Friday, February 26, 2021

The Mirror

Once upon a time a young farmer was going to travel to the big city to buy some supplies. His father reminded him of the supplies they needed. His mother told him not to forget to be careful and watch out for thieves and avoid the taverns. His wife asked him to buy her a comb but, knowing her husband had to remember many things, pointed to the crescent moon and told him that looking at the moon in the sky would remind him of the comb she wanted. The farmer spent several days in the city to gather the supplies he needed and, finally ready to return home, found that he forgotten what his wife had asked for. Then he remembered to look at the moon which, by this time, was full and round, and he remembered that his wife had asked for something the shape of the moon. Entering the nearest shop he asked the shopkeeper for something round like the moon. The shopkeeper offered the farmer a mirror saying, “just as you requested, as round as the moon.” The farmer, never having seen a mirror, was very impressed and was certain that it would please his wife. When he presented his wife with the mirror she was disappointed that it was not the comb she had asked for. But, worse than that, when she looked into the mirror, she saw the face of a pretty young woman. She was shocked and outraged that her husband had returned from the city with another woman and she ran to her mother-in-law saying, your son has brought home a young woman from the city!” The mother-in-law looked into the mirror and said, “you are mistaken, it is not a young woman he has brought back but an old woman. What is he thinking bringing that old crone here?” The wife said, “she is no crone. She’s young and pretty.” The mother-in-law protested and put the mirror on the table while she and her daughter-in-law argued. The farmer’s son came into the kitchen and grabbed a rice cake to snack on and, seeing the mirror on the table, saw a young boy eating the very same rice cake. He shouted at the boy, “hey, don’t eat my rice cake! Give it back.” But the boy looked angry, kept the rice cake and seemed to be yelling back at the boy. The boy’s grandfather came into the room to see why his grandson was upset. His grandson cried, “grandfather, there’s a boy there who is stealing my rice cake.” The grandfather picked up the mirror and, seeing an old man staring back, was shocked to see that it was his own father returned from the grave.” He put the mirror down and bowed to the spirit of his father and asked forgiveness for his rudeness. The farmer entered the house to find his entire family crying and upset. “What has happened here?” he shouted. Everyone spoke at once. “Why have you brought home a young woman?” his mother shouted, “how dare you waste your money on that old hag!” His father looked stricken as he bowed low on the floor and his son was crying with a rice cake in his hand. His wife grabbed his hand and, holding the mirror in her other hand, dragged him to the local magistrate with the entire family following. The wife placed the mirror down in front of the magistrate and began to explain what had happened. The magsitrate picked up the mirror and was shocked to see a new government official in the robes of office and said, “finally, my replacement has shown up and I can leave this town.” He called to his servant to begin packing. Everyone reached for the mirror at once and it was knocked off the magistrate’s desk and smashed into a thousand pieces. Everyone was puzzled as to what had become of the person they had seen. “Good riddance,” said the wife.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Happy Man's Shirt

Once there was a king who fell ill with an ailment that confounded his doctors. Wise men and women, healers of all kinds were consulted and none could help. Finally, one of the king’s advisors suggested sending for the old woman who lived in the forest and who many believed to be a witch. Still, many people sought her out for her teas and herbs when in need. The old woman was brought before the king and after speaking with him and examining him as best she could, said that the only thing that would cure him would be to wear the shirt of a truly happy man. The king sent for a priest and asked him if he was truly happy. “Why, yes, I am,” said the priest. “Very well,” said the king. What if I were to make you my bishop?” “That would make me very happy,” said the priest. And the king sent the priest away, for the priest could not have been truly happy if still he desired to be something more. The king sent his advisers to visit the king of a neighbouring kingdom who, he had heard, was a happy king, indeed. But the advisers learned that though the neighbouring king was prosperous, his kingdom peaceful, and his family abundant, well-loved and healthy, the king was not particularly happy. This king admitted that, despite all, he was not happy for he couldn’t sleep at night for fear of losing all that he had. The advisers returned home in failure. Finally the king, with his men, went out riding one day through the countryside. Stopping by a pond to refresh himself and the horses, the king heard singing coming from the far side of the pond. He left his men and the horses and followed the sound of the singing. It was the most beautiful singing he had ever heard and the joy in the voice and music made the king think that here must be a truly happy man. The king found the singer, clad in a green jacket, gathering kindling in the woods. He approached the man and asked if he would like to return to the castle and live there in luxury as one of the king’s advisers. “I would not change places with the Pope, your majesty. I am happy in my life right here,” said the man. The king was overjoyed and asked if he could have the man’s shirt. The man smiled, and unbuttoned his jacket. The king saw that the happy man wore no shirt. 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Ugly Bridegroom

 Once upon a time in a land where marriages were typically arranged and it was not uncommon for the betrothed to meet only on their wedding day, there was a young woman who was the pride of her village. She was much beloved and respected for her kindness, intelligence and beauty. So when she learned that her betrothed was not only intelligent but also considered the wisest person of his village, she, her family, and her community were all quite excited. As the bridegroom’s party arrived in the bride’s village for the ceremony, excitement rose. Everyone, and especially the bride, was excited to meet this young man about whom they had heard so much. The groom entered the wedding hall and a gasp of shock went around the room. The wedding guests were shocked to see that the groom was twisted and deformed – his back was hunched over and there was a great lump on it and one of his legs was twisted in a most unnatural way. Before anyone could say anything, the groom held up his hand and said, “Yes, I know my appearance is shocking and for this I beg your patience. I have only one request: that I be allowed to speak with the bride privately for a few moments. After that, I will abide whatever decision she makes without complaint.” Though strange, this nonetheless seemed a reasonable enough request and many of the assembled hoped that, indeed, the groom would be headed back to his village before long. The bride and groom went to one end of the hall where they sat facing each other ata  respectful distance and spoke quietly for some minutes. No one could hear what was said. They could see that the bride looked away often from the sight that was before her. After some time, they stood and approached the assembled.

The bride announced that the wedding would proceed. Everyone was shocked and puzzled, but they could see that the bride was at peace and even joyful. It was a lovely wedding. But the guests were never to know for sure what the groom had said to the bride. 

If they could have heard what was said they would have heard the groom tell a story: “I have studied since I could read: Torah, Talmud, Midrash and more. I have learned that before we are born, the angels bring together the two souls that are to be married in life. These betrothed are allowed to meet briefly. The angels touch us on our lip just under our nose causing us to forget all that we knew, for we are not permitted to be born with this knowledge. The angel’s touch leaves the small depression under our nose – something that we all bear. Once there were two souls that were brought together this way. The groom was most excited. But he was saddened to see that his betrothed was deformed with a great hump on her back and her limbs and neck twisted askew. He turned immediately to the angels and asked if it was possible to take this curse from her and give it to him. The angels agreed and it was so. They touched the lip of the woman, who now stood straight and free of all the deformities she had had a moment before and she forgot. But when they turned to the man, now bent and twisted, they turned away in sadness and horror. They forgot to touch me on the lip. And so I was was born with the knowledge of this meeting.” The bride looked at the groom and she could see that the place under his nose, where everyone had a mark, was smooth. The groom said, “you were the soul that I met before we were born. I remember. And I would take these burdens on again and again for you. But there is no need to carry on with the wedding. I will abide by whatever you decide.”

Thursday, February 18, 2021

The Palace of Bird Beaks

When the Queen of Sheba came to Solomon’s kingdom she brought gifts and riddles. She tested Solomon’s wisdom with her riddles and was pleased. Solomon was pleased with the gifts of the queen and told her that she could ask for anything she pleased. “Build me a palace of bird beaks,” asked the Queen. “It will be done,” said the king. And Solomon, who knew the language of all the animals, sent forth a command that all birds come to his palace and prepare to give their beaks to this great task. The birds flocked to the palace, the eagle, the hummingbird, the wren, and the mockingbird. All the birds of the world filled the sky and then settled slowly looking at Solomon. The king seemed pleased. But as he looked over the mass of birds he frowned and then said, “where is the hoopoe?” The birds looked about and one small bird said that he had seen the hoopoe flying away. Solomon was displeased and ordered that the hoopoe be brought to him that it might be punished. When the hoopoe finally arrived, Solomon spoke angrily: “Where have you been? Why did you not respond to my command immediately?” 

“My king, please do not be angry with me. When I learned of your command, I flew over the world to see what marvels there were. I flew over oceans and deserts, forests and fields and gardens, homes and farms and cities. I have seen the earth teeming with life. And I have learned much. Now I know that you like riddles and that your Queen, who has asked for a palace made of bird beaks, is a master of riddles. Would you grant me asking you three riddles? And should you be unable to answer even one, might you spare my life?” The hoopoe looked past Solomon to see the queen standing and listening.

The birds gasped to hear the hoopoe dare to bargain with the king. But Solomon admired the hoopoe’s boldness and said, “ask your riddles.”

The hoopoe said loudly for all to hear, “Who is it, my king, who was never born and never will die?”

Solomon smiled and said instantly, “ Why the Lord of all creation, blessed be he.” And then Solomon remembered quietly that it was the Lord that had created all creatures to be free and who had also given him the power to speak the language of all animals. Aloud Solomon asked, “What is your second riddle?”

The hoopoe took a breath and asked, “What water is it that does not rise from the ground nor fall from the sky?”

Solomon looked over the assembled multitude to see each and every one listening with fearful anticipation. A strange feeling came over him and he said, “A tear. It does not rise from the ground nor fall from the sky but from an eye overcome with sadness.” And Solomon could see much sadness in front of him as the birds awaited the sacrifice of their beaks. A tear from Solomon’s eye splashed on his hand. “Ask your third riddle, Hoopoe.”

The small bird trembled and said, “What is it that is gentle enough to feed a child but strong enough to pierce the hardest wood?”

Solomon, looking out over the multitude of birds, said quietly, “A bird’s beak, of course.”

Many birds dropped their heads. And the hoopoe bowed its head and said, “You have answered all three of my riddles. Punish me as you see fit. I am at your mercy.”

When nothing happened, the hoopoe looked up to see Solomon smiling. “Dear hoopoe, my wisdom is known throughout the world and yet you have shown me that even one as wise as I can yet be foolish. There will be no palace of bird beaks. Rather…” said Solomon as he summoned his advisers and charged them with fashioning a crown like his own for the hoopoe. To this day the hoopoe bears this gift as a reminder of his courage and wisdom that saved the birds.

The hoopoe bowed to the king. He then bowed to the queen who bowed in return and smiled.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

What A Moral Stance Looks Like


A.J. Muste was a labour activist and pacifist whose advocacy of non-violence as a tactic of change was unusual, to say the least, in the USA of the 1930s and 40s. Noam Chomsky, of whom I was a devoted reader when I was a young adult and who I have continued to read and respect my entire life, in the first of his books I read, American Power and the New Mandarins, quoted a speech by Muste that has stuck with me over the years: “In a world built on violence, one must be a revolutionary before one can be a pacifist." It was only a few years later I found myself working in the Nicaraguan Revolution and having to confront, on a daily basis, my understandings and practices of revolution and peace. Chomsky wrote that “Muste believed, with Gandhi, that "unjust laws and practices survive because men obey them and conform to them. This they do out of fear. There are things they dread more than the continuance of the evil.”” Given all that has happened in the US in the past four years, these words seem more relevant than ever. I’ve heard it said that during the Vietnam War, Muste stood vigil in front of the White House, candle in hand, often alone and sometimes with others. I came across this account by Andrea Ayvazian of The Sun Magazine and, while perhaps apocryphal, like so many good stories, it carries a truth regardless: “A reporter interviewed [A.J. Muste] one evening as he stood there in the rain. "Mr. Muste," the reporter said, "do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night with a candle?" A.J. responded, "Oh, I don't do this to change the country. I do this so the country won't change me.””

Photo from Mural on the War Resisters League building.  Source.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Akbar and the Meaning of Prayer

Once, long ago, Akbar, ruler of the Mughal Empire, was out hunting when it came time for midday prayer. Akbar dismounted and, laying out his prayer mat, knelt down. As he prayed, a woman anxiously searching for her missing husband came running and, failing to notice the kneeling Emperor, tripped over him. With neither a backward glance nor apology, she scrambled to her feet and dashed away, carrying on her search. Akbar, while annoyed by the interruption, remained silent, observing the rule of speaking to no one during the namaz. As Akbar finished his praying, the woman, having found her husband, returned only to be startled to see the Emperor. Trembling with fear, she immediately bowed and made her husband do the same. Akbar looked sternly at the woman saying, “you rudely interrupted my praying. Explain yourself or be punished!” The woman stood up and, still trembling with fear, faced the Emperor and said, “I was in such a panic searching for my husband that I did not notice that you were in this clearing. I barely noticed falling and getting up again. But, if i may ask your majesty a question: how is it that, in your namaz, absorbed in the One who is infinitely more precious than my husband, that you noticed me?” The Emperor fell silent. Later Akbar summoned his chief adviser and said, “Today I met a woman who was neither a scholar nor a Mullah, but who nonetheless taught me the true meaning of prayer.”