently to Yanshoof, who spoke with earnest quiet for more than 10 minutes. Then the hawk swooped down to where Chananiah was standing. “This is going to be rather tricky,” the Naitz told the young royal advisor. “But if we do everything precisely according to what Yanshoof said, we shall succeed.”
“And so what is it that we are to do?” Chananiah asked, eager to get to work. “What is it that Yanshoof wants me to do?”
Naitz looked up at Yanshoof, who was perched near the top of the tree. The owl nodded at the hawk who then turned to Chananiah.
“First,” Naitz explained, “Find us a long vine and tie the golden pitcher under my right wing.” Chananiah found a length of vine, and used it to secure the golden pitcher as Naitz directed.
“Good. That should work pretty well,” the hawk said, flapping his right wing to make sure that the gold jug was secure. “Now, go get another length of vine and tie the silver pitcher under my left wing.” Chananiah again did as he was instructed. Once again Naitz flapped his wing to make sure the silver pitcher was secure. It too, held fast.
“So far so good,” Naitz said. “Now, here is what we are going to do next. You shall accompany me down to the seashore, which is about an hour away. Then you are to wait for my return. The moment I land, you must untie the golden pitcher and pour several drops of its water over my left wing. According to Yanshoof, I will probably be yelling and screaming when I return, so do not be surprised. Just pour out some of the water from the golden pitcher over my left wing. And do it as quickly as possible. Do you understand? Do you have any questions?”
“Yes, I do understand,” Chananiah said. “And no, I really do not have any questions. You have made my role perfectly clear: I am to wait for your return down by the seaside. The moment you land, I will untie the golden pitcher from under your right wing and pour a few drops of its water over your left wing.”
“That is correct,” Naitz said, nodding his head. “And please do not be distracted because I am yelling and screaming.”
“Why will you be yelling and screaming?” Chananiah asked.
“Believe me,” Naitz answered, “the less you know the better . . .”
Naitz led the way down to the sea. They arrived in a little over an hour. By this time the sun was shining brilliantly overhead.
“Now, have a seat and wait for me here,” Naitz said.
“How long do you think it will be before you return?” Chananiah asked.
“If what Yanshoof says is correct, I should be back in less than half an hour. Wish me luck,” Naitz said, heading out to sea.
“Good luck my friend,” Chananiah said as the great hawk began gaining altitude. Chananiah watched as the bird flew higher and higher. He strained to keep Naitz in sight, but the hawk had flown too far and too high to be visible. ‘God be with you Naitz,’ Chananiah said under his breath.
Naitz flew so high that soon he was above the highest clouds. He kept flying higher until he reached the edge of the blue sky. Soon he was above the sky and entering the lower reaches of the heavens. Continuing his upward flight, he finally reached the highest heavens – Gan Ayden!
Naitz flew over the varied landscapes of Gan Ayden, marveling at its lush rolling hills, majestic mountains and densely fruited planes. All the people he saw were singularly happy, healthy and beautiful. All seemed to be greatly enjoying themselves. Yes, Gan Ayden was definitely paradisiacal – ideal. Within a matter of minutes, Naitz spotted a cascading waterfall; at its bottom was the fabled spring for which he was searching. Its waters looked cool and inviting.
Descending toward the spring, the Red Tailed Hawk lowered its right wing. As he flew over its watery surface, the golden pitcher submerged, filling up with the precious life-restoring fluid. Within the wink of an eye, Naitz had completed the first part of his task and was heading for the farthest reaches of Gan Ayden. He noted that his right wing felt lighter, stronger and more dexterous than he had ever recalled.
Exiting from Gay Ayden, Naitz began a rapid descent. Down through the highest heavens to the rim of the clouds he flew; then through the clouds back to the water’s surface. As he neared the earthly waters, Chananiah, standing on the shore, spotted the hawk, its brilliant red body shining in the sunlight. Before Chananiah could make a gesture or utter a word, Naitz splashed down into the ocean.
Down he flew, gathering speed and momentum. Faster and faster he descended until at last he broke through the ocean floor and continued dropping. The further he descended the hotter it became. When the hawk finally reached Gehenna, the temperature was in excess of one hundred twenty-seven degrees. Sweating profusely, the great hawk began searching for the fiery cauldron. When at last he spotted it, he lowered his left wing, skimming the cauldron’s surface and filling the silver jug.
Naitz felt an immediate searing pain; his left wing began smoldering, and then burst into flame. Upward he flew, moaning and groaning in pain as his feathers sizzled. Were it not for the added strength the waters of Gan Ayden had given his right wing, he would not be able to maneuver, let alone fly. When he reached the ocean’s floor, the salty water made his pain even more unbearable. Slower and slower he flew, madly flapping his one good wing, gritting his teeth and holding his breath against the agonizing pain. He feared that he would not make it back to Chananiah before the pain made it impossible to continue flying.
After what seemed like an eternity, Naitz broke through the ocean’s surface and made a beeline toward the shore, landing heavily at Chananiah’s feet. Chananiah was startled to see his friend’s left wing glowing with fire. He did not have to say a word to know that Naitz was in unspeakable pain.
“Quickly,” Naitz whispered,” untie the golden pitcher and sprinkle some water on my . . . my . . .” Naitz could not continue; he passed into blissful unconsciousness.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Chananiah unstrapped the golden jog from under the hawk’s right wing. Gently sprinkling its water on the smoldering left wing, Chananiah was amazed to see it heal itself in a matter of seconds. Before he could count to ten, Naitz was back up on his feet, looking and feeling none the worse for wear.
“My God,” Chananiah exclaimed, “the waters of Gan Ayden are certainly powerful in their ability to heal; they work even faster than Daya’s magic roots.” He untied the silver pitcher from under his friend’s left wing.
“Almost as powerful as the waters of Gehenna are when it comes to destroying,” the hawk said, flapping the left wing up and down. “There can never be any doubt as to whether we have obtained what Princess Charna was after. No other waters can destroy or cure so quickly. Now, hurry back to the palace; you do not have much time.”
“I cannot thank you enough, Naitz,” Chananiah said, gathering up the two pitchers. Without you, Novah, Leviathan and the rest, I would be in terrible trouble. Praise God for creating such noble and heroic creatures.”
“And thank God for having created such a fine human as yourself,” Naitz said. “Do not forget Chananiah, I shall always be there for you. That is what friends are for. Goodbye for now.”
Chananiah returned to the palace with more than an hour to spare. As he sat and waited for the princess, he realized that he was famished. He reached into his sack and pulled out a crust of stale black bread – the only food he had left. As he was gnawing on the bread, a servant passed by. Noticing that the young man was hungrily nibbling a piece of incredibly unappetizing food – something barely fit for birds – he bid Chananiah to follow him. Chananiah arose and followed the servant into the kitchen, where he was served a meal fit for a king – or a king’s advisor.
While he was busy eating, Princess Charna entered the room. Chananiah immediately rose from his seat, forgetting to remove the napkin tucked under his chin. Princess Charna walked over to him, gently removed the napkin, and said: “Your labors have made you hungry. Please continue eating and then we shall talk.”
Chananiah finished his meal as quickly as possible. When he had consumed everything placed before him, he said: “I have brought you the waters of Gan Ayden and Gehenna. They are out on a table in the hallway. Permit me to go and fetch them.”
“That will not be necessary,” the princess replied. “I shall have Nomi bring them to us.” Princess Charna picked up a little bell from off the dinner tray and tinkled it smartly three times – one ring, followed by two quick ones. Nomi entered the kitchen.
“How may I serve you My Lady?” Nomi asked, bowing before her mistress.
“Please go out into the hallway and bring me the two pitchers you will find on the table. One is gold, the other silver. And Nomi . . .”
“Yes, My Lady?”
“Be extremely careful. Make sure you don’t spill a single drop.”
“Yes, My Lady,” Nomi answered, once again bowing low and backing out of the room. When she returned, Nomi placed the two pitchers on the kitchen table. Taking the silver jug in her left hand, Princess Charna sprinkled a few drops of water on her right palm. Immediately, it began smoking and hissing, and looked as if it might burst into flame. “Oooouch!” she cried, “this is the water of Gehenna. Chananiah, quickly, you must . . .”
Before she could complete her command, Chananiah grabbed the golden pitcher and sprinkled a few drop onto her smoldering palm. Within seconds, it returned to its former rosy condition – it was completely healed.
“Chananiah!” the princess exclaimed, “you have really found the waters of Gan Ayden and Gehenna! How in the world did you do it? I mean, I wasn’t even sure they existed.”
“I will be only too happy to tell you everything once we are on the road back to my homeland, Chananiah beamed. “I think it best that you and Nomi go pack your belongings, for we have a long journey ahead of us, and only two months in which to reach our final destination.”
“Would you believe me if I told you that Nomi and I have already packed?” the princess said with a strange, distant look on her beautiful face. Chananiah could not tell if she was happy or sad, grateful or disappointed about the prospect of taking the journey with him.
“Does it greatly distress you that now you shall have to return with me to the Kingdom of Ahaz and become his queen?” Chananiah asked.
“I must admit, in all honesty, that I am not thoroughly pleased at the prospect,” the princess answered. “As you know, I love the Kingdom of Eilat, its people and my friends. But I have always believed that things have a way of working out for the best. If I am now destined to become wife to King Ahaz, so be it.” Princess Charna looked up, smiling at Chananiah. “At least,” she added sweetly, “we will be able to spend more time together during the journey. I am not ready to say good-bye to you just yet.”
“I share that feeling too, My Lady,” Chananiah said. “I think we should get a good night’s sleep and then set out on the road at the break of day. We shall have to hurry, for we have just under two months to make our return, and it took me more than three just to find you.”
“We shall return in time,” the princess said. “What is meant to be is meant to be. And who knows? Maybe your kingdom will finally get what it deserves: a warm, humane, understanding king.”
“You mean the Kingdom of Ahaz,” my lady. “It is not my kingdom.
“Oh yes of course . . . it is not your kingdom . . . my mistake . . .” Princess Charna responded. “But still . . .”
VII. The Long Journey Home
Chananiah, Princess Charna and Nomi set out at daybreak. For a princess, Charna brought surprisingly few belongings. Chananiah had imagined having to hire a caravan of wagons just to carry her bags, suitcases and valises. Instead, he found that she and Nomi carried but one small sack apiece.
“I do not mean to sound ungrateful or anything like that,” Chananiah said as they made their way to the border of Eilat, “but for some reason I imagined you and Nomi bringing all kinds of baggage with you for the road. How is it that you brought just one sack apiece?”
“Not all princesses are as pampered and spoiled as you may think,” she said mischievously. “You probably think that a princess would require at least three changes of clothing per day and a vast assortment of delicacies for each meal. Believe me, my dear: I am not at all like that. I know perfectly well that the more clothing, toiletries and ‘comforts of home’ we bring, the slower our journey will be. We must move quickly if we are to return to the King of Ahaz in time. Besides,” she said with a wink, “my future husband should be able to provide me with whatever ‘necessities’ I might require. Do you not agree?”
“Without question, My Lady,” Chananiah said with a grand sweeping gesture. The two of them were beginning to enjoy themselves.
Princess Charna was indeed walking at a brisk pace; Chananiah, whose legs were much longer, had a hard time keeping up with her. Nomi, having the shortest legs of the three, was beginning to lag.
“I think that we should slow down just a bit,” Chananiah said. It is not like we have to be back tomorrow; we do have a little more than two months. If we keep walking at this pace, we will tire ourselves out long before noontime. I suggest we keep going at a nice steady pace – a pace that all three of us can keep together.
And so they did.
The three travelers kept to a strict routine. They would arise shortly after sunup each day. While Chananiah was engaged in morning prayers, Charna and Nomi would prepare a small breakfast. As soon as they had finished their meal, they would set out on the road and not stop until noon. By midday, they were ready for a second, larger meal and a half-hour catnap. As soon as they would arise, they would then continue on until the sun went down. Once at the spot where they would spend the night, they would eat a light supper and check their map to see how far they had come and how far they had to go. Since their journey took place during the late spring, they had a bit more sunlight by which to travel.
One day, as they were walking on the outskirts of a dense forest, Princess Charna asked: “Chananiah, I have been meaning to ask you about your prayers. To which God are you praying? In Eilat, we have many Gods. My particular favorites are Ahavah, the Goddess of Love, and Binah, the God of Understanding.”
“I am praying to the One God of Heaven and Earth,” Chananiah said. “Long ago, one of our ancestors, a man named Avraham, learned that there is really only one true God – the God of all creation. By praying to our God – who is also your God – we are praying to the God of Love and Understanding, the God of Peace and Happiness – indeed, the God of virtually everything. You see, Avraham taught us that God is One.”
“I don’t think I understand,” Charna said.
“Well, it is a bit hard to explain. Let me try it this way: What is the essence of a rose – the thing that makes a rose unique?”
“I would imagine its beautiful fragrance,” Charna said, with a trace of doubt in her voice.
“Absolutely,” Chananiah replied. “And what would be the essence of the sun?”
“Undoubtedly its heat and warmth,” Charna answered, a bit more confidently.
“Precisely. Well, the essence of God is that God exists – that God is. Does that make any sense?”
“Yessss,” Charna said, drawing out the word as if while speaking, she was also thinking. “In a strange sense, it does begin to make sense,” she said, her eyes widening with understanding. “You know Chananiah I have never been all that satisfied with the explanations given by our sages and scholars. I have always felt that something was missing. Perhaps now I think I am beginning to understand; we have been praying to images or aspects of God, and not the one true God as you call Him.”
“That is quite likely the case,” Chananiah said, “although I don’t think we should refer to God as ‘Him.’”
“Oh, is your God a ‘Her?’” Charna asked.
“Yes and no,” Chananiah offered. “I don’t mean to could the issue; it’s just that God is either both male and female or beyond male or female. Do you understand?”
“No, you’ve lost me there,” Charna said. As she walked she began kicking a small stone.
“Well, look at it this way: if God is a male that means that God is not a female. And this would a limitation on God – some which God is not. And from what I know and understand, God is without limits. Perhaps then it would be best to say that God is both male and female and neither one all at the same time. You see My Lady, God’s nature is far, far beyond our complete understanding. Whatever we know, or think we know about God is more shadow than substance. I myself use the pronoun ‘Co’ when referring to God. It means something like ‘He/She,’ or ‘He and She.’”
“This is a lot to take in all at once,” Charna said. “So it must be that if what you say is true, no one has ever seen God. Is that correct?”
“You are correct. No one has ever seen God face-to-face.”
“Then how do you know that God really, truly exists?” Charna asked, trying not to seem like she was challenging Chananiah’s belief. “Where does God reside?”
“So far as I know, God is everywhere,” Chananiah said, making a sweeping gesture with his arm. “God is in the heavens and here on earth; God is in the forests and atop the tallest mountains. God is within you, me, Nomi – everyone.”
“That is a beautiful thought Chananiah,” Princess Charna said. “And what is it that God wants of us? How are we supposed to serve . . . ‘Co? Have I used the pronoun correctly?”
“Perfect!” Chananiah responding. “In terms of what it is that God wants of us, one of our sages said that all ‘Co’ truly wants is that we should not do to other people that which we would not want done to ourselves. I believe that this is of great importance. As an example: since I do not wish anyone to treat me cruelly or dishonestly, I make sure to treat others kindly and with frankness. And since I would never want anyone to steal from me, I never engage in theft.”
“That makes good sense,” Charna said. “You know, I have heard something very similar to that . . . but with a big difference.”
“How can something be both very similar and yet have a big difference?” Chananiah wondered aloud.
“Simple,” Charna answered. “The way I heard it was, ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.’ Is there any real difference?”
Chananiah thought for a few moments. Then nodding his head, he said: “Actually yes. There is a world of difference. If it’s ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you,’ then suppose that for some strange reason, I want others to slap or kick me. By means of your version, that would mean that I should slap or kick people. Does that make sense?”
“When you put it that way,” Princess Charna said, “I guess ‘do not do unto others’ is a much wiser, more meaningful expression. If that is the main thing that God wishes of people, then your God is indeed very wise and kind.”
“Yes indeed,” Chananiah said. “But actually, you would be more correct if you said our God instead of yours.”
“Alright,” Charna said with a smile. “Then tell me more about our God.”
Throughout the rest of the journey, Chananiah, the princess, even Nomi, discussed the nature of God, the beauty of God’s world – all the things that Chananiah had learned from his father, mother and mentors. By the time they had reached the halfway point of their journey, the two women had learned a great deal; they were beginning to feel as if a new ray of light had begun shining upon them.
One day, as they were traveling in the hill country, Nomi asked Chananiah: “is King Ahaz a believer in God?”
“That is a very sore point,” Chananiah said. “I don’t admit to know him all that well, since I only served him for a single day and have been in his presence but twice. However, I grew up in his kingdom, and had heard about him for virtually my entire life. He was born into a family of believers, but has lived a cruel and wicked life. From the way he acts, one would think that he does not believe in God. Oh he puts on a good show – saying all the right words and observing all the right holidays – but deep down inside, I think he is rather empty. He seems to believe only in wealth and power.”
“Then I feel very sorry for him, because the way he lives is indeed very sad,” Nomi said.
“Yes it is,” Chananiah replied. “And by having pity on him, Nomi, you have shown that you are a true child of God.”
“How is that?”
“Simple. Compassion and mercy are two extremely important staples of our belief. To feel for others is a sign of our humanity.”
And they journeyed on . . .
Throughout the rest of their trek, the three shared stories, ideas and dreams for the future. By this point, they had become very close to one another. Each day’s journey became easier and easier, and seemed to take even less time or energy. When they were within two days of the Kingdom of Ahaz, Chananiah noticed that Princess Charna was becoming rather quiet and sluggish.
“What is the matter?” Chananiah asked the princess, truly concerned.
“Oh, you will think me rather silly,” Charna answered, “but I am already beginning to feel sad that our time together coming to an end. I . . . we . . . have learned so much from you and had such a marvelous time; I am just sorry to see it all end.”
“It will not end,” Chananiah soothed. “You see, as one of King Ahaz’s Royal Advisors, I am sure to be in almost daily contact with him. I am sure that I shall see you often. In fact, I . . .” But Chananiah never got a chance to finish the sentence.
Before he knew what was happening, a band of highwaymen attacked the threesome, knocking them out and stealing their money. When they discovered a hairbrush with the royal crest of Eilat in Charna’s bag, they realized that she was more valuable to them alive than dead. They decided to hold all three for ransom.
When the three came back to consciousness, Chananiah, Princess Charna and Nomi the servant found themselves bound hand and foot, sprawled out on the floor of a dank, musty cave. Their attackers were sitting out in front of the cave, laughing and making plans to exchange the three for a pot of gold.
“Ooooh my head, my head,” Chananiah whispered. “It feels as if it is going break apart at any moment.” Then he noticed his two companions, also lying on the cave floor. “My Lady! Nomi! Speak to me. Are you alright?”
“Our heads are also aching,” Princess Charna said in a weak voice. “What day is it Chananiah? How long has it been since we were attacked?
“I don’t know,” Chananiah said. He had been wondering the same thing himself – and whether they would get out of their predicament alive, let alone being able to return home in time. “All we can do is to marshal whatever strength we have and come up with a plan by which we can save ourselves.”
“Chananiah,” Charna whispered painfully, afraid that the robbers would hear her. “Can’t God save us him . . . I mean . . . herself?”
“Perhaps,” Chananiah said. “But let’s not rely on miracles. There’s an old saying, ‘Believe in miracles if you will, but then live your life as if they don’t exist.’ No, we will have to help ourselves – with God’s help.”
Chananiah began thinking hard, which was not easy given the tremendous amount of pain he was in. After what seemed to Princess Charna an eternity, Chananiah slowly – almost imperceptibly – wriggled a bit closer to the bound princess and whispered “I think I have the answer. I’m pretty sure I know how to get us out of here, but we will have to work together.”
“Of course,” the princess said. “Just tell me what to do.”
“First, I want you to slowly – very slowly – move over to where I am. Try not to make any noise or be too obvious, lest the kidnappers hear you, and realize that we have come to and are trying to escape. When you get as near to me as you can, I want you to turn your back so that your hands are opposite my sack, which is lying by my side. Reach in, and there search with your hands and feel around until you locate find a small piece of parchment. I just hope to God it has not fallen out. If it is there, grab it as best you can, then try to right yourself at least far enough so that you can place the parchment . . .”
“. . . under your cap,” Princess Charna said, finishing Chananiah’s sentence for him. ‘How did she know that the parchment was to be placed under my cap?’ Chananiah wondered to himself. ‘I do not remember telling her about it. Oh well, hopefully there will be plenty of time to worry about such trivial matters in days to come,’ he thought.
As per Chananiah’s instructions, Princess Charna began the slow process of wriggling and squirming until she was within a foot of Chananiah, who kept his eyes on the kidnappers, fearful that they might turn around and see what the princess was doing. So far, so good; their assailants were still busily talking with amongst themselves, imagining how they were going to spend their ill-gotten gains. Princess Charna moved ever so slowly, half-inch-by-half-inch, until her hands, still tightly bound together, were touching Chananiah’s sack. With great difficulty, she stretched and stretched until her fingers were inside. She then began groping about the small leather sack, desperately searching for the parchment. After what felt like an eternity, Chananiah heard her say “I’ve got it!”
Thank God,” Chananiah whispered. “Now, try and right yourself until you can place it under my cap.” This was not easy to do; in order to right herself, the princess had to lean against Chananiah and rock back and forth, inching up first onto the balls of her feet, then onto her knees. Any sound would echo off the cave walls and capture the attention of the men outside. The princess moved slowly and deliberately until she was on her knees in a hunched-over position. Then slowly straightening up, she found herself at eye-level with Chananiah’s cap.
“This will not work Chananiah,” the princess said almost voicelessly. “I am facing your cap, but my hands are tied behind me. I am going to have to get back down into a lying position, drop the parchment, and put it in my mouth. Then when I get back at eye-level with your cap, I am going to have to get the parchment in place that way.”
“I have a better idea,” Nomi said in a hushed undertone. “Why don’t I move over to the two of you and take off Chananiah’s cap while you, My Lady, place the parchment on top of his head. Then I can replace the cap. I think it will work.”
“Yes, yes, that sounds like the best plan,” Chananiah said, managing a tiny smile.
The two women went to work, positioning themselves so that they could place the magic parchment under Chananiah’s cap. The trio lost all sense of time. The going was terribly slow. What seemed like hours were, in reality, but the passing of a few minutes. Finally, Chananiah felt his cap being lifted off his head.
“HELLO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THERE?” came the sudden roar of the kidnappers from the front of the cave. Chananiah, Princess Charna and Nomi looked toward the mouth of the cave and saw the three ruffians staring at them. “Just don’t come in. Don’t come in,” Chananiah muttered under his breath.
Before either Chananiah or Princess Charna could say a word, Nomi answered: “Our friend’s head is aching very badly from where you hit him. We are just trying to help ease his pain. Is that so wrong?”
“Just be quick about it,” one of the kidnappers growled. Then they returned to whatever they were doing, once again ignoring their three captives.
“That was too close,” Nomi whispered. “Just hold still Chananiah. We have almost got the parchment in place.” Chananiah held his breath. He had lost all track of time. His head continued to pound. Finally he heard the five sweetest words imaginable: “The parchment is in place.”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Chananiah said in a soft voice. “Now, go back to where you were lying down and wait. I am going to do something that will seem very strange. When the three robbers demand to know what is going on, just tell them that I must be going mad from the pain. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” the two women answered. Chananiah thought he saw a knowing smile on Charna’s face.
“Good. Now, if all goes well, we should be out of here in less than an hour.”
“But how?” Nomi asked.
“Perhaps he has a friend who owes him a favor,” Charna answered before Chananiah could say a word. Charna was staring directly at the young man. Chananiah looked in amazement at the princess. Those eyes! Those haunting eyes! They seemed to know all and see all . . .
The two women slowly made their way back to their former places on the cave floor. They lay back down and waited. Within a few seconds, they heard Chananiah making a series of growls and barking sounds. For all the world, he sounded like a crazed dog!
“WHAT’S GOING ON IN THERE NOW?” the kidnappers demanded.
“Our friend must be going mad,” Princess Charna said. “He gets that way from time to time. There is nothing to worry about; this too shall pass.”
“Crazy bunch of idiots,” one of the men swore.
Chananiah, of course, had not gone crazy. He was calling out a desperate message in the language of dogs: “Calba! Calba! If you or any of your friends can hear me, this is Chananiah! I am in terrible trouble and need your help now! I am being held captive along with two friends in a cave. You’ve got to come now!!” Having expended a great deal of energy, Chananiah fell silent.
There was silence outside the cave as well. This worried Chananiah greatly. After several minutes, the three began hearing a strange noise. It grew and grew in intensity. It was the sound of literally hundreds of dogs. The barking, growling, whining sounds grew to an almost deafening roar, as the three captors began looking about in frightened amazement. Chananiah, Princess Charna and Nomi watched the three men as they hurriedly began gathering up their belongings and ill-gotten gains. Before they could leave the front of the cave, they were attacked on all sides. The dogs – big ones and small ones, long-hairs and short-hairs – were biting, clawing and scratching from all sides. When it looked as if they would be torn apart, Chananiah barked out: “STOP! THAT IS ENOUGH!” The dogs immediately stopped and sat down. The three brutes were frozen with fear. From inside the cave the kidnappers – now fearful for their lives and completely subdued – heard Chananiah speaking to them:
“Unless you want more of the same, you will come in here at once, untie us, and set us free. You will give us back everything you stole. You will not follow us or bother us again. For if you do, these dogs will have you for their dinner! Do you understand me?”
“Yes, yes, we understand!” the three men said in unison. Struggling to their feet, surrounded by the dogs, they made their way into the cave, where they untied thee three captives. Chananiah, Princess Charna and Nomi quickly gathered their belongings and virtually ran out of the cave, eager to get back out into the open air. As they proceeded along the gauntlet of dogs, a beautiful Golden Retriever started walking in step with them. It was of course, none other than Chananiah’s friend Calba.
“Well Chananiah,” Calba said, “that was quite a bit of fun. However did you get into such a desperate situation?”
“It’s a long, involved story,” Chananiah said. “We are truly grateful for your assistance. You’ve saved our lives and, God willing, the lives of countless others. Please thank all your friends for us.”
“I see that you have found the woman with the golden hair. If I remember correctly, you only have a day or two in which to return home,” Calba said. “The road between here and your kingdom might have more dangers. Therefore, I will guarantee you safe and speedy passage.” With that, Calba barked out a few orders. Chananiah and the women were joined by a St. Bernard, German Sheppard and two Chocolate Labradors.
“These four will make sure you get back safely,” Calba barked. “I will try to catch up with you later, back in the Kingdom of Ahaz. Goodbye for now.” With that, the retriever turned and sped away.
“Goodbye Calba. Thank you for saving our lives,” Chananiah called after his friend.
“How far do you figure it is to the kingdom’s border?” Nomi asked.
“I really don’t know at this point,” Chananiah replied.
“Where do you want to go?” one of the Chocolate Labradors asked.
“To the palace of King Ahaz,” Princess Charna said.
“Why we are less than two days travel by the main road,” the Lab said. “But if you don’t mind going off the main road, we can get there in less than a day and a half.”
“By all means,” Chananiah and Charna responded. In his excitement, it never dawned on Chananiah that the princess had actually communicated with the dog . . .
Princess Charna, Chananiah and Nomi, surrounded by their four-dog escort, left the main road and began the final march toward the Kingdom of Ahaz. They arrived at his palace just before nightfall of the next day. Chananiah had been away for precisely five months, three weeks and five days. He was home free!
But the story by no means ends here . . .
VIII. Back in the Kingdom of Ahaz
Hearing that Chananiah had successfully returned, his future queen in tow, King Ahaz made preparations to meet his young advisor at the palace gate. Just before sundown, Chananiah entered the palace grounds with Princess Charna and Nomi. The look on King Ahaz’s face defied description or interpretation; it was virtually impossible to tell if he was happy or sad, overjoyed or angry. When Chananiah introduced the king to his bride-to-be, Ahaz merely stared at her.
“And so you are absolutely positive that this is the woman who belongs to the gold hair?” the king demanded, without so much as a ‘thank you.’
“Yes My Lord, without a doubt,” Chananiah proclaimed, bowing low. When he arose, he fetched the single strand of hair from his sack and handed it to the king. Ahaz grasped the golden hair in his two hands and stretched it out against the fast disappearing sunlight. His eyes went from Princess Charna’s hair to the one he held tightly in his two hands and then back again. After doing this six or seven times, he said: “She very well may be the one.”
“With all due respect My Lord,” Chananiah pleaded, “This is the woman whom you seek. Of that there can be no doubt. She herself told me that a bird had plucked a single hair from her head just days before it came into your possession. She even described the bird for me. Yes, My Lord, she is your bride to be. Congratulations!”
“Thank you then, Chananiah,” the kind said, in what for him passed for a pleasant tone. “I do applaud your efforts. To be perfectly honest, I never imagined that you would find the woman. Since you have fulfilled your task, I shall now keep my promise: you and all the other advisors are spared.”
King Ahaz took Princess Charna’s arm in his, and turned towards the palace. Just as they were about to enter through its gates, the princess stopped, looked at King Ahaz and said: “Would you mind terribly if I go off for just a while and walk around the grounds by myself? I just want to breath in the air and see the sights before I enter my new home. Is that alright with you, My Lord?”
“I suppose so,” King Ahaz answered, a bit taken aback. Charna walked off, leaving the king, Chananiah and Nomi standing in front of the palace gate. As they watched her leave, King Ahaz said to Chananiah: “You would do well to return home at once. I am truly sorry for what awaits you.”
‘What a strange, strange man,’ Chananiah thought to himself.
Without further ado, Chananiah left the palace gate and hurried down to his little house in the village. He was amazed to find Daya waiting for him in the open doorway.
“Daya!” Chananiah exclaimed. “What a wonderful surprise! How did you know that I was back?”
“Oh I have my ways,” the frog answered. “I . . . I . . . heard reports down at the pond that you were nearing the kingdom, so I came here to await your return.” Chananiah noticed that the expression on Daya’s face was anything but happy.
“Daya, what’s the matter? You seem all out of sorts. Moreover, come to think of it, when I left King Ahaz, he said ‘I am truly sorry for what awaits you.’ What’s going on?”
“Please Chananiah,” the frog said, “let’s go inside. I have something very sad to tell you.”
“Is it about my mother?” Chananiah asked fearfully. Even as he spoke the words, he knew that something had happened to Shulamit. “What has happened to my mother? Is she . . . is she . . .?”
"Yes, Chananiah,” Daya said with great compassion, “she is dead. Entering the little house, Chananiah saw that the one mirror adorning the wall was covered, an ancient sign of mourning. He went to the center of the room and sat on the floor.
“What happened?” Chananiah asked, tears welling up in his eyes. “Did she suffer an accident? Was she the victim of illness? Tell me Daya, tell me.”
“I am so sorry,” Daya said, with tears in her eyes. “She was like a mother to me.” The frog moved closer to where Chananiah was sitting. “It could not be helped. Soon after you left on your journey, word reached me at the pond that you were gone. I immediately came here to keep her company. Day in, day out, she feared that you would never return – that something terrible would happen to you. She stopped eating, sleeping, even speaking. I think it must have been fear that killed her.”
“. . . To have come so far. To have gone through so much,” Chananiah moaned. He got up from the floor, tore his garment, and began to cry aloud. “Shulamit! Shulamit! Why? Why?”
“There, there,” Daya soothed. “Let it all out Chananiah. Cry for our beloved mother. Crying is good for both of us. We shall get through this together.”
“Thank you Daya,” Chananiah said, wiping his eyes with the back of his sleeve. “I am so glad that you were here with her when she died. I just wish that I too could have been here, and that she could have met Princess Charna. She is such a wonderful woman; I am sure that they would have become fast friends.”
“It just was not meant to be,” the frog said. She was sitting close to Chananiah.
“It is funny that you should put it that way,” Chananiah said. “That is the way Princess Charna thinks. She is always says ‘what is meant to be will happen; what is not meant to be will not happen.’”
“She sounds like a wise and understanding woman,” Daya said, attempting a smile.
“Yes, that she certainly is,” Chananiah whispered. He then left the room and went to lie down on his bed. Daya followed and sat at the foot of the bed while Chananiah cried himself to sleep. Chananiah slept for nearly fifteen hours, during which time he dreamed of Shulamit and Daya, of Charna and Nomi, of dogs and birds and fish. When he awoke, Daya was gone. Chananiah was alone.
Chananiah stretched, yawned, and got out of bed. He began walking around the tiny house, thinking intently of his mother.
Dear mother,” he said softly to himself, ‘You are here with us in spirit. One as wonderful as you will never truly depart from our lives. You shall always be with us. I know that we will speak of you often, and we will once again be able to laugh and sing. Such is the way of life and death.’
As with his father, Chananiah mourned for his mother in the traditional manner of his ancestors.
The thirty-day period passed very slowly. Daya came to visit him on three separate occasions, never staying longer than an hour. On the thirty-first day, Chananiah returned to the palace of the king.
During the period of mourning, King Ahaz married Princess Charna, thereby making her a queen. Regrettably, being married did not make the king any less nasty or cruel; in essence, he was virtually unchanged. As before his marriage, Ahaz was loud, impatient and difficult to get along with. Despite her best efforts, the queen had little or no effect on her husband. She learned to keep to herself, and from time to time, would leave the palace and go walking in the countryside alone.
One day, while sitting in the Royal Throne Room, Queen Charna addressed her husband: “Ahaz, have you considered the possibility of rewarding Chananiah?” The king looked at his wife blankly, as if not having the slightest idea what she was talking about.
“I mean,” Queen Charna continued, picking up on her husband’s blank stare, “He did, again all odds, perform a nearly impossible task for you. And I did hear you admit to him that you never thought he would succeed. But succeed he did, which marks him as an exceptional man. Does not that merit some kind of reward or distinction?”
“Yes, I suppose it does,” the king answered. He looked at his beautiful queen and then chuckled. “Having come to know you just a little, I would imagine that you have something specific in mind. Am I correct?”
“Yes, my husband,” the queen answered. “I think it would be most fitting for you to make Chananiah your Chief Advisor. After all, he is certainly the wisest person in the entire kingdom . . . outside of yourself,” she was quick to add.
“Say no more my queen,” King Ahaz said with a dismissing wave of the hand. Chananiah shall henceforth be my Chief Advisor.”
And so it was.
Chananiah’s appointment as Chief Advisor to King Ahaz did not sit well with the rest of the Royal Advisors. They were not a particularly nice lot. Like the king they served, they suffered from both envy and jealousy. “Just who does he think he is?” they said amongst themselves. “He comes here for one day – one day! – Then goes off on a six-month journey – a journey which put all our lives in jeopardy. And while it is true that he did save our lives, he is the one who put us in danger in the first place! Now, suddenly he returns and is made Chief Advisor to the king. We must teach the little ‘gentleman’ a lesson . . .”
“What do you suggest?” one of the advisors queried. “Shall we perhaps steal something from the king and have it planted on him? Imagine what would happen to him if the king instituted a search and find his stolen property at Chananiah’s house!”
“That is not a bad idea, except for one thing,” a second advisor chimed in. “How in the world are we going to steal something from Ahaz without getting caught ourselves? No, the dangers are too great.”
“Well then,” said a third, “perhaps we ought to spread a rumor that Chananiah has been speaking against the king. You know how much Ahaz dislikes anyone who says bad things about him.”
“I am afraid that would not work,” said a fourth. “Chananiah has Ahaz eating out of the palm of his hand. I cannot see the king would believe it. And besides, Chananiah has the queen on his side as well. She would no doubt do everything in her power to convince the king that Chananiah is as pure as the driven snow. No, we have to come up with something else.”
The advisors sat in silent contemplation. Suddenly a fifth advisor proclaimed: “I have it!” His fellows looked to him in hopeful anticipation. “Why don’t we hire some thugs and ruffians to waylay him in a back alley and beat him within an inch of his life? At least we would have the satisfaction of causing him intense pain. And who knows? Perhaps he would be laid up long enough that King Ahaz would be forced to appoint a different Chief Advisor.”
The Royal Advisors mulled over this last suggestion and decided that that was precisely what they were going to do. They each contributed money until they had collected eight pieces of silver – more than enough to hire four or five hoodlums to carry out their ugly little scheme. One of the advisors was delegated to locate the men who would carry out the dirty deed and explain to them what they were to do. Within a day, he had accomplished his mission.
“Everything is set,” he reported back to his partners in crime. “I managed to find five of the biggest, nastiest desperadoes in the kingdom. Tomorrow, at six o’clock, when Chananiah is returning to his home, they will take him and give him a beating. That should teach him a lesson.”
“When do they get paid?” one of the advisors asked.
“Why I have already paid them,” his colleague answered.
“Idiot! How can you be certain that they will carry out our plot? How do you know that they will not just take the money and run?”
“We can be certain because I say we can be certain,” the chief conspirator answered in an angry voice. “Besides, I told them that if they failed to carry out our plan, I would have them arrested for stealing our money. It would be their word against ours. You tell me: who would ever believe them?”
“Let us pray you are correct,” they all said.
The next day, shortly after six o’clock, Chananiah left the palace, bound for his cottage in the village. As he was walking, he had the feeling that he was being followed. Each time he stopped to look over his shoulder, he saw nothing. But something told him that he was, nonetheless, being shadowed. Just as he reached the edge of his village, the attackers struck. They hit Chananiah over the head with a piece of pipe, and then dragged his unconscious body into a nearby alley. There they proceeded to punch, kick and pummel Chananiah for more than twenty minutes. They must have truly enjoyed the misery and suffering they were inflicting, for they found it impossible to stop. When they finally finished and were ready to steal away, they noted that their victim was not breathing. Far from merely injuring Chananiah, they had killed him. They ran their separate ways, leaving Chananiah dead, lying in a narrow alley at the village edge . . .
IX. All’s Well That Ends Well
No more than six or seven minutes passed until word of Chananiah’s death reached the palace. As soon as they heard, King Ahaz, Queen Charna and all of the Royal Advisors raced down to the village. Reaching the narrow alleyway, they found a dense crowd surrounding Chananiah’s lifeless body.
“Make way for their royal majesties King Ahaz and Queen Charna!” the advisors commanded. As if by magic, a passageway formed, permitting the royal couple to come near Chananiah’s body. What they saw sickened them. There lay Chananiah, broken and bloody, a good man who had met with a tragic end. The king seemed truly saddened. Despite his nasty demeanor, he had developed a grudging respect – even fondness – for this unique young man. The queen was silent. She appeared to be deep in thought. If anyone had been looking at her – rather than at Chananiah’s body – they would have seen her opening her eyes wide, as if she had just had a flash of inspiration. They also would have seen an baffling smile upon her lips.
Noiselessly backing away from her husband, Queen Charna made an almost imperceptible gesture toward Nomi. The servant girl approached her mistress. “Is there something you wish, My Lady?” she asked.
“Yes,” Queen Charna whispered, keeping her eyes on the spot where Chananiah’s body lay. “Quickly, and without drawing attention to yourself, go back to the palace. Go directly to my private chambers. There, in the second drawer of my nightstand, you will find a vial. Take that vial and bring it to me. Hurry!”
“Oh yes,” Nomi answered. “I understand completely!” Then she winked at her mistress, and disappeared into the crowd.
While Queen Charna was awaiting the servant girl’s return, the milling crowd continued to grow. Soon, there were more than three hundred people filling the narrow alleyway. All were talking in hushed tones about the mysterious death of Chananiah, the Chief Advisor to King Ahaz.
“Whoever could have done such a wicked thing?” one asked.
“He was such a fine, fine man,” another tearfully remarked.
“We must find whoever did this and bring them to justice,” whispered a third.
King Ahaz heard these and other remarks, and was amazed at how many people knew his Chief Advisor, and how well thought-of he was among the little people of the kingdom.
A man came pushing his way through the throng. This was the Royal Physician. Leaning over the body, the doctor examined Chananiah in the hopes that perhaps, just perhaps, he was not truly dead. When he stood up, the look on his face told the whole story. Chananiah had indeed departed from this world.
The Royal Advisors, clustered together in a small group near the king, were dazed and terribly frightened. How could the thugs have disobeyed their explicit orders? Why did they have to kill him? What if it were discovered that they – the king’s own Council of Royal Advisors – who were behind the attack? True to the last, they thought only of themselves.
Up to this point, King Ahaz had been silent, a stoic nothingness on his face. Suddenly he raised his voice so that it could be heard from one end of the village to the other: “I SHALL NOT REST UNTIL I FIND OUT WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS! WHOEVER IT WAS SHALL SURELY BE PUT TO DEATH!” As one may well imagine, the Royal Advisors began feeling as if all eyes were on them. In reality, no one was looking at them; it was their own collective guilt that was haunting them.
While the crowd continued weeping, talking speculating, Nomi returned, all but unnoticed. She quickly and quietly made her way over to where Queen Charna was standing – a few feet away from her husband the king. The Queen made a little gesture for Nomi to stand directly behind her – the appropriate place for a royal servant. Queen Charna clasped her hands behind her back. Then, motioning with her forefinger, she made Nomi understand that she wished the servant to give her the vial she was holding in her right hand. Nomi slipped Queen Charna the vial.
Stepping away from husband the king, Queen Charna held the vial up high for all to see. Then she spoke. “Behold, I have here in my hand a magic potion that may well restore Chananiah to life. It only works if the one who has died was truly righteous and decent during their lifetime. If they were, then they shall come back to life as if nothing had happened. But if not, the potion shall have quite the opposite effect; it shall make the body disappear in a flash of flame and smoke.”
With these words, Queen Charna – the crowd held in rapt attention – ceremoniously uncapped the tiny vial and sprinkled several drops over Chananiah’s lifeless body. Everyone waited, holding their breath. Suddenly and miraculously, Chananiah began stirring! His wounds and bruises began disappearing, and soon, he was sitting up as if nothing had happened. Amazed, King Ahaz helped his Chief Advisor back to his feet.
“How do you feel, Chananiah?” the king asked. From the tone of his voice –demanding – one would never have guessed that just a few moments earlier, the king had actually seemed concerned.
“I feel . . . well, I feel fine,” Chananiah said, somewhat tentatively. “Tell me if you will, what happened?”
“You were beaten and left for dead,” the king told him. “Actually, until just a few seconds ago, you were dead. If it were not for the queen and her magic potion, you would still be dead. Tell us Chananiah,” the king implored, “do you not remember anything of what happened to you? What is the last thing you remember?”
“I remember . . . I remember walking home,” Chananiah began slowly. “I was walking home and having this strange feeling that I was being followed. But whenever I turned around, no one was there. Then suddenly, and without warning, I felt something come crashing down on the back of my head. Just before I passed out, I remember hearing one of them speak.”
“One of them?” the king asked. “So there was more than one?”
“Oh yes, definitely,” Chananiah answered, “Unless he was talking to himself.”
“And what did he say?” the king asked.
“I remember hearing him say something about ‘earning our money,’ whatever that means.
"Then they were paid to beat you!” the king exclaimed in horror.
“Yes, I suppose it does mean that,” Chananiah said. “But who in the world would want to do me so much harm? Have I hurt or offended anyone so badly that they would wish me dead? I know that I’m not perfect, but I’ve always tried to live my life by a set of rules and principals. It now seems sadly obvious that I must have angered someone. And yet I don’t know how – or who.”
“It was the Royal Advisors,” came a tiny voice from a nearby tree. Chananiah looked up and saw a wren sitting on the branch of a carob tree. “Naitz asked me to watch over you once you returned home. I have been following you all day long. I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that the Royal Advisors paid those thugs to beat you.” Chananiah blinked hard. He was of course the only one who had any idea that the chirping bird was actually solving the mystery of who was behind the brutal attack.
“The Royal Advisors are responsible for this attack,” Chananiah said, pointing his finger in their direction. They all took a step back, guilt clearly written on all their faces.
“But however could you know that?” they demanded.
“Let’s just say that a little bird told me,” Chananiah answered. “I do not know what I ever did to hurt or harm you to have warranted this. So far as I know, I had something to do with saving your lives and those of your families. And this is how you repay me? Tell me: what did I ever do to you?”
Before they could answer, the king ordered his guards to surround them and take them off to the Royal Dungeon. Within an instant, they were gone.
The king came over to Chananiah, placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder, and said: “Come, let us return to the palace where you can have something to eat and a good night’s sleep.”
The next morning, following a sumptuous breakfast, King Ahaz summoned Chananiah to come to the Royal Throne Room. Entering the room, Chananiah saw the king and queen sitting on their respective thrones; before them stood virtually every member of the kingdom’s royal caste.
“Approach,” the king said, pointing his scepter toward Chananiah.
When Chananiah was within three feet of where the king and queen were seated, Ahaz said: “Tell me Chananiah, what was it like being dead and then coming back to life? It must have been a truly amazing experience. Tell me about it if you can.”
Chananiah paused to think. It really had not yet sunk in that less than twenty-four hours earlier, he had actually been dead. “It is really hard to put into words,” Chananiah told the king. “All I can say is that you are quite correct; it was a truly remarkable experience. Unlike anything you could imagine.” In matter of fact, Chananiah didn’t have the slightest idea what the experience was like, because he had no recollection of it.
“Why should I have to merely imagine it?” the king questioned. “As king of this realm, I have the right to experience anything I please. And right now, it pleases me to know what it is like to be dead and then brought back to life.” An audible shudder went through the assembled royals standing before the throne.
“But My Lord,” Queen Charna interrupted, “You must remember that the magic potion only works on those who are truly kind, decent and honorable. If not, their bodies go up in a flash of flame and smoke!”
“Do you dare imply that I am anything less than kind?” the king said menacingly. “Do you not all agree that I am the best of kings?” Ahaz demanded of those in the Royal Throne Room.
“Yes Your Majesty, yes,” the royals agreed, knowing full well what fate awaited them if they disagreed with their thoroughly disagreeable monarch.
“Now that we’ve settled that,” the king said, turning toward his wife, “I can experience the ultimate sensation of dying and then coming back to life.” The king had a maniacal look on his face. Gathering steam, he bellowed: “Now, first things first. In order to come back to life, I must first be dead.” The king began looking to his right and left. His gaze settled on one of his guards. Stepping toward the man, King Ahaz drew the man’s sword from its sheathe.
“I COMMAND YOU TO KILL ME!” The king said in a voice as loud as thunder.
“Bu . . bu . . but . . . Yo . . yo. .your Ma . . . jesty,” the guard stammered, “I am sworn to pr . . . pr . . . protect your life, n . . . n . . . not end it!”
“SILENCE YOU KNAVE!” the king commanded. “You shall do as I say or I shall use this sword on you,” he warned, pointing the sword threateningly at the guard’s throat. “Now, how say you?” the king asked. “Will you fulfill my command?” The soldier swallowed hard and then shook his head in agreement.
King Ahaz handed over the saber to his guard. The frightened warrior turned his gaze toward the ceiling, uttered a tiny prayer, and then thrust his sword deep into the king’s chest.
“AAAHHH!” the king screamed, clutching at the sword buried in his chest. NOW I Die that I . . .” Before he could finish what he was about to say, King Ahaz fell down dead at the feet of the soldier, Queen Charna and Chananiah. The group in the Royal Throne Room was silent. All eyes were on the queen.
Queen Charna then motioned to Nomi, who brought her the vial. Holding it high for all to see, she proclaimed: “As I stated yesterday when Chananiah’s lifeless body was found, this magic potion works only on those who have been adjudged by the fates to have been kind and righteous during their lifetime. I myself make no judgment on King Ahaz; that is the job of fate – or Heaven. The potion shall, in effect, pronounce fate’s judgment.”
With that, the queen sprinkled a few drop of the magic potion over the king’s lifeless body. Within a few seconds, his corpse began smoldering. Then it burst into flames. Within less than a minute, his body had been consumed. The king was gone.
“The King is dead! The King is dead! Long live the Queen!” the crowd roared with overwhelming joy as if a dark cloud had finally been lifted from above. “The King is Dead! The King is Dead!”
“Please, please,” the queen gestured, asking for quiet. The crowd immediately became silent. “You have all seen with your own eyes what befell King Ahaz. It is the judgment of both fate and Heaven that he was not a righteous man. He has suffered the fate of the wicked. Try as I might, there was simply nothing I could do to make a decent person out of him. He was fatally flawed, and now he has suffered his fate.”
“Know this,” the queen continued. “I am still a newcomer in this land. I have neither the knowledge nor the desire to rule over you alone. I must have a king. We must have a king.” Saying these words, she turned toward Chananiah. “If you will agree, I would very much like to have Chananiah as our new king . . . and my new husband.”
The crowd roared its approval. A smile came over Chananiah’s face as he nodded in agreement. It was settled. Henceforth, the land would be known as the Kingdom of Chananiah and Charna.
The two were married forthwith.
Later that evening, as they sat at the Royal Dining Table, Chananiah told his wife what was on his mind: “I know what you did in the alley last night and the Royal Throne Room this morning. You used the waters of Gan Ayden and Gehenna! How in the world did you know that Ahaz would want to die and that you would get to use that ruse?”
How did I know?” Charna asked. “It is really quite simply. Although we were married for only a brief time, I came to know Ahaz very well. He was an extremely self-centered man – always thinking of his own pleasures, pains and needs. He was also extremely greedy – always wanting that which others had. I knew that when he saw you brought back to life, he would demand to go through the same experience – in much the same way he might demand a better horse or a larger diamond. That is why I made sure that Nomi knew which vial was which beforehand. Remember: if it is meant to be, it is meant to be.”
“Yes, so you have always claimed,” Chananiah said, taking her hand. “I guess it has always been meant to be that we should be king and queen, husband and wife.”
“Yes it has,” Charna said. “Ever since you first purchased that wooden box in the marketplace.”
Chananiah looked at her in amazement.
“How in the world did you know about that?” Chananiah gasped. “I never told you about that.”
“How did I know?” Charna asked with a twinkle in her eye. “Haven’t you guessed? Give me a moment and I will show you how I knew.” With that, she got up from the table and left the room. Chananiah closed his eyes and tried to figure out just how his wife could have known about the box that had housed the wondrous frog Daya. Daya! That was it! Of course! How could he have been so blind? Suddenly everything became crystal clear; all that had happened these many, many months and years made perfect sense.
“Please come in Daya,” Chananiah said, getting up from the table. The door opened and the frog entered the Royal Dining Chamber. She hopped up on the table and smiled at Chananiah.
So that is why your eyes always seemed so familiar,” Chananiah laughed. “All along it was you. Tell me Daya: when did you decide to become Princess Charna?”
“Actually, my husband,” Daya said, transforming herself back into Queen Charna, “I was a princess long before I became a frog. When I told you that I could live as any creature I desired, I was telling the truth. The only slight falsehood was in claiming that I preferred to live as a frog. I had to make myself into a frog so that our plan would work?”
“Our plan?” Who is the other party in this grand scheme? And do you mean to say that the whole thing was planned out in advance?”
“Yes, it certainly was,” the queen said. And as to who the others were, that is simple: God and your father.”
“As we have long agreed,” Charna told her amazed husband, “things happen for a reason. It was long God’s plan that you should one day replace the wicked King Ahaz. The people deserve to be ruled by a devoted wife and a king who is both gentle and wise. But the only way that that could happen . . .”
“. . . required that you become a frog, “Chananiah said, taking his wife’s hand and placing it on his lips. “Now it is all beginning to make sense. All along you dropped little hints that I never picked up on. All along you were trying to tell me that we had met before. This is just too fantastic.” Chananiah embraced his wife as if he were embracing his very destiny . . . which in reality, he was.
“Just promise me one thing,” Chananiah said.
“Anything, my beloved,” Charna answered. Just name it and your wish will be granted.
“That you will always stay a queen and never decide to go back living in a lily pond!”
“I do not think you have to worry,” Charna said, breaking into a broad smile. She began giggling. The giggles turned to laughter. Soon, both husband and wife, the King and Queen, were laughing and dancing around the Royal Dining Chamber. It was a wonderful way to begin a new life.
King Chananiah and Queen Charna lived until a ripe old age, surrounded by many children and grandchildren, as well as a wide assortment of frogs and dogs, birds, fish and other assorted creatures. Chananiah’s reputation for kindness and wisdom grew with every passing year. The kingdom was finally a happy kingdom. And as with all tales of long ago, they all lived happily for ever after. . .