Jr. Jewish World /

Jewish World Review / June 15, 1998 / 21 Sivan, 5758

Who is wise?

by Libby Lazewnik

THREE BOYS WALKED through the front door of the Shneiderman residence and dropped three backpacks onto the floor. The triple- thud was followed, in close order, by the tramp of feet and the click-slam of the refrigerator door. Less than a minute later, the floorboards shook as three sturdy pairs of legs took the stairs to a second-storey bedroom, where the boys deposited the drinks and snacks they had procured in the kitchen.

"There," Mutty said, eyeing the repast with a satisfied eye. "That should keep us going while we study."

Nochum shook his head. "It'll never be enough. I told you we should have brought the potato chips up, too. I can never study on an empty stomach." This was an interesting comment, as Nochum was rail-thin.

"Come on," Yoel, the third boy, protested mildly. Yoel was as thin as Nochum, but about a head shorter. "We've got enough food here for a month's worth of studying. Let's get started."

"Oh, Yoel. You'd rather read a book -- even a textbook -- than anything else," Nochum grumbled.

The word "textbook" reminded the boys that theirs were still down in their backpacks by the front door. A few minutes were lost in going back downstairs to retrieve them. At last, the three were settled on the floor of Nochum's room, books and papers strewn around them, and the study session began.

"It's no use," Nochum declared at one point, tugging at a fistful of his own hair. "I'll never get it. I'm going to fail this test and get grounded for a month --- or possibly a year. What's the use of studying?"

"You'll do fine," Mutty assured him comfortably. "The test'll be easier than you expect, you'll see. You're going to do great."

"Who says it'll be easier than I expect? It just might be harder!"

Mutty reached for a pretzel. "Why be pessimistic? It's just as easy to hope for the best as the worst."

"That's you all over," Nochum shot back. "Always the optimist. Don't you ever take off those rose-colored glasses?"

"Gentlemen," Yoel pointed out patiently, "time's a-wasting. If any of us want to do well, we'd better crack these books some more."

There was a little more grumbling by Nochum, and cheerful countering by Mutty, before they took Yoel's advice. The three were so absorbed in their work that the passage of time went unnoticed, until there came a rap at Nochum's door and a sisterly voice announced that dinner would be ready in five minutes.

"Whoops! Time to go home," Mutty said, putting a couple of handfuls of pretzels into his pockets to sustain him on the way. "If I hurry, I should make it before my family sits down to eat."

"No way you'll make it on time," Nochum contradicted. "By the time you walk in they'll be almost finished, and you're parents will be furious with you. They'll probably call my mom to criticize me for having kept you here so long."

"My parents wouldn't do that. Besides, I will make it home on time," Mutty said optimistically. "If I hurry."

"Never in a million years," Nochum retorted. "Even if you take the shortcut down Maplewood --"

"Gentlemen," Yoel broke in, a little wearily. "Do you think you could knock it off long enough to get downstairs?"

Nochum walked his friends down. As they went, he painted a gloomy scenario of how badly they were going to fare on the test next day because they hadn't had enough time to study.

"We can each finish up alone tonight," Mutty said cheerfully.

"Hah! As if it's possible to concentrate with my little sisters around," Nochum grouched. He glanced sourly at Mutty. "You've got it even worse than I do. With six brothers and a baby sister, I don't see how you're going to get any studying done tonight."

"Oh, it won't be so bad."

"There you go again! You're so unrealistic!"

As they had reached the front door, Mutty didn't answer. While his friends shrugged into their backpacks, Nochum opened the door and peered out. "Looks like rain."

"No, it doesn't," Mutty countered promptly. "It's a beautiful evening."

"Are you kidding? It's bound to start pouring before you're halfway home."

"Well, even if it does rain, it's bound to hold off till I reach my house."

Nochum snorted. "What an incurable optimist! Just take one look at that sky, Mutty. Anyone can see that it's about to start pouring. Maybe even storming!"

"Why do you insist on looking on the dark side all the time? I never- --"

"Mutty, Nochum, would you cut it out already?" Exasperated, Yoel glared first at one boy, then at the other. "Do you hear yourselves? Always at each other's throats! You're both right, okay? Now, let's forget it and go home." He started out the door and down the path to the sidewalk.

"How can we both be right?" Nochum demanded, following Yoel. "Either it'll rain or it won't. Either I'll pass my test or I'll fail it. You can't have it both ways!"

"Yoel the peacemaker," Mutty said affectionately, bringing up the rear. "Never mind that what he said makes no sense. It's the thought that counts."

"It's you guys who make no sense," Yoel muttered, stomping off in the direction on his house.

He'd said it too quietly for the others to hear. Mutty, with a wave, went off to the left, looking forward to beating the rain home and finishing his studying in peace. Nochum closed the door, after assuring himself that the rain would never hold off and reflecting that it would be a miracle if he managed to get any real studying done that night.

As for Yoel, he went home feeling angry. It took a while for him to grasp what, exactly, he was so mad about.

At first, he thought it was because his friends did not respect him. All he'd tried to do was point out how absurd they were being -- Mutty with his neverending optimism, Nochum with his impossible pessimism -- but they hadn't wanted to listen! What was the matter with those two, anyhow?

But that night, as he lay in the quiet of his room, he was more honest. It was himself he was really angry at. In some way he'd failed, today, to be the best he could be.

Yoel was an earnest boy, a reader and a thinker who truly wanted to learn. So when he felt he felt as he did tonight, that he'd missed something, he set his mind to figuring out what it was. Forget about what his friends' failings were. What had he done wrong today? And how could he do better next time?

After a while he got out of bed. Though it was late, he was suddenly wide awake. He went to his desk for the pad of paper and the pen that he knew were there. Writing things down was a great way to do some real thinking. Words were like sandpaper, helping him to polish a thought until it was smooth and shining.

Yoel sat unmoving for ten long minutes, then put pen to paper and began to think.

* * *

"Mutty? Nochum? Can I ask you a favor?"

The boys looked at Yoel expectantly. The three were resting in Mutty's back yard after playing some games with a few of his many brothers. After their big test that day, they were enjoying enjoyed the sense of temporary freedom. The others had wandered back into the house. The yard was quiet. There was still some time before any of them had to go home. Yoel hesitated, then pulled a wad of papers from his pocket.

"Would you guys take a look at something I wrote?"

"Sure," Mutty said. "What's it for? I don't remember getting any written assignment today."

"It's a short story."

"Oh, no! Did we have to do one for English?" Nochum became instantly agitated. "It must have happened that day I was absent. I knew I should have called someone for the homework!"

"Relax," Yoel laughed. "It's not for school. Or rather, if you guys think it's any good, I might give it in for extra credit. Anyway, read it and tell me what you think."

Mutty looked doubtfully at the pages, covered with Yoel's scrawl. "How 'bout if you read it to us, Yoel?"

Yoel glanced at Nochum, who nodded. "Sure, I don't mind hearing a little story. Hope you don't mind if I close my eyes while I listen. I could use a little nap -- didn't sleep much last night."

"That's because you worry too much," Mutty told him.

"And you don't worry enough!" Nochum shot back.

"Gentlemen," Yoel said pointedly. "The story?"

"Okay." Nochum flopped down on the ground and closed his eyes. Ready."

Mutty grinned and said, "Shoot."

Yoel picked up the first of the pages he'd filled the night before, and began to read.

* * *

"Once upon a time," he read, "there was a king. He was a nice king, as kings go, though sometimes he felt sad because his wife, the queen, had died many years before. His daughter, the princess, kept him feeling happy most of the time, though. She was a sweet-natured girl who made things in the royal palace as comfortable as possible for the king. For a time he lived in contentment, believing that he had everything he wanted. He was satisfied with himself and with his life... Until a few chance words made him wonder.

The visitor had come from a different kingdom, bearing messages from his own ruler. The messages were not particularly important ones, and the whole incident might have passed from our king's mind at once, if not for the way the visitor addressed him: "O wise and benevolent king..."

Maybe the king happened to be in an especially thoughtful mood that day. The words stayed with him. "Wise and bevolent king." Was he, he wondered, either benevolent or wise?

Benevolent, yes, he decided after some thought. At least, his subjects never complained about harsh treatment or unfair taxes. He tried to be fair and his compassionate heart often prompted him to show mercy even to those who deserved punishment. But -- wise?

No, he was forced sadly to conclude. No, he wasn't very wise at all. He told his daughter, the princess, as much.

"What do you mean, father?" she asked. "Of course you're wise! You're the wisest king I know!"

He smiled, though his heart wasn't in it. "That's because I'm the only king you know, my dear. No, I'm not a very wise person. Wisdom is something that must be cultivated. It doesn't drop from the sky. You have to go out and look for it. I've been too satisfied with the way things are, or perhaps too lazy.

"Well, that's about to change." There was a new, decisive ring to the king's voice. "I'm off to search for Wisdom!"

If the princess hadn't pleaded with him to stay, the king would have put on his royal cloak and swept out of the palace right there and then. She finally persuaded him that the kingdom needed him too much to let him leave on his quest. "I have a better idea," she offered softly. "Instead of going out and searching for Wisdom, why not let Wisdom come to you?"

Her idea was simple: the king would issue a royal invitation to any man who might have words of wisdom to impart to him. "That way," she said, "you can continue to rule, and to be here at home with me, dear father -- while pursuing Wisdom at the same time!" "How clever you are! I will do just as you say." The king looked at her fondly. "But I think your days here at home are numbered, my dear. You are a young woman already. It will soon be time for you to marry." His eyes sparkled as a new notion struck him. "I know! The man who brings me true Wisdom will win your hand in marriage."

And so it was decreed.

The Wisdom-bringers (or so they were known among the king's advisors) started coming. In one's or twos they knocked on the palace gates, requesting admission. The king granted each one an audience, listened politely to what he had to say, and then sent him away with a pleasant word and a gold coin for his trouble. Most of the "words of wisdom" were things that might be learned from a professor of mathemetics or science: facts and figures that might be interesting to listen to, but did not make the king any richer in Wisdom.

He was beginning to feel discouraged, when word came that three more men were at the gates in response to his invitation. The princess, who naturally had a close interest in the proceedings, watched from behind a screen as the three came into the audience room. They were a strange-looking trio.

The first was covered from head to toe in armor plating. The second was dressed in the exuberant costume of a clown. The third, by contrast, was unremarkable in appearance, but his eyes were thoughtful and steady.

"Did the three of you travel here together?" the king asked politely, as his servants pressed cakes and drinks on the newcomers.

"No, sire," answered the armored man. "I came from the East."

"And I from the South," the clown said, with a merry caper.

"I am from the North," the third man said.

"No one from the West, eh?" the king asked jocularly, to set his guests at their ease.

"East, West, home is best," the clown quoted, clicking his heels in the air.

"How true," murmured the king. Behind her screen, the princess sighed.

"And now," said the king, when the refreshments had been cleared away, "what have you got to tell me, my good people?"

"The secret of a happy life!" pronounced the armored man.

"Hmm." The king leaned forward on his throne with interest. "Tell me."

"What does every person want from life?" the man said, his voice slightly muffled by the metal helmet he wore. "Happiness, that's what! And how does one become happy? By keeping his heart whole and unbroken. Protect your heart, sire, and you'll always be happy."

"And how does one go about protecting his heart?" the king wanted to know.

"Why, you cushion it!" exclaimed the man, removing the armor plate on his chest to reveal thick cotton padding below. "Against disappointment, that is. And shield it from heartbreak," he went on, removing the padding to show off a broad rubber shield below. "And wrap it up well," he finished, removing the shield so that his fur-lined shirt could be seen, "against the winds of despair."

Tenderly, the man replaced shield, padding, and armor. The king nodded. "An interesting approach to life," he said. "But also a dreary one. Must a man never anticipate, never hope, never look forward with joy? All that protection, it seems to me -- while it might spare the heart disappointment -- also takes away the possibility of feeling much of anything!" He glanced at the clown. "And you, sir? Do you agree with him?"

"Never, never, a thousand times never!" the clown shrilled, capering madly in his excitement. "It's not protecting your heart that's called for, but making it merry! That is the true way to happiness. Do anticipate! Look forward to things! Sing a song, dance a dance. Be not muffled up against heartache, but open-hearted to everyone and everything!"

"You're advising no protection at all, then," the king said slowly.

"That's right, Sire." When the clown nodded his head, his plumed hat bobbed along with him. "Expect the best, that's what my Wisdom tells me!"

"And if the best does not come to pass?"

"Why, then, swallow the disappointment and find some new thing to look forward to. It's simple!"

The king nodded, then turned to the third visitor. "And you, my good man? What words of wisdom do you have to offer me?"

"If I may," said the third man, stepping modestly forward and fixing his deep, thoughtful gaze on the monarch, "I'd like to point out that both of these other honored guests have made happiness their goal, rather than wisdom."

"True, true," said the king, much struck by the idea.

"The first suggested that happiness comes from removing any possibility of disappointment from our lives. While I cannot agree with him, I do think I have something to learn from him. It is good to be afraid at times. Protecting one's heart is a useful thing, in its place. If you do not expect too much of life, you can have the fun of being pleasantly surprised. Yes, there is something to be said for this approach."

He turned to the clown and gave a slight bow. "As for this man's advice, it, too, has merit. It is not good to be always open- hearted, or too trusting to good fortune. On the other hand, why sour your days with gloom when you can just as well hope for the best? A merry heart is indeed a good thing, Sire. At least, in my humble opinion..."

"Well said! Well said!" The king was delighted. "Just what I was thinking myself. But tell me," he added, peering at the man hopefully, "What do you think is the road to Wisdom?"

"The wise man," the other answered simply, "is the man who is prepared to learn from everybody."

The king was rendered speechless. Behind the screen, the princess clasped her hands together in admiration. Truly, this was Wisdom!

"This," the king said, echoing his daughter's thoughts, "is veritably Wisdom. Who taught this to you, my good man?"

The man twinkled up at the king. "Why, you did, Sire!"

The princess could contain herself no longer. She ran forward. "I told you, father!" she cried out in great joy. "I told you -- you are a wise king. And how better to prove it, than by the mere fact that you have devoted your life to seeking wisdom from every person in your kingdom?"

The king beamed at his daughter the princess, then at the quiet- speaking man who had opened his eyes to the true meaning of Wisdom -- including that which resided in his own good heart.

One month later, the kingdom rang with joy as the royal wedding was celebrated. The princess was a beautiful bride and her groom impressed all who saw him with his quiet good sense. He had agreed to take up a post as advisor to the king so that his new wife could live in the palace she'd grown up with, close by her dear father.

And now, the king truly had everything he wanted.

* * *

Yoel put down the last page. Mutty clapped his hands vigorously, and Nochum's wide-open eyes told Yoel that he'd done no snoozing at all. Nochum said slowly, "That was us, wasn't it? The armored man was me --"

"And the clown was me!" Mutty finished.

Yoel nodded. "Yesterday, I left here impatient with both of you. But I got to thinking last night about how there's something to be said for both sides. There's a time to be realistic -- even to worry a little, so that you work harder and protect yourself against being disappointed. And it's also very good to be happy and optimistic and open-hearted. I realized that I can learn something from both of you."

"Which makes you a wise man," Nochum quipped.

Yoel smiled. It was tempting to agree -- to think of himself as already one of the wise. But he knew this was only the beginning. "That, I'd say" -- he grinned at his ever-gloomy friend -- "is the optimistic view!" thing.

Author Libby Lazewnik is one of Jewry's most acclaimed juvenile fiction writers.


© 1998, Libby Lazewnik