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The Magic Fruit
by Doug Lipman
Rabbi Pesach Mendel heard a knock on his door. When he opened it, his heart sank.
He knew well enough how to help his congregants interpret the laws, deciding what was kosher or what activities were allowed on the Sabbath. Often, he even had a pretty good idea what was fair, when they brought disputes for him to judge. But when the time came for real wisdom - life-changing advice - he never knew what to tell the people who depended on him.
And it just so happened that the man outside Rabbi Pesach Mendel's door, Reb Ber, was in the most difficult situation of any in the village. The rabbi felt completely unable to help him.
Just two weeks before, Reb Ber had been a wealthy trader, owner of four proud ships that carried goods across the seas. But within a space of days, two ships had been sunk in a storm. A third was captured by pirates. And the fourth one, safely anchored in the river near the village, had caught fire and burned. Everyone in the town had been talking about his tragedy. But the rabbi had no idea how to advise him.
Nonetheless, Rabbi Pesach Mendel invited Reb Ber into his study, sat down across from him, and began to listen. "Rabbi," Reb Ber said shakily, "things are no better this week. I do not know whose advice to take. Some say I should begin again in shipping - but I can't bear to start over as a sailor. Others say I should try a new line of work - but what do I know about jewelry or managing an inn? To tell you the truth, Rabbi, my mind is in a fog. Half the time I just sit, feeling too weak to do anything; the other half, I want to run away from it all - but then I think of my wife and small children. So you are my last hope. What should I do?"
"What should I do." Those were the four words Rabbi Pesach Mendel dreaded the most. He twisted uncomfortably in his seat; his gaze fell on his desk. Just a few days before, the rabbi's wife had insisted he keep an apple there as a reminder. "Payshe," she had said, "why do you think you need to give out wisdom? Even God didn't thrust infinite knowledge into the minds of Adam and Eve, but put it in a fruit, so that they might eat it or not."
"Mimele," the rabbi had replied. "I understand that sometimes I just need to listen. But what if someone is stuck? How can I expect them to figure things out on their own?"
His wife had said, "Did the holy Baal Shem Tov always tell people what they should do? No. He told them a story. When he told them to do something, it was always to help them live a story. After, they would have their own wisdom, to see what would really help them. Don't give people advice, give them an apple they can eat for themselves!"
Rabbi Pesach Mendel came out of his reverie long enough to notice that Reb Ber was looking at him expectantly. Rabbi Pesach Mendel thought, "Please, Creator of the Universe, if this man is capable of knowing the answers for his own life, help me to enable him to discover them."
He sat forlornly, staring at the apple on his desk. Suddenly, in his mind, it was a glowing apple - no, it was a large red fruit, hanging in the leaves of a magnificent tree. And around the tree was a royal garden....
"Reb Ber," he said, "I do not know if this will be of any use to you. But a story is forming in my mind. May I tell it to you?"
Reb Ber said nothing, so Rabbi Pesach Mendel picked up the apple and began his story. As the tale continued, he often paused to stare at the apple or out the window. The story unfolded before them both.
Once, there was a king. Inside his palace wall was an enormous garden. In the very center of that garden was a famous tree. On the tree grew three magical fruits, each a different color.
One day, it happened that a group of the royal soldiers turned against the king and took over the palace. Simultaneously, their confederates arose in the royal city and completed the takeover.
The king found himself fleeing for his life. He was given shelter by a band of beggars, who gave him clothes like theirs, so he would not be recognized. They tried to teach him how to beg. But every time he attempted to reach out his hands to a passing stranger, the enormity of his loss seemed to crush him. All he could do was stare at the ground.
The other beggars fed him for a few days, but in time they said, "We do not have enough extra food for you. You must ask for your own."
Still, the king-turned-beggar could not rouse himself. After many days, with the last of his strength, he stumbled back to the royal palace. There, under cover of night, he found the secret hole in the wall that led to the royal garden and squeezed himself through the wall. Alone in the garden, he went to the great tree in the center, and searched through its leaves until he found what he was looking for.
He plucked the white fruit, held it up to his mouth and bit into it. The moment he tasted it, he became terrified. "Who am I? Why am I here?" He had forgotten everything. He looked down and saw the footprints he himself had made. Quickly, he followed his own trail back through the hole in the wall and out into the streets.
Looking down at his rags, he knew himself for a beggar. So he reached out his hand and asked for food.
He lived for many years in this way, believing that he had always been a beggar. He might have lived the rest of his life that way, but one evening he happened to walk past the wall that separated the king's garden from the rest of the city. A fragrance reached his nostrils that awakened the deepest hungers within him.
Suddenly, he could think only of finding the source of that fragrance. He followed it to a hole in the wall, then through it into a garden. He looked around the garden; in the darkness, he saw no one there. The fragrance came from a tree at the garden's center. He felt through its leaves until he found a red fruit and bit into it.
In his terror, he muffled his own scream, for suddenly he remembered who he had been and all that he had lost. At the same moment, he remembered where he was - that his life was in danger. He ran to escape from the garden. When he was safely distant from the palace, he began to wail and weep.
In the coming weeks, he begged only when he absolutely needed nourishment, to feed the stream of tears that flowed from his eyes and to have strength enough to wail again. He became known as the wailing beggar.
Yet, before too many months had passed, his tears and wailing ran their course, and another yearning seized him. He knew there was something he needed now in that garden. By night, he slid once more through the secret hole in the wall. He bit into the blue fruit. As he did, he straightened his stooped body.
He looked around. He saw for the first time that he was not alone in that garden. There were figures lurking in the shadows. His first impulse was to turn and run, but the remainder of the blue fruit in his hand seemed to calm him.
He faced the shadows and said, "Who is there?"
The figures walked slowly toward him, from all sides. "Is it you, who once was the king?"
Again, he felt the urge to run. But instead he said, "Yes, it is I."
The figures ran toward him...and knelt before him. "Your majesty, we are your loyal soldiers. We have been awaiting your return. Will you command us?"
The king, who had been the wailing beggar, stood tall and said, "Yes, I will."
Rabbi Pesach Mendel paused, looking down at the apple in his hand. Then he looked up at Reb Ber. "I am so sorry, Reb Ber, that I don't know the rest of the story. This would be the useful part: how the king succeeded, how he attacked the palace, and exactly what strategies...."
The rabbi trailed off as he noticed the tears welling up in Reb Ber's eyes.
Reb Ber looked up at the rabbi. "I have tried to listen to what people told me," he said. "Yet all the advice I have tried to swallow...is like eating the blue fruit of determination...when I still haven't digested my grief."
Reb Ber dropped his head between his hands and began to sob.
Hours later, his eyes red from crying but his step firm, Reb Ber paused on his way out the rabbi's doorway. He turned back to look at the rabbi. "Will it be many months before the river in my eyes flows its course?"
"I do not know," said Rabbi Pesach Mendel. "But I believe this." He looked down at the apple he still held. "When the time comes to take action, you will know what to do."
Note: Rabbi Pesach Mendel is a fictitious rabbi created by Doug Lipman.
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