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The King and the Wise Man

by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav

(Also on the Hasidic Stories Home Page: Commentary by Arnold J. Band on this tale)

Once there was a king who had a wise man. The king said to the wise man:

"There is a certain king who designates himself 'a mighty hero,' 'a man of truth,' and 'a humble person.' As to his might, I know that he is mighty, since the sea surrounds his country, and on the sea stands a fleet of ships with cannon, and they do not let anyone approach. And inland there is a big swamp surrounding the country. Through the swamp there is only one narrow path and on the path only one man can walk at a time, and there, too, there are cannon. When someone comes to fight them, they shoot the cannon, and it is impossible to approach. But why he designates himself 'a man of truth' and 'a humble person,' this I do not know. And I want you to fetch me the portrait of that king."

That king (who spoke to his wise man) had all the portraits of all the kings, but no portrait of the king who had designated himself (with these titles) was available because he is hidden from men, since he sits under a canopy and is far from his subjects.

The wise man went to that country. The wise man made up his mind that he had to know the essence of the country. And how could he know the essence of the country? By the country's jokes. Because when one has to know something, one should know the jokes related to it. There are several kinds of jokes. Sometimes one really intends to harm his friend with his words, and when the friend becomes angry, he says to him: "I am joking as is written: 'As a madman casts firebrands, arrows, and death.' " (It is like one shoots arrows into his friend's heart and says, "I am joking.") And sometimes one does not intend it as a joke, even so his friend is harmed by his words. Thus there a kinds of jokes.

Among all countries there is one country which includes all countries (in that it serves as the rule for all countries), and in that country there is one city which includes all cities of the whole country which includes all countries. In that city is a house which includes all the houses of the city which includes all the cities of the country which includes all countries. And there is a man who includes everybody from the house, etc. And there is someone there who performs all the jests and jokes of the country.

The wise man took with him much money and went there. He saw that they were performing all kinds of jests and jokes, and he understood through the jokes that the country was full of lies from beginning to end because he saw how they were making fun, how they deceived and misled people in commerce, and how, when he turned for justice to the magistrate, everyone there lied and accepted bribery. He went to the higher court, and there, too, everything was a lie and in jest they faked all those things.

The wise man understood through that laughter that the whole country was full of lies and deceit, and there was no truth in it. He went and traded in the country and he let himself be cheated in commerce. He went to trial in court and he saw that they were all full of lies and bribery. On this day he bribed them, and on the next they did not recognize him. He went to the higher court, and there, too, everything was a lie, until he reached the senate and they, too, were full of lies and bribery. Finally he came to the king himself.

When he came to the king he stated: "Over whom are you king? For the country is full of lies, all of it, from beginning to end, and there is no truth in it!"

He started telling all the lies of the country. The king bent his ears toward the curtain to hear his words, because he was amazed that there was a man who knew all the lies of the country. The ministers of the kingdom who heard his words were very angry with him but he continued to tell about all the lies of the country.

That wise man concluded: "And one could say that the king, too, is like them, that he loves deceit like the country. But from this I see how you are 'a man of truth.' You are far from them, since you cannot stand the lies of the country."

He started praising the king very much. The king was very humble, and his greatness lay in his humility. And this is the way of the humble person: The more one praises and exalts him, the smaller and humbler he becomes. Because of the greatness of the praise with which the wise man praised and exalted the king, the king became very humble and small, till he became nothing at all. And the king could not restrain himself, but cast away the curtain, to see the wise man: "Who is it who knows and understands all this?" And his face was revealed. The wise man saw him and painted his portrait and he brought it to the king.

Commentary by Arnold J. Band on this tale)

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Excerpt from Nahman of Bratslav, translation, introduction and commentaries by Arnold J. Band (Mahwah, NJ, Paulist Press, © 1978).
Copyright © 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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