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Commentary by Arnold J. Band on "The King and the Wise Man"

Introduction to the tale

For all his spiritual severity and messianic anxiety, Nahman was not averse to comic moods. We have seen a clear protracted satire about the world of demons in "The Cripple"; "The King Who Decreed Conversion" and "The King Who Had No Children" are not devoid of touches of irony. Though dealing with theodicy, one of the central problems perplexing to men of faith, The King and the Wise Man is presented as an ironic burlesque - Swiftian without the scatology.

The first king, obviously temporal, is puzzled by the titles (attributes) applied to the second king because he cannot envisage a king who is either truthful or humble, and, since he has no portrait of the second king in his gallery, he doubts his existence. The wise man selected to solve this riddle and bring back the portrait has several salient characteristics: He can tell truth from sham and deception; he is relentless in his quest; he is fearless even in his questioning of the second king, obviously God himself. And, in a sense of self-parody, Nahman endowed his wise man with the perception that one can judge a country from the nature of its jokes.

When the wise man undergoes his predictably frustrating experiences, which finally bring him to the Supreme Magistrate, God, his report to God of his findings and conclusion regarding the kingdom He apparently rules startles Him. Hearing his praises from such a perceptive and knowledgeable human being, God reduces his substance to nothing so that when the curtain is finally pulled aside, the portrait seen by the wise man - and returned to his own king - is obviously blank. For the Perceptive Hasid versed in the intricacies of Bratslav theology, the portrait of God must be blank.

Notes to the tale

The ironic, often bantering tone of The King and the Wise Man both betrays a nagging concern with the perennial problem of theodicy and enables the storyteller to present a fresh rendition of an age-old theme. The first king sends his wise man on a quest to bring back a portrait of a second king as proof of the attributes by which the latter is designated. The first king is puzzled by the second and third attributes: "a man of truth" and "a humble person." The second king is a thinly veiled reference to God; no one has his portrait "because he is hidden from men." It is no coincidence that the picture the wise man finally "draws" of the second king and brings back to his own master is blank: The second king is so humble that when the sage praises and exalts him he "became very humble and small, till he lost all substance."

Two passages in the middle of the story prepare the reader for the adventures of the wise man in the land of vicious jokes and lies, the land of the second king. In the first passage we learn that one can judge the essence of a certain country by its humor, whether it be vicious or benign. In the second we are informed that the country of the second king is, after all, symptomatic of all countries and what one finds there is true for the entire human race.

After gathering evidence concerning the corruption of the human race, the wise man confronts the king with two biting statements which lead, however, to an explanation of the king's withdrawal from this world. The king rules over a country full of lies; one might think the king is like his deceitful subjects if this is the type of kingdom over which he rules. The argument of theodicy, that is, that the king withdraws from his subjects because he cannot bear their lies, explains the first of the two titles which had puzzled the wise man's king - the second king designated as "a man of truth."

The second puzzling title, "a humble person," is explained by a novel narrative twist. As the wise man praises the king, the latter diminishes in size to the point where he loses all substance, since "this is the way of the humble person: The more one praises and exalts him, the smaller and humbler he becomes." If the identification of the second king as God is correct, the explanation for God's insubstantiality is daring since it makes this insubstantiality contingent upon human behavior, not upon God's will or his essence. Even the explanation of God's withdrawal is theologically problematic though by no means at odds with the temper of Bratslav ideology.

An identification of the second king as the hidden zadik, or, more specifically, with Rabbi Nahman himself would be less problematic theologically, but would not conform to the specifics of the narrative, which refer to the threefold title and the unavailable portrait. Though Bratslav tradition often speaks of Rabbi Nahman in hyperboles which transcend even the enthusiastic norms of standard Hasidic discourse concerning the zadik, the attributes here seem to be more appropriate to God than to Rabbi Nahman himself.

Also on the Hasidic Stories Home Page: the full tale of The King and the Wise Man

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Excerpt from Nahman of Bratslav, translation, introduction and commentaries by Arnold J. Band (Mahwah, NJ, Paulist Press, © 1978).
Used by permission of Paulist Press (997 Macarthur Blvd., Mahway, NJ 07430. Phone 201-825-7300, fax 201-825-8345).

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