There is a story in the Jerusalem Talmud about a city in ancient Turkey that sent an agent on a mission to acquire a vast supply of olive oil. The agent carried currency worth “a million” with directions to go to Jerusalem. When he reached Jerusalem, he was directed to Tyre, and from there he was directed to Gush Halav, a village in the Galilee. This must all be some kind of joke, the agent thought, since Gush Halav was a far cry from the beautiful and imposing cities of Jersusalem and Tyre, far more fitting repositories of the million in oil that he required.
When he arrived in Gush Halav and announced his mission, he was told to go out into a certain field and there he would find the person who could supply him with the olive oil he needed. Reaching the field, the only person he found was a farmer hoeing the ground around an olive tree. The agent told the farmer what he needed and, after the farmer finished his work, led the agent back to his home. During their walk, the farmer picked up stones that littered the path and threw them out of the way. Once again, the agent was sure he had become the subject of a joke. How could this poor farmer supply him with the quantity of oil he sought? Upon returning home, the farmer washed his hands and feet in hot water and then dipped them in olive oil. Afterwards, he prepared a meal for his guest and, when they finished eating, produced the quantity of oil his visitor had requested. He then asked the agent if he needed more oil. The agent said he did but had no more money. The farmer said, that’s okay, I’ll accompany you back to your city and receive the rest of the payment when I arrive. And then the farmer supplied him with an enormous additional quantity of oil, much greater than the first. There was so much oil to carry that every horse, every mule, every camel, and every donkey in the Land of Israel was rented out for the task.
The Talmud tells us the moral of this story: there are people who look rich but are poor and people who look poor but are rich.
There is a nonagenerian in our neighborhood, a true Yerushalmi or Jerusalemite by birth, whom I thought must be absolutely destitute. He shuffles into shul in threadbare clothes, seemingly in possession of a single shirt and trousers, a single black suit and hat. He speaks little but does have a sharp sense of humor.
Like myself, he frequents both Ashenazic and Sephardic minyans, so I see him often enough.
“Poor man,” I thought, “at least he has a sense of humor. It’s the only way he could possibly cope with his miserable lot in life.”
Then the other day, my Hungarian friend, also advanced in years, asked me about this man since he hadn’t seen him lately at his minyan. I said I had seen him at another minyan and he seemed well enough. And then I had a most eye widening and jaw dropping moment. “Did you know he has millions in the bank and lends money without interest to anyone who needs it?” No, I said, that just can’t be true. He looks indigent! “Well, he is really, really rich,” my friend told me. “Thirty years ago, he stopped doing business and spends his time finding people who need an interest free loan. His wealth has not increased all this time but that is of no concern to him.”
Just another holy Jew in the Land of Israel, another farmer hoeing in his orchard with millions and millions in oil stored away.