A story for the last day of Passover
There was once a king who had heard about another ruler on a distant shore who was known for his mastery of wisdom and for his army considered the finest in the world. The king wanted to know more about the stories he had heard. Were they true? Did such a king really exist or was he merely a fabrication of legends and myth? The king wanted to know, also, what stories were told about himself in distant places. Did those stories tell the truth about him? Did people believe things about him that were all lies?
It took the advisor a long time to reach the kingdom that his king had heard about. All along his journey, by foot and by sea, he asked people both about his own king and about the king he was traveling to visit. He noticed that as he travelled further from his own kingdom, the less people knew about his king. He noticed that they confused him with other kings of lesser lands. He was frustrated when people assumed that they knew all about his king, and told him stories about him that were completely unfounded in truth.
It did not matter to the advisor whether the stories people told about his king made him appear less than he really was or far greater than any king could be. He wanted people to know his king for the true person that he was, and was angered when people argued that they knew more about the king than did his own closest advisor!
It was with tremendous frustration and and unconsolable sadness that the advisor finally entered the kingdom of the foreign king he had been ordered to seek. Immediately, the advisor asked to be taken to the king and given an audience to bring greetings from the king whom he served. However, all the officers and courtiers of that kingdom told him the same thing: their king did not meet with anyone. He ruled from a high tower of his castle and not a single person from the kingdom had ever even seen the king. They admitted that they did not even know his name. They told the advisor to return to his own kingdom and tell his master that he had failed in his mission. He would never gain admission here to see the king.
The advisor would not be satisfied with this answer. While he continued to seek admission before the king's presence, he asked people to inform him about the king's qualities. Was he, indeed, a master of wisdom? Did he control vast armies considered the finest in the world? The people were mystified by these questions. Was their king wise? Who knew? No one had ever heard him speak. Was their king a great military master? Who could say? The kingdom had been at peace for centuries and there had been no need to deploy armed forces. The people of that kingdom had no idea how to answer the advisor's questions.
One day, while investigating the castle of the invisible king, the advisor entered the king's kitchen and asked a boy he found there, "Who takes food up to the king?" The boy only stammered, not knowing what to say. But the advisor was clever. He smiled at the boy and explained, "I have been asked to take the man's place today and deliver the king's food. I need to know where he is."
The boy seemed relieved by this and pointed out to the advisor an old man who sat in the corner of the kitchen. The boy explained to the advisor that the old man took a platter of simple food, raw vegetables and boiled grain, up to the king's room three times a day. He said that the old man left the platter at the king's door and returned to the kitchen—breakfast, lunch and dinner. He was the only person who ever ventured within a thousand feet of the king's door.
The advisor next went to the old man and interrogated him about the king. What did the king look like? How old was he? What was his name? Was he as wise as he had heard? Was he as powerful? Why did he eat such simple food while he commanded the wealth of an entire nation? The old man protested that he did not know the answers to any of the advisor's questions. He merely did what he had been ordered to do. He took the meals up three times a day and returned to the kitchen. He knew nothing more.
The advisor felt that he was on the edge of madness. He had travelled so long and so far to find the information his master required. All he had found was that nothing he had heard was true. He wondered if there truly was such a thing as truth. People believed what they chose to believe. They were more committed to what they said than what they heard. No one questioned their beliefs, no matter how unfounded those beliefs might be. He was astonished by the stupidity of a nation that knew nothing of their own king—his wisdom or the strength he commanded. They did not even know his name. To make matters worse, they showed no interested in doing anything to find out.
The advisor resolved that, the next day, he would follow the old man up the stairs to the king's door. Even if he would only watch the old man leave the food at the foot of the door and return to the kitchen, he would at least know that this much of what he had heard was true.
The advisor hid himself behind the curtains that lined every hallway of the palace and watched as the old man took the platter of raw vegetables and boiled grain up the stairs. He followed as closely as he dared, so as not to be observed. The old man appeared to be oblivious to the advisor's presence. As the advisor followed at a distance, he heard the old man singing songs quietly to himself up the stairs. He heard him sing:
My lady who is fair and has a gentle voice
Sits on my knee as she knits socks for the babe.
Will the child who grows in your belly
Be as pleasant and fair as you, my love?
Will the child be all that we hoped
Last summer when we clung to each other long?
The steps of the old man continued up through more flights of stairs than the advisor could imagine. He was amazed that such an old man could make this long journey, up and down, up and down, up and down, each day. The advisor himself felt weak from the climb and thought he was about to collapse when, finally, he saw a single door at the top of the last step of the stairs.
The advisor saw that there was no place at the foot of the door for the old man to leave the platter. The door itself was quite plain, with only a simple iron latch and no place to put a lock or key. In amazement, he watched as the old man put his finger to the latch, lifted it, and walked directly into the room.
The advisor crept slowly up to the door, not knowing when the old man would walk back out. The staircase was quite narrow in its final flight, and there would be no place to hide should the old man surprise him.
The advisor carefully peaked into the room and saw little that suggested the presence of a king. There was only a bare table of oak and, he now saw, a simple oak chair in which the old man sat as he ate the king's meal.
Incensed, the advisor walked defiantly into the room and confronted the old man. He said, "What perverse deception stands at the top of this kingdom! There is no king! There is no one who commands this land's armies! There is no wisdom that guides it! There is nothing but lies and lies about lies at the heart of what I was told was a land of seeming perfection! How can this be?"
The old man did not even stop the spoon that lifted the cold cooked grain up to his chin. He put the food in his mouth, tasted it, and swallowed before he spoke.
"Were you not told when you first entered this land that you would never gain admission here to see the king?" the old man asked.
"I was," said the advisor. "Yet, I was determined to discover the truth, and now I have."
"You have discovered nothing," said the old man. "You were told the truth. It is you who have lied. You were the one who told the boy that you were ordered to take my place. Each person in this kingdom has told you the truth exactly. They do not know their king. Only I serve him by bringing him his meals."
"But you eat the meal yourself!" yelled the advisor. "If there is a king, where is he?"
"You know the answer," said the old man. "You know better than anyone here, for he sent you on this mission to discover how well he is known. Now you have your answer. Go back to him."
(offered with admiration for Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav's story, "The Humble King")