The Beggar King

Let me tell you a tale of long ago, from the old city of Jerusalem, back in the days when Solomon was king. He had reached the height of his power and was known throughout the world for his wisdom. With it, he had brought Jerusalem to a golden age. He was the happiest of men and might well have remained so, had it not been for a strange dream.

It came to him, one sweltering night. In it he saw the door to his chamber open and felt a cool breeze. A moment later, in came his
long-dead father, King David. The elder king spoke to his son from the world beyond, telling him of the celestial Jerusalem, identical in every regard to the earthly "city," but for a single difference-- in the center of the city stood a magnificent temple.

"And you, my son, must build such a temple." He described the building in great detail, even as to the size and shape of its stones, as Solomon listened in awe. "One last thing, which is most important; added King David. "You must build it using no metal, for metal is used in forging weapons of war, and this is to be a temple of peace."

"But father," asked Solomon, "how am I to cut the stones without using metal?"

His father did not answer, but suddenly vanished, and the dream

The next morning Solomon called his advisers together, recounting the strange dream and announcing his plans to build the temple, just as his father had described. When he told them he wished to cut the stones without metal, they were as mystified as he.

Only one--Beniah, his most trusted adviser--offered a suggestion.
"Your father once spoke of a tiny worm called the Shamir. Though no larger than a grain of barley, it was said that this worm could split through stone. In fact, this was the worm that had been handed by God to Moses, to carve the Ten Commandments."

"Where would I find this worm?" asked Solomon.

"It has not been seen for many years, your highness." Beniah paused. "Not since it came to be in the possession of Ashmodai, the King of the Demons."

A hush fell over Solomon's court, for all knew of the power of the
demon king. Only Solomon was not afraid. "Very well, then," he said. "I shall summon Ashmodai!"

Solomon looked from their frightened faces to the ring he wore on his right hand. A simple gold band, it had been given to him by his father, and had great powers, for it was inscribed with the secret name of God. Solomon had used this ring to summon demons before, lesser demons. But never had anyone summoned the great King of the Demons, who lived at the far end of the world, where the mountains were made of copper and the sky was made of lead.

Those in the court drew back, as Solomon twisted his ring. Suddenly,
a huge ball of fire appeared before him, and when the flames died
down, there stood Ashmodai. All were amazed at what they saw, for
the demon king stood fully eight feet tall, with glistening blue skin. He had the feet of a chicken, the wings of an eagle, the head of a lizard, and the personality of a jacka ss.

"Well, well! If it isn't King Solomon!" he said, his voice as slippery as his skin. "The great, the wise, and the powerful! Even so, he is not content with the size of his kingdom, but must intrude
upon the realm of darkness as well. Tell me, your highness, why have you summoned me?"

"I want the worm known as the Shamir, so I may use it to cut the stones for my temple."

"Is that all?" asked Ashmodai. "Then here it is!" he said, producing a small, leaden box. "Now, I demand you release me!"

"No," said Solomon. "Not yet. I shall keep you chained up here for the seven years it will take me to build the temple, to prevent you or any other demons from causing mischief. After it is done, I will
ask you one question, and only when you answer it shall I set you free."

"A question for me from the wise King Solomon?" mocked Ashmodai. "And what might that question be?"

"I must think of it."

"Very well, then," answered Ashmodai. "I shall be here, waiting."

With Ashmodai in the palace, strange things began to happen. Solomon returned from supervising the building of the temple one day to find that all the pillars in the palace had turned to trees, their boughs filled with greenery and ripe, luscious fruit--figs, oranges, and pomegranates. Another night he looked up to see gold coins falling like rain from the domed ceiling of the palace, only to disappear the instant they touched the ground. Sometimes Solomon would hear sweet strains of music, yet when he tried to listen, there was nothing. Ashmodai was a master of illusion, and these illusions Solomon found endlessly fascinating--and infuriating, for they defied his understanding of the world. Each time he found himself fooled, Solomon felt as though his crown were missing a jewel. So, after seven years, when the temple was completed and perfect in every detail, Solomon spoke to Ashmodai.

"Now, as promised, I shall ask you a question, and only when you answer it shall you be free. For all these years, I have watched your illusions. As a great judge, I am often called upon to distinguish between reality and illusion. Now, all I ask is this: What can you teach me about illusion?"

With this, Ashmodai laughed such a wild, maniacal laugh that it echoed through all of Jerusalem. "Illusion!" he cackled. "The great, wise king, who has nothing better to do than torment demons, wishes to learn about illusion? Oh, no, your highness. That would be unthinkable, absurd, impossible--" Suddenly Ashmodai stopped, a grin spreading across his lizard face. "Unless--of course--you would be willing to remove your ring?"

"My ring?" said Solomon. "Remove my ring?"

Solomon looked at the ring, remembering his father's words. "As long as you wear it," he had said, "you will be protected. If you remove it, even for an instant, there is no telling what will happen."

And now, here stood Ashmodai, taunting him. "Yes, Solomon. If you wish to learn what I know of illusion, you must remove your ring."

"That is out of the question!" said Solomon.

"Very well, then, you shall not learn the secrets of illusion from me."

"Then I'll not set you free!"

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The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness

by Joel ben Izzy


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Copyright © 2003
by Joel ben Izzy
Published by
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill


Once upon a time there was a story-teller who traveled the globe collecting and telling stories that had been passed down for generations. Though the tales he told held great wisdom, he failed to grasp their true meaning until the day he lost the power to tell them. This is the true story of that man--who finds happiness just when he thinks he has lost everything.

In this surprising and altogether original book, Joel ben Izzy takes us on a journey into a world of beggars and kings, monks and tigers, lost horses and buried treasures. He begins with the tale of King Solomon, who loses his kingdom and is left to wander the land as a beggar. Then, ben Izzy's "own" tale unfolds--much like a fable--when he unexpectedly loses his voice, the very thing he needs most. His life as a husband, father, and storyteller begins to unravel until a chance encounter with his old teacher.

Each chapter begins with a tale that bears wisdom, from as far away as China, India, the Middle East, and even the mystical land of Chelm. And each reflects questions we face in our own lives, from the search for truth to ways of coping with loss. Sometimes the lessons come in the form of riddles. How does standing closer to death bring us closer to life? Is it possible that a blessing may be a curse and that a curse may truly be a blessing? Does everything in life "really" happen for a reason?