"A Single Seed of a Pomegranate," retold by Cherie Karo Schwartz, from Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning, Goldie Milgram & Ellen Frankel [Eds] with Peninnah Schram, Cherie Karo Schwartz, and Arthur Strimling, Reclaiming Judaism Press 2011.
Kavannah (setting the intention):
Upon the anointing by Moses of Aaron as high priest, to make him holy, Moses is to take some of the life blood of the sacrifice and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear and that of his sons; upon Aaron’s right thumb and that of his sons; and upon his right big toe and that of his sons [Exodus 29:20]. We may understand this as a sign: that we are holy as we listen with our ears, and act holy as we extend our hands to another and move forward with our feet, helping to bring holiness into the world. It is up to us, through the generations, to help restore life.
Once upon a time, long, long ago and far, far away in the land of the Sultans, there lived a man named Shlomo who was so poor that he could not even feed his family. Every day he set out with hope in his heart that he could perform enough small tasks to be paid enough so that he and his family could survive, but every day those hopes were dashed. And why? You see, the Sultan was a cruel, hard-hearted ruler who hated the Jews. He created rules that made life in his lands almost impossible for any Jews living there. And any breach of his inhumanly strict laws was an excuse for cruel punishment.
One day this poor man could stand it no longer. Out of extreme hunger, and with grief over the plight of his tiny family, Shlomo brazenly stole a single loaf of bread from the baker in the market.
Immediately, the Sultan’s guards grabbed Shlomo, dragged him to the dungeons and threw him into a dark, dank cell to await his punishment: death by hanging the next day.
Poor Shlomo sat on the ground of his filthy cell and wept for his sad life and for the plight of his family. He rose and began pacing like a caged animal. And then, remembering himself, he called from his place of grief to the Holy One of Blessing, pouring out his heart in tears.
As he stood there, Shlomo absent-mindly placed his hand in his pocket. There he felt something small and hard. He pulled it out and gazed at it in the dim light. A seed: a pomegranate seed. How long had it been there? A seed—of hope? Shlomo’s heart began to race. A seed! Yes, of course, a seed!
Shlomo’s voice rang out through the long, dark hallway of the dungeon. “Guards! Guards!” The guards came running down the hall, their footsteps reverberating against the stone walls.
“What is it, prisoner? How dare you disturb our rest!”
By this time, Shlomo was slowly pacing back and forth, rocking on his heels, holding the pomegranate seed, at peace, a smile playing on his face in the shadows. As he stood there in the cell, he was humming a niggun, a little, wordless melody.
“Well, what is it, Jew?”
Shlomo held up the seed for them to see. “I was just seeing this tiny seed and remembering something. It is too bad that the secret will die with me.…”
“What secret, Jew? All things are known or will be known by the Sultan! Speak! Tell us!”
“Oh, I could not possibly tell you. This secret is for the ears of the Sultan.”
The guards held up their spears, their eyes flashing with anger. “Tell us, Jew, or you will now die right here!”
Silence fell in the dungeon. Shlomo the Jew pondered his fate.
“It’s only a seed. There’s nothing more to it.”
Then, “Tell us. Tell us now!”
“Slowly he began, “Really? Well, I suppose I could tell you part of the story. You see…” The guards bent closer, listening intensely. Now here was something that could allay the boredom of their lives.
“This is no ordinary seed. It is a pomegranate seed, a magic pomegranate seed. If it is planted, by the next day a full pomegranate tree will have grown in its place, covered with ripe fruit.”
The guards laughed, their coarse voices reverberating through the passageways of the dungeon.
“That is ridiculous, Jew! Why did we waste our time with you? Come, let us torture other prisoners. This one is pitiful.” And they began walking away.
Shlomo waited until they had turned on their heels to go. Then softly he said, “This secret was taught to me from my father, who heard it from his father, and so on for generations of our family. It is true, as I stand here.…”
The guards stopped in their tracks. Surely they had heard the tales of how the Jews were possessed, how they knew magic and dark arts. What if it were true? Wouldn’t the Sultan grant them a grand reward if the story were really true? Should they miss this opportunity?
Off went the guards, disappearing into the darkness. Not knowing what they were doing, Shlomo collapsed onto the filthy floor of his cell. With a heavy heart, he fell into a restless sleep.
Shlomo awoke to the sound of quick, heavy footsteps, the clanking of keys, the creaking open of the rusty barred door of his tiny cell.
“Up! On your feet, Jew! Up now! Walk on your miserable legs. Prepare to meet your destiny!”
Shlomo was led through the maze of the dungeon, up, up the worn rock steps, and out into the blessed light of the courtyard. Then, across the courtyard he was dragged, straight to the royal palace, down hallways and into the sumptuous room of the Sultan himself. The Sultan was propped upon silk pillows of all colors; his richly brocaded robe swirled about him. Tapestries danced upon the walls, and intricate rugs rested upon the marble floors. The Sultan was surrounded by well-dressed and well-armed guards who were fanning him gently. Fruits and other delicacies of every kind and color were artfully displayed upon golden trays. Shlomo’s mouth watered in hunger.
Shlomo’s eyes were surely deceiving him, but yes! This was the Sultan himself before him, gazing down at him cruelly.
When the Sultan spoke, it was with a voice of gravelly disdain, tinted with just a hint of curiosity.
“So, Jew! Jew thief, Jew liar. What have you told my guards? Speak, Jew!”
Shlomo stood, weak but proud, before the potentate. He paused.
“Speak, Jew! Speak now, for soon we shall hang you.” A smile played about the Sultan’s face.
Taking a deep breath, lightly touching the pomegranate seed in the pocket of his tattered pants, and offering a pleading prayer—“Please forgive me, Holy One, for telling this tale!”—Shlomo began.
“Sire, Sire, there is a tradition in my family.” Shlomo’s voice grew in strength as he quickly continued.
“In every generation in my poor family, which used to be wealthy and well-known, there has been a secret passed down to the eldest alone, a secret which has been preserved for centuries.”
The Sultan leaned forward as he bit into a ripe apricot, the juice running down his beard as he spoke.
“This secret—tell me! Tell me now!”
Shlomo nodded, sighed, and continued,
“This secret concerns a seed, a magic seed, from antiquity. And I, being the eldest in this generation, have always held it close. Here it is.”
And Shlomo extended his hand, briefly displaying the single pomegranate seed to the Sultan, then replacing it safely in his pocket.
The Sultan growled, amused but impatient.
“So, what is this to me, who has everything, who knows everything?”
“Sire, this is a magic pomegranate seed. When this seed is planted, by the next day a full mature pomegranate tree grows in that spot, laden with sweet, ripe, deep red fruit.”
“And you really expect me to believe your lie, Jew? What do you take me for, a fool?” Around him came the cruel laughter of his many simple guards.
“O, great Sultan, this is truth, I tell you. And there is only one way to find out for yourself. With me there, for I must be present, plant this seed tomorrow in your own courtyard, and observe for yourself what will happen.”
There was a long silence as the Sultan pondered his move. Then the words thundered out, “So be it! Tomorrow at dawn let the Jew be brought into the courtyard. There we shall see what we shall see. I have spoken. Now, take him away!”
And so, Shlomo was dragged from the royal presence and marched away, back down the heavy steps to the dank, dark dungeon, whose cell now seemed safe, since he had secured for himself at least another day of life.
All that day and night, Shlomo swayed in prayer, hovering between life and death, waking and sleep, wrapped in the Presence of the Holy One.
All too soon, dawn crept into the sky. Shlomo again heard the guards’ footsteps, again he was dragged from his cell and marched roughly to the courtyard, where he felt the warmth of the sun, the whisper of the wind, and the promise of day, as he looked into the expectant eyes of all who gathered there.
The Sultan roared, “This Jew says he has a miracle to show us, for our pleasure. By tomorrow we shall have a tree full of pomegranates, right, Jew? Hah! So, Jew, plant the pomegranate seed!”
No one moved.
“What is the matter, Jew? Is this a lie? Another lie?”
Shlomo paused, breathing a prayer for redemption. Then he spoke: “O, Sire, the tale is true. But I forgot to mention one part. Please forgive me. This is truly a magic pomegranate seed, but it is an honest pomegranate seed. It may only be planted by someone who is completely honest. You yourself, Sire, established the rule that no one may steal. I am not honest; I am a thief, who was caught, and I am worthy to die under your law. I cannot plant the seed.”
The Sultan stroked his beard. “Then you, my Minister of Affairs, plant this seed!”
The minister looked down at the ground.
“Well, go ahead—plant the seed!” prompted the Sultan.
“I am sorry, Sire; I cannot do this. For once, actually far more than once, I let others’ desires and money influence how I scheduled your appointments.”
“What?!” roared the Sultan. Turning quickly to his Minister of Commerce, he issued the same royal order: “Plant this pomegranate seed!”
And all heard his reply, “Please, Sultan, do not make me do this, for I cannot plant it. More back-handed deals have been struck for the sake of influence than I can even remember. I am, sadly, dishonest, too.”
“So you, my Minister of Finances: you must be honest. Plant this pomegranate seed.”
“Alas, Sultan! I have always tried to be honest in all my bookkeeping. Yet, do you remember the great and beauteous pearl that you were given through a foreign emissary? Well, I began to place it in your royal treasury, but then I thought of what a loss it would be to have such luster shut into a dark vault. I deeply regret it; I took it home, where it is safe. I promise upon my life that I will return it to the treasury, but I remain your dishonest servant.”
Looking directly at the ruler, Shlomo continued:
“It appears, O Sultan, that there may be no one else who can plant this seed, does it not?”
All eyes turned toward the Sultan. His face was flushed. He stammered. Then he stood in silence, facing the condemned man.
The Sultan’s eyes grew misty. He began to speak, slowly forming the words.
“When I was a young boy, I would sit at my mother’s feet as she sewed, embroidering upon a white background all manner of designs: flowers and birds and butterflies of every shape and hue. I was fascinated, sitting there for minutes on end, gazing at the life she drew out of the threads and upon the fabric. The sunlight filtered through the windows and played about the room. And the sun struck the golden needle she sewed with, catching my eye. When, at the end of the day, she happened to drop that golden needle, I did not say a word, but waited until she slipped from the room, and then took the needle for my own. I have kept that golden needle, lo these many years. I still have it hidden. I, too, am dishonest.”
Silence overwhelmed the courtyard.
Then, after a time, the Sultan once again spoke: “None of us can plant this honest pomegranate seed, and neither can I, myself. Yet you, Shlomo the Jew, you have indeed planted a seed. You have planted a seed of Mercy within us all. All is not lost, though.
“First, before we set this seed free to become the tree it was meant to become, let us set free the one who brought this wisdom here to this court. Guard! Unshackle this prisoner!”
And Shlomo was freed.
The Sultan gazed from Shlomo to the hole in the dirt before him. Then he drew a deep breath.
“Now, let us plant a seed: this seed of Justice…filled with the infinite seeds of promise for the future. If we each call forth the most honest part of ourselves, then together we can plant this seed, water it, and set it on its journey toward becoming perhaps one whole pomegranate tree, all in its own good time. And as we watch it grow and help nurture it over the years, we will remember. So may it be.”
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Provenance:A Jewish story from the time of the Sultanates, recorded in such sources as The Exempla of the Rabbis, #433 (M. Gaster), and the Israel Folktale Archives (from Morocco and from Iraqi Kurdistan). I first told this story at the 92nd Street Y in New York City in a program for Peninnah Schram’s story series there, two decades ago. Peninnah and I both tell the pomegranate story. In honor of our three decades of story/heart connection, I created this heartfelt tikkun at the end of my retelling of this.
Cherie Karo Schwartz, MA in Developmental Theater, is a storyteller, author, and educator living in Denver. She has shared stories with audiences of all ages throughout America and abroad for forty years. She shares a kaleidoscope of spirit-filled tales of wishes, wisdom, and wit drawn from worldwide Jewish folklore, sacred texts, family folklore, original stories, and modern midrashim. Cherie offers storytelling performances, master classes, workshops and keynotes for conferences, organizations, museums, storytellers, schools, and libraries worldwide. She was co-founding coordinator of the international Jewish Storytelling Network of CAJE. Cherie has authored three books and many articles, and recorded numerous tapes and CDs.
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