Judaism has a deep and rich tradition of storytelling, of passing down stories from one generation to the next. To carry on that tradition, Stories We Tell will share a new story with you every Thursday. Whether you listen while driving to work, preparing Shabbat dinner, or taking your kids to school, each episode will give you a new story to reflect on and discuss with the people in your life.
Once, there was a king who set out on a mission in his kingdom to learn about his reputation. He travelled from town to town and eventually met a happy old man and his wife. After asking them why they were so joyous, they replied, “God takes care of us.” The king was furious—it’s him who takes care of the people, not God! What the man and his wife do next teach everyone in the kingdom, including the king, what it means to be taken care of. Rabbi Mark Kaiserman, the rabbi at Reform Temple of Forest Hills retells the story. For a written version, see “The Wooden Sword” in The Jewish Story Finder by Sharon Barcan Elswit.
Three ways to listen:
Welcome back to Stories We Tell, a podcast from ReformJudaism.org. As we say each week, Judaism has had a rich and deep tradition of storytelling, passing our stories down from one generation to the next. This week we're introducing a new storyteller: Rabbi Mark Kaiserman, the rabbi of the Reform Temple of Forest Hills, who's going to share the story of the wooden sword.
Once there was a king, and he wanted to find out how the people in his kingdom thought of him. So, he dressed up in beggar's clothing and went town to town to learn what they thought. One small town he came to was all dark except for light that streamed from one small house. He looked through the window and saw an old man and an old woman laughing and eating. “What made them so happy?” he thought.
So he barged into their house and said, “What makes you so happy?”
The old man said, “Well, we have someone who takes care of us.”
“Who is it? Is it your children?”
“We don't have any children,” said the old man.
“Perhaps it is me,” thought the king. “Is it the king?”
“No,” laughed the old man. “It is God. And whenever anything goes wrong, we just close our eyes and pray and think, and we find out the answer.”
“What do you do for a living?” said the king in disguise.
“I am a shoemaker.”
The King left but thought to himself, “I will teach them who takes care of people in this kingdom.”
The next day the old man arrived in town and there was a proclamation: Shoemaking is now illegal in the kingdom!
“What am I going to do?” thought the old man. “I don't even have enough money for today.” He closed his eyes and he prayed and he thought and when he opened them he knew what he would do.
He saw some water carriers. He went up to them and said, “Could I be a water carrier?”
And they said, “Sure, but you're going to need a bucket.”
So he sold his shoe making equipment and bought a bucket, and he spent the day carrying water.
That night the old man and the old woman spent the evening laughing and eating, and the king spying on them again said, “This time I'll teach them a lesson.”
The next day the old man arrived in town and there was a proclamation: Water carrying is now illegal in the kingdom!
“What am I going to do?” thought the old man. “I don't have enough money even for today.” He closed his eyes and he prayed and he thought when he opened them he knew what he was going to do.
He saw some woodchoppers and he went to them and said, “Could I be a woodchopper?”
And they said, “Sure. All you need is an axe.”
So the old man sold his water buckets and he bought an axe and he spent the day chopping wood.
That night the old man and the old woman laughed and ate together, and the king thought to himself, “This time I'll really teach them a lesson.”
The next day there was a proclamation: All woodchoppers must become guards for the king!
At first this seemed like a pretty good deal. He received a beautiful uniform to wear and a sword with a wooden handle and a silver blade that he kept in a scabbard at his side. When the sword was in the scabbard only the handle could be seen.
But being a guard wasn't so good. He spent all day walking back and forth in front of the palace. It was very boring. At the end of a shift, he went to the head guard to ask for his salary. The head guard told him he would be paid at the end of the month.
The end of the month? But he didn't have enough money even for today! So he closed his eyes and he prayed and he thought. And when he opened them he had no idea what he was going to do. So he went home. He told his wife the story. She closed her eyes and she prayed and she thought and when she opened them she said, “I have a plan.”
She told her plan to her husband, and he went outside and chopped down a branch from a tree in front of their house and he carved out a wooden sword from the tree branch and he put it in his scabbard with just the handle showing. Then he took the silver sword and sold it for enough money to last them for a month.
That night when the king came by in disguise he said, “Now I've got them, now I've got them!”
The next day the old man arrived in town and there was no proclamation! So he spent the morning walking back and forth in front of the palace, and so suddenly there was a terrible commotion. A little boy had stolen an apple from a fruit cart in the market. He had been caught and the head guard took the little boy and threw him at the old man's feet and he said, Execute him!”
The old man didn't know what to do. He didn't want to kill a little boy. Plus, he also knew if he pulled out his sword, two heads would be chopped off!
A crowd had started to gather and they were angry. They started shouting, “Why are you killing a little boy?” “What kind of king do we have anyway?” “Who is advising this king?”
The old man closed his eyes and he prayed and he thought when he opened them he raised his hand to quiet the crowd. He said to them, “If this boy deserves to die, let me pull out my sword and chop off his head. But if he deserves to live, let me pull out my sword and let it be made of wood!”
The crowd gasped, and then they started to laugh. And among them was the king, and he was laughing too. He was in disguis with the crowd, and he realized that the old man was very wise. The king pardoned the little boy and made the old man his adviser. And for many nights after that you might find the king sitting at home with the old man and the old woman sitting and laughing and eating and giving thanks to God.
After hearing the story of The Wooden Sword, we're wondering if you're always able to see the best way out of any situation. If you want to share it with us on social media, we would love for you to do so. You can find us at Facebook.com/ReformJudaism, and our twitter handle as @ReformJudaism. Thanks for listening to Stories We Tell. If you enjoyed this week's story, and we hope you did, rate us and review us on iTunes. And you can find new episodes every Thursday on ReformJudaism.org or you can also learn about Jewish rituals and culture, holidays, and more. Stories We Tell is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l’hitraot!