As a last resort, he set out to beg, hopeful that his community—“merciful ones, the children of merciful ones”—would have pity on his family and help him in his time of need.
But he was mistaken. It wasn’t that they were stingy or uncaring. It was just that they too were poverty-stricken and had barely enough to support their own families. And those who had more were overextended, fielding requests from far and near for assistance.
Now, on his way home, his mind was on his empty pocket and his wife’s impending disappointment. Barely noticing his surroundings, he leaned against a large tree, massaging his back against its ample trunk.
“Hey, you!” he heard. “What are you doing here? Don’t you know that you’re trespassing?”
Looking up, he suddenly realized that he had apparently wandered onto the grounds of a grand manor, and that he was face to face with the feudal lord who had almost unlimited power in his realm.
“Oh, I am so sorry, Your Lordship,” he was quick to say. “I was simply wandering around, feeling so alone and dejected about my sorry state of affairs, and I stopped to comfort my aching back against your tree. Please forgive me for taking that simple pleasure, and I will be on my way.”
“Wait a moment,” said the lord, not unkindly. “You look like a man who has suffered in life. Please tell me more. Perhaps I can help you . . .”
“Oh, Your Lordship is too kind,” said the down-and-out man. “I was feeling so alone. I am a father of daughters, and I desperately seek means with which to help them get married, but why should you care about a poor old man and his problems?”
“Dear man,” said the poritz, “please take this purse of coins, and marry your daughters in gladness. I am an old man and have all the money I can ever need—it’s the joy of giving that I could use in life. Now go in peace.”
Still doubting whether it had all been a dream, the poor man stumbled home. It was not long before word of the miraculous chain of events spread through the village.
“What good fortune,” said one man to another. “Here’s our chance to get rich. Let’s go to that same estate and try our luck.”
Making their way to the rambling grounds, they promptly located a well-suited tree and began to rub with vigor.
Sure enough, the master of the realm soon came to question them.
“Oh, Sire,” they said, “Please have pity! We were feeling so sad, so alone and so hopeless that we decided to lean against your tree for a while, taking advantage of the opportunity to massage our backs.”
“You’re charlatans, both of you,” thundered the lord, who had once been a general and still knew how to bark an order. “Leave at once!”
As they humbly left the garden, one of them summoned up the temerity to question the poritz. “How is it,” he queried, “that when our friend was here, you greeted him so kindly, but when we came and told you a similar story, you called our bluff?”
“It’s very simple. When a man is truly alone and he needs to scratch his back, he has no choice but to lean against a tree trunk. But there are two of you. You could have rubbed each other’s backs. That told me that you weren’t really as needy as you made yourselves out to be.”
By Menachem Posner