This story is told by Howard Schwartz who based it on the tale by Zevulon Qort from Ben Zion Asherov of Afghanistan (I have edited his original telling):
“There was once a Jew who went out into the world to fulfill the Biblical commandment – Tzedek tzedek tirdof [Deut. 26:20] – ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue.’
Many years passed until the man had explored the entire known world except for one last, great forest. He entered the forest and came upon a cave of thieves who mocked him, saying: ‘Do you expect to find justice here?’ Then he went into the huts of witches, and they too laughed at him: ‘Do you expect to find justice here?’
At last he arrived at a fragile clay hut, and through the window he saw many flickering flames and wondered why they were burning. He knocked on the door, but there was no answer. Then he pushed the door open and stepped inside.
As soon as he entered, he realized that the hut was much larger than it had appeared from the outside. He saw hundreds of shelves and on every shelf there were dozens of oil candles. Some of the candles were sitting in holders of gold, silver, or marble, and some were in cheap holders of clay or tin. Some were filled with oil with straight wicks and bright burning flames. Others had little oil left and were about to sputter out.
An old man in a white robe and white beard stood before him, and said: ‘Shalom Aleichem, my son. How can I help you?’ And the Jew said: “Aleichem shalom. I have gone everywhere, searching for justice but never have I seen anything like this. Tell me, what are all these candles?”
The old man said: “Each is the candle of a person’s soul.” As it says in Proverbs 20:27 – Ner Yah nishmat Adam – ‘The candle of God is the human soul.’ As long as that person remains alive the candle burns; but, when the person’s soul takes leave of this world, the candle burns out.’
The Jew who sought justice said: ‘Can you show me the candle of my soul?’ And the old man said: ‘Follow me.’
He led the Jew through that labyrinth of a cottage. At last they reached a low shelf, and there the old man pointed to a candle in a clay holder and said, ‘That is the candle of your soul.’
A great fear fell upon him for its wick was very short with little oil remaining. Was it possible for the end to be so near without his knowing it? Then he noticed the candle next to his own full of oil, long and straight, its flame burning brightly.
‘Whose candle is that?’ he asked.
‘I can only reveal each person’s candle to him or herself alone,’ the old man said, and he turned and left.
The Jew stood there staring at his candle, then heard a sputtering sound, and when he looked up, he saw smoke rising from another shelf, and he knew that somewhere someone was no longer among the living. He looked back at his own candle, then he turned to the candle next to his own, so full of oil, and a terrible thought entered his mind.
He searched for the old man, but didn’t see him. Then he lifted the candle next to his own and held it above his own, and all at once the old man appeared, gripped powerfully his arm, and said: ‘Is THIS the kind of justice you seek?’
The Jew closed his eyes from the pain caused by the old man’s iron grip, and when he opened them the old man was gone, the cottage and candles had disappeared, and he stood alone in the forest, and heard the trees whispering his fate.”
This story is not just about justice but about who we are, what we believe and how we behave. Indeed, unless we are through and through committed to the highest moral and religious principles of our tradition, we cannot bring about a more just and compassionate world.
The month of Elul that began this past Saturday night brings each of us into a great forest of our own. In the Garden of Eden God called to Adam Ayeka (Where are you?). That question is addressed to every Jew, especially now, and we have to respond ourselves, for like Adam, there is no place to hide. What is inside each of our hearts and souls must be a reflection of the deeds we perform, and hopefully they will be based upon compassion and justice.