On Passover everybody wanted the prince to stay with them. He was coming. After years of anticipation, he announced his first visit to the district.
Everyone from the mayor to the girl who swept out the bakery shop knew and admired his highness, but only by reputation. No one had met him, but everyone had heard stories of his courage and his sense of justice — how he defended the people of the district from bandits, predators and government tax collectors and how he would give a hearing to the poorest of his subjects if he suspected that wrong prevailed over right.
It had long been rumored that one day, in early spring when the river was ice-free, when the apple trees bloomed like pink clover, when the young lambs skipped on the hillsides, that he, the prince, would come for the holidays.
“Where will he stay?” 100 villagers milling around his house shouted at the mayor.
“With me, of course,” the mayor replied. “He wants luxurious surroundings and rich, well-cooked food and witty, intellectual conversation, and where in this crummy town would you find such accommodations?”
Several of the town’s bankers and merchants were quick to answer the mayor’s rhetorical questions.
“In my palace!” they all shouted at once. And it was true. Their homes on the outskirts of the village, high in the hills, were fit for royalty.
“A prince needs a palace,” they said. “If we put him up with some peasant — sharing a bed with two aunts and a goat and three chickens, eating black bread and borscht three meals a day — he will never return to our village.”
Well, the mayor and the leading citizens of the town were not unreasonable. And everyone desired to please the prince. Finally, they decided to show their royal guest the various accommodations and let him choose.
The next day, when the sky and the crocuses along the road blazed in a shade of blue rarely seen on the palettes of artists, the prince strolled into town. A crocus was in his buttonhole.
“I couldn’t resist,” he said, whereupon the children of the village, who seemed to recognize him, ran to the roadside and picked armfuls of blue to please their visitor.
After a welcoming speech of many words by the mayor (in which he unfairly lingered over the comforts of his house), the royal visitor was escorted to the home of the mayor.
You should know that his wife, like all our wives, had prepared for the inspection with scrubbing and soaping and sweeping and absolutely no chametz. They had not left a crumb on the floor or a dust mote floating in the air.
The guest of honor inspected it thoroughly as the mayor and his family nervously watched. After 30 minutes of poking in corners, inspecting his fingertips for dust and bouncing on the 100 percent cotton, not rag, mattress, he wrinkled his brow.
“No good,” he said softly but clearly. With the mistress of the house looking on in horror, the prince added a brief explanation, “Not clean.”
The merchants grinned with glee and steered the prince to their stately palaces. Chandeliers sparkled, and the fireplaces perfumed the air with roasting oxen such as Abraham prepared for his angelic guests.
The heavy and expensive cherry wood couch and armchairs gleamed with fresh wax. Upstairs, the feather beds, like soft clouds, waited to comfort the guest. This haven had been prepared not by a housewife, but an army of servants.
Still, after a most careful examination, the prince rejected the palace. And the next one too. By way of explanation, he announced that they were not clean.
The crowd that followed the prince moaned with grief. There was no fit habitation for him; he would return to his homeland.
But David the Hochem, the wisest man in the district, had an inspiration. “Wait, my friends,” he said, speaking to the townspeople as well as the prince. “He hasn’t seen the home of Yankel the woodchopper, who lives besides the road to Litovsk.”
The last part of his statement was drowned out in groans and whistles and shouts of disapproval.
“He lives like an animal,” someone shouted.
“My goats live in a barn cleaner than Yankel’s hut.”
“Yankel’s shack is so overcrowded with poor relatives that last week three cousins fell out the windows.”
But the prince looked up and indicated a desire to inspect the home of Yankel the woodchopper.
The crowd was correct. The woodchopper’s home was terribly overcrowded because the softhearted Yankel could refuse a bed to no one: relatives, the homeless, itinerant holy men who traveled the road by his front door.
He could not feed them meat cakes and gravy, but there was always a roaring fire and plenty of corn porridge, and, in truth, only one cousin had ever fallen out the bedroom window.
The prince marched down the dusty road to the humble cottage. David, the hopeful wise man, led the way. Behind them, hundreds of peasants muttered, “Oy, oy, oy. The mayor’s home and palaces were not good enough, and now we show him this home for roaches.”
But the minute the prince saw the cottage by the roadside, he smiled for the first time. He entered and carefully inspected the dirt floor, the cobwebbed walls and the fleeing roaches as he entered the rooms.
“How clean, how pure. Here I will stay.”
David, who was as pious as he was wise, felt the hair on the back of his neck bristle, and later he swore to friends that he could hear the singing of angels. He knew the Moshiach had come to visit this house by the side of the road.