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September Leaves

Families! It happens sometimes, that one parent or sibling chooses to outcast another….

There’s a wonderful story, about families, confusion, and choices that bring blessing or curse. As you read this story, notice how many characters face crossroads and choose a fateful path. This story is adapted from Laura Simms telling of Flowering Words, from the book Mitzvah Stories

In the land of Kurdistan, there once lived a Jewish King and Queen who had three daughters. The king wanted his daughters to marry wealthy princes, and the two eldest did. But the youngest daughter fell in love with a poor man, and married him against her parents’ wishes. The king, displeased, banished her from the kingdom.

Soon afterwards, the king awoke blind one morning (of course he did, he banished his daughter!) Doctors could not heal him. But one doctor knew of a tree with magic healing leaves which could restore sight. The tree, however, grew in a distant and dangerous land, from which no one returned.  The king commanded his son-in-laws to make the perilous journey. He told them that if they returned with the leaves, he would reward them with wealth and power. If however, they returned without the leaves, they would be killed. Having no choice, they left with strong horses, gold and food. The youngest daughter begged her husband to go, though they were banished. She wanted to help heal her father. So the poor husband willingly set out on an old mare. He carried with him only the desire to heal his father-in-law. He agreed to the same conditions as the others.

The two princes came to the border of the Land of No Return, where a guard described the awful things they would face and the gruesome dangers ahead. Terrified, they turned around and fled for their lives. They knew they could not return, so they opened up an inn near the border and remained there.

The third husband came to the same border, and spoke with the same guard, receiving the same dire warnings. But his desire to heal the king was greater than his fear, so he insisted on making the journey. The guard told him that the only one who knew the way to the magic tree was a fierce giant who lived in a house in a nearby valley. The young man reached the house, which was as high as a mountain. When the giant’s wife saw the man, she urged him to leave:  Your life is in danger! she warned. My husband will want to devour you..  The youth insisted that he must finish his quest, and told his story.

As soon as the ravenous giant returned home, his wife fed him.   I smell a man!  roared the giant.  His wife told him of the brave visitor whom she had hidden under the bed. The giant was astonished at the young man’s courage, and his dedication. Since he had already eaten his fill, he told the young man the instructions he needed to reach the tree and its healing leaves.

You are the first human I’ve met who’s not a coward!  he said, and so he told him:  For seven days you must ride until you reach a crossroad,  In one direction is written “Take this road and find safety and happiness’ and in the other is written “Do not take this road. Whoever follows it will not return”  Do not hesitate, Take the

Road of No Return. Travel until the road ends and there is nowhere to go and then say out loud “What a beautiful path” Then the road will continue on.

Next there is a valley filled with poisonous snakes. No human can survive this, so you must call out “What a beautiful valley filled with honey!”  and the snakes will disappear.  After awhile you will come to a valley filled blood and awful beasts. You must call out “What sweet butter” . The valley will empty out and you can continue.

The giant went on:  Pay attention: When you come to a palace guarded by a dragon and a viper, you have arrived. If the creatures’ eyes are open they are sleeping and you can enter, if they are closed, they’re awake. Enter the palace while they’re sleeping and you’ll come to a door guarded by four lions. If their eyes are closed, they’re awake. Wait until their eyes are open, they are sleeping and you may enter. The door has bells, I will give you a cloth to muffle their noise. You will see a queen inside asleep on her bed. When she sleeps, all the creatures sleep with their eyes open. Beside her bed grows the tree with healing leaves. Fill a bag with those leaves and put some in your pocket as well. Carefully exchange rings with her. Then without hesitation, return just as you have come.

The young man did as he was told. retrieving the leaves, exchanging rings, and returning as he’d come. But when he’d crossed the border, he decided to stop at the inn of his brother-in-laws before returning to the king.

The two princes saw the sack he was carrying, and asked about his adventure. The young man told all except for the ring and the leaves in his pocket. Well, that night they fed him poison, threw acid in his eyes to bind him and locked him in a closet. They stole his sack and made their way back to the king to claim their reward.

In the inn the next morning the youth awoke caged and blind. He remembered the leaves in his pocket and healed himself. He broke out of his prison and made his way back to his wife on his slow mare.

He showed her the leaves he had, but she replied  you are too late, my sisters husbands have already healed my father.

Meanwhile in the Land of No Return, the Queen awakened, and saw the ring, and noticed the leaves missing from her tree. She soared on her magic carpet in search of whoever it was that had stolen her ring and leaves. She inquired everywhere until she heard about two princes, now prime ministers, who had healed the king. She travelled to the palace to hear their story. They told her what they recalled, but then said they’d found the leaves in a forest and picked them.

That’s a lie!  she said. The youngest princess’ husband rode to the palace that same day. He recognized the Queen. He showed her the ring, and told her his story, and not only her, but the king and the royal family as well. He told his story in exact detail – all that had happened. Satisfied, the queen took back her ring and returned to her land. The two prime ministers were banished from the kingdom.  Perhaps they will one day learn to tell the truth, and be allowed back.  When the king heard the third husband’s story, he understood all that happened, perhaps even the cause of his own blindness. The third daughter’s husband became a trusted advisor, and they lived happily ever after in the palace.  Perhaps the Queen still lives in her palace in the Land of No Return guarding the magic healing leaves.

Did you notice all the choices? The youngest princess? The Giant’s wife and the Giant? The Queen? Each choice carries with it a motive linked to karma, consequences. The youngest daughter’s husband is moved by pure kindness, giving him incredible courage.  He traverses a scary road to arrive at place of great blessing. His kindness becomes his bridge.  Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m’od, teaches R. Nachman of Breslov: the whole world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to fear.

September is a time of choices and new beginnings. My nephew is beginning his freshman year, my daughter her senior year at university, my son begins high school. We each begin a New Year full of promise And always as we begin September comes this Torah portion, Ki Tavo, where the Israelites are on the border of a new, promised land, where many choices await. How will they know which way to turn? Moses and the elders will teach them!  And I love the way they teach: it encourages me to be AS DRAMATIC AS POSSIBLE in my own teaching! These verses  (Deut 27:2) instruct the people as they cross into the promised land to place the words and commands they heard at Sinai on large stones. OK, those are the rules: so what? Well, there are consequences, Blessings or Curses for choosing, or not choosing rules of kindness and decency. To dramatize these consequences, the Blessings are to be shouted from a beautiful, green mountain with flowing streams, G’rezim, and horrible Curses shouted from a barren rocky peak (Ebal).  Could there be a more dramatic lesson plan?

So we begin our New Year with choices, small and large: what to say, what to eat, who to befriend, how much to drink. Some choices feel really good at first, but may turn out really awful. We tend to rationalize ALL our choices, so how do we really know the blessing choice from the curse one?.

Rabbi Joe Black has a wonderful song called The Blessing and the Curse  Some excerpts here:

When you come into the land,

when you cross that sacred stream,

Be careful where you stand,

at Ebal, or at G’rezim…..

…be careful what you gather,

 is it blessing, is it curse?

But who would knowingly gather curses, who would stand at Ebal?

What if it’s hard to tell the difference? So hard that it seems:

the moon will get you thinking the sun can quench your thirst,

be careful what you’re drinking, is it blessing or curse?

Things are seldom the way they seem,

 yesterday’s promise is tomorrow’s dream

Dreams become the glue that binds the universe,

They can help us tell the difference between the blessing and the curse.

So choices are not always labeled. But we choose anyway.  Just as in the story, the chorus of the song suggests that our dreams, our ideals, can be our gyroscope!

But shouldn’t day-to-day choices be made on more practical grounds? That’s what the king and the brother-in-laws thought! But choose a cruel act, or an apathetic one, and the world changes a bit for the worse. Choose kindness, truth, compassion, beauty, and that karma is real too. In the story, redemption is possible even following a King’s misdeed.  But in real life, there are no magic leaves, so I end with a question: what can be those magic leaves in our lives?


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