The young woodcutter from Galilee tried not to gape as he walked through Jerusalem, but he was overwhelmed when he reached the temple that King Solomon had just completed.
It had been a long ride from his home on Mount Shekania for Eliahu to visit Jerusalem. Some of the trees he had cut had been joined with the fabled cedars of Lebanon to provide wood for the giant temple.
Suddenly, the crowd in the square started buzzing. “It’s she,” said one woman. “Princess Shulamit!”
“Who is she?” Eliahu asked.
“You’ve never heard of our beautiful princess?” asked a man. “Impossible! Are you from another country?”
“I’m from the Tribe of Asher,” replied Eliahu.
“That explains it,” said his neighbor. “You mountain men don’t get out of the woods much. Otherwise, you would know her name well. They say her father King Solomon favors her over all his other daughters.”
“Is she married?” Eliahu asked.
“She will be married next month to the winner of the contest,” the man explained. “King Solomon has decreed that only the person with the greatest appreciation of beauty could marry a gem like Shulamit, so he ordered a contest. Whoever brings the most beautiful decoration for the temple will marry her.”
“You mean she would be my wife if I were to win!” Eliahu exclaimed.
“You?” laughed the man. “How would a young man from Galilee ever imagine that he could win? Woodworkers from Lebanon will bring their best sculptures, famous artists from the north will paint masterpieces, and weavers will weave magnificent linens. The pharaoh of Egypt is having an unmatched marvel created. And you expect to win!”
But Eliahu, who had at once fallen in love with Shulamit at his first sight of her, didn’t listen.
What, he wondered, are the most beautiful things I’ve seen? The sunset behind the Mediterranean was beautiful, but how could he bring a sunset into the temple? He also remembered the blue of the Sea of Galilee and the green of the fields and forests. These, too, were beautiful, but neither a sea nor a countryside could be presented to the king.
Eliahu remembered how older men had taught him. So he decided to seek an older man who had a great knowledge of beauty.
He went to a scribe who was well known for his wisdom. “Have you a great knowledge of beauty?” asked Eliahu.
“I have a knowledge of our ancient and sacred law,” answered the scribe, “and in that law there is a wealth of beauty.”
“The law is already in the temple,” said Eliahu. “I must find something else—something of physical, not spiritual, beauty. But where?”
“That I cannot tell you,” the scribe said. “But perhaps I can tell you what to look for. Throughout history, the most outwardly valueless thing has proved to be of greatest worth. Our holy law tells us to look to the merest of animals, the ant, as inspiration. Seek out the most despised and valueless object, and find the beauty in it. That will surely be more beautiful than anything else.”
For days, Eliahu tried to find the most despised and valueless thing possible. He first thought of a leper, but he quickly became ashamed of the idea. No person, he realized, could be considered valueless. He thought then of a donkey, but he knew of its work and importance to the people of Israel. A drop of water? No. Without it, there can be no life.
Then one day, he heard a merchant shouting at a Philistine. “I ask you for copper,” cried the merchant, “and you bring this miserable rock!” With that, the merchant took the stone and threw it on the ground.
Eliahu picked it up. The rock was blue with green streaks, but the colors were too dull to be beautiful.
“Where is this rock from?” he asked.
“From the bowels of the earth,” replied the Philistine.
“What do you use it for?” Eliahu asked.
“Use it for?” the man laughed. “We don’t. It has no use. It is too weak to build with. The colors won’t work as dyes. Once we tried to grind it into powder for medicine, but found nothing it would cure. It’s a waste.”
“Then why dig it up?”
“Where you have copper, you have these rocks,” the Philistine replied, “and it is difficult to separate them. We dig for the copper and let the merchants worry about getting rid of the rocks.”
“May I have one?”
“You may have as many as you like, though I don’t know why you’d ever want one.”
Eliahu knew why. It certainly fit the description of something despised and valueless. But how can I obey the instructions to find the beauty in it? he wondered.
For a week he tried heating, boiling, and soaking the rock, but it still looked just the same.
With only two days left until the contest, Eliahu remembered an experience he once had on Mount Shekania. He had finished cutting a tree when he noticed some sap had stuck to his robe. To remove it, he rubbed the cloth against a rock. Afterward, the rock shone.
Eliahu rode to the woods and cut into a pine tree. He wiped up a little sap with a cloth, then he rubbed the stone and it began to shine. Next he spotted a beehive and removed a portion of its wax, and added it to his cloth. He rubbed the rock again, and the shine seemed even brighter.
He took his mixture of sap and wax to a man who polished silver, and the man took the stone and held it against his grinding wheel. Slowly, the wheel ground off the scratches. Then he applied Eliahu’s mixture, and rubbed the stone. As the wheel turned and the rock was rubbed again and again, it became something truly beautiful to behold. The blue became as deep and lustrous as a rare sapphire. And the green resembled a brilliant emerald sparkling in the noonday sun.
On the day of the contest, the big square in front of the palace was jammed with thousands of spectators.
“The king of Ethiopia!” announced the crier as a tall black man strode up to King Solomon. He handed the famous ruler an ivory sculpture that was accepted without a word.
“The pharaoh of Egypt!” the crier called, as a pyramid of diamonds was presented to Solomon. Again, the king said nothing.
The lord admiral of the Phoenicians, the prince of Mecca, and the king of Ur, all brought splendid gifts. But Solomon remained silent at each presentation.
Then laughter shook the crowd as the crier announced one more entry, “Eliahu, a woodcutter.”
Boldly, the young man walked up to the king and presented his stone.
For the first time, Solomon spoke. “Many treasures have been brought here today, but not until now have I been handed the greatest gift—the beauty of my country.
“In this one stone I can see the sparkling blue of the Sea of Galilee and the glistening, sprouting grain of our fertile valleys. In it, too, are the colors of the sky over Golan. The sun shimmers from its surface like it does from the Negev’s sands. This stone, and thousands like it, shall decorate our temple.
“Surely,” said Solomon, “my daughter will be happy with this man. For he will not only appreciate her obvious beauty, but, more importantly, see the beauty within her.”