Hammel the bookseller had a problem! It was not a big problem, compared to the lot of his older brother Shloyme, whose three unmarried daughters were, you should pardon the expression, as ugly as freshly plucked chickens. No, Hammel’s problem was a small one, almost insignificant you could argue, in light of all the other problems in the universe. Hammel was sure he was losing his eyesight. He was ashamed to admit it, but he knew it was true because he was making mistakes at the book shop. Just the other day he had gone to look for one book, but had handed his customer another.
Now, one mistake could be excused, but that same day he made the same mistake with seven other books, all because he could barely read their titles. In his trade, it was not such a good thing if you couldn’t see! That which was small seemed large–unless it was a printed word on a page. When it was cloudy outside it might as well be night, for Hammel couldn’t see where he was going. He couldn’t tell what was near or far except on the brightest of days, but his feet knew the old paths and his hands knew the place of what was needed.
So why didn’t he get fitted for spectacles, you may ask? Hammel was a proud man, and not yet married. He reasoned with himself that perhaps a young woman would not find him appealing if he wore glasses. He knew that eventually he would have to get himself a pair, but he intended to put it off for as long as he could.
Right now Hammel reasoned that he needed a new horse more than he needed an eye appliance. He went to the home of Kamza the livestock dealer. When Kamza led him out to the barn and presented him with what he claimed was a fine horse, perfect for carting books”–Hammel was too embarrassed to question Kamza on one small detail. Hammel couldn’t be certain, but he suspected–just suspected–that something wasn’t quite right with this horse. He knew his eyesight was not so good, but it seemed to him that he wasn’t looking at a horse at all; it looked for all the world like a mule. The size wasn’t right, the ears weren’t right, the tail…. But he couldn’t be sure and he didn’t want to insult Kamza. When Kamza boasted the animal was a “grand horse, fit for royalty,” it appealed to Hammel’s sense of vanity. He would not admit that he couldn’t see well enough to disagree. Since no one royal had sent for the animal, Hammel paid the price Kamza had asked for and led the horse-mule away.
In time, Hammel took a bride, Chana Ruchelle, the candle maker’s daughter. Chana Ruchelle was the youngest of six children, and although she brought little to the marriage in the way of a dowry, she was known for her sharp eye. No one could fool her in the marketplace, for she could spot right away what was a bargain and what was not.
Chana saw right away that her husband had been fooled by Kamza the livestock dealer, but she also could see that Hammel loved the animal. She didn’t have the heart to tell him that his “grand horse, fit for royalty” was an oldish, swaybacked, lowly mule. Actually Hammel could probably carry more weight than his steed. And what did it really matter? The mule had become more like a friend than a beast of burden to Hammel. They were practically inseparable. Chana Ruchelle knew that the townspeople laughed behind their hands when they saw Hammel grooming and caring and riding the mule as if it were a fine horse. But Chana reasoned that her husband’s devotion to the animal didn’t harm anyone and was certainly good for the mule! She vowed never to tell Hammel that Kamza had fooled him.
The night Chana gave birth to their first son, the townspeople remarked to one another that they had heard the mule hee-hawing through the night, as if it were imploring the Almighty for a safe delivery for the child. When Hammel heard the sound, he thought it was peculiar that a horse should have such a deep voice and bray. But the animal had proved to be continually faithful to him, so he excused the beast for making such peculiar noises. In fact, when the baby was wrapped in a blanket and laid next to its mother, Hammel was so filled with joy that after he kissed everyone in the room he ran out to the barn and hugged the mule as well!
The next day as Hammel was gazing at the baby’s tiny face he decided it was time to get the needed glasses. That a son’s features should be so blurred in the eyes of his father was just ridiculous. So Hammel rode his mount to town, in the district that had a spectacle seller. After he was fitted with a pair of spectacles, he looked this way and that way at himself in the mirror until he was convinced that they really didn’t make him look so bad after all. After thanking the eyeglass vendor, Hammel took one more look at himself and decided he was ready to present himself to Chana Ruchelle. But when he went outside to mount his horse, he saw a lowly mule standing in its place. It only took a few moments for Hammel to realize that he had been fooled years before by Kamza, just as he had suspected in the first place.
Hammel looked at the mule. The mule looked at Hammel. Hammel reasoned that you do not throw away a perfectly good mule just because you once believed it was a horse. He mounted the beast and rode home to his wife and son.
As soon as he entered the house, Chana knew that Hammel had realized his folly. She encouraged her husband that the mule had served him well when he thought it was a horse; why should things be any different now? His love for the animal and the devotion he felt for the beast had grown, not because the animal was fit for royalty, but because it had faithfully served him according to its own good nature.
“…Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (I Samuel 16:7)