There was a Jewish storyteller who made his living going from one village to another, telling his stories to whomever would listen. It wasn’t much of a living. He received hardly any money for his efforts. More often his reward was a meal and a place to sleep for a night.
Once on a cold winter day, he arrived in a village where no one would listen to him, so intent were the townspeople on finishing their work and hurrying to the warmth of their homes. Some kind person pointed up the hill to the lord’s castle. Torches burned outside, and it was lit from within by a great many candles.
“Go see him. They say he is eager to hear stories, and that every time he hears a tale that is new to him, he pays well.”
It was the storyteller’s only hope. He presented himself at the great doorway and was admitted to the lord’s presence. Old and haggard, seated at a table with a large pile of coins before him, the lord motioned the storyteller to a chair. “Begin.”
The storyteller told his tales. As it happened, many of them were new to the lord, and each new story earned a precious coin. In only a few hours, the storyteller had received in one night more money than he had made in many years. After a satisfying meal, he was shown to a beautifully appointed bedchamber and slept in such comfort as he had never known.
His recitation continued the next day, as did the flow of coins. Eventually, even this accomplished storyteller ran out of stories.
“Is that all?” asked the lord.
Exhausted, the storyteller sat in silence, and then he said, “I know one more. Many years ago, a little Jewish boy attracted the attention of a nobleman who lived near his village. The boy was handsome and intelligent, and the noble paid his family well for the privilege of taking the boy away to be educated. The boy never saw his family again. He excelled in school and university, adopted the religion of his benefactor, and made his way to great wealth in the best society. As he grew old, the little boy — now a great lord — felt an inner hollowness which could only have been filled by the family he missed and the tradition he had renounced. He withdrew from society and lived alone in his castle, comfortable but wretched.”
“I am sorry,” the storyteller added, “that my last tale is such an unhappy one.”
Rapt in his performance, he had closed his eyes, and now he opened them and saw that the lord was weeping.
“You left out one detail,” said the lord. “I am that very man, rich but hollow. Years ago, I went to see a rabbi and poured out to him my loneliness and anguish. I asked him how God could forgive me. He told me that I would know I had been forgiven when someone came and told me my own story.”
The lord invited the storyteller to live with him, and the storyteller helped him to reclaim what he had abandoned.
In this week’s Torah portion, B’ha’alotekha, we read of a provision for those who are unable to observe Pesach/Passover properly due to ritual impurity or absence on a journey (Numbers 9:6-14). In such a case, a person may observe Pesach on the same day of the next month.
By extension, let this passage teach us that those who have drifted away from Judaism — to whatever degree — have opportunities to reclaim what they have allowed to slip away. We must not resign ourselves to the loss of any aspect of Jewish experience: mitzvot, observance, study, community involvement, worthy behavior. If we have been absent in any way, there is always someone who can tell us our own stories and bring us home.
Shabbat shalom! pjc
Rabbi Paul Tuchman is the rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.