In the time of King Solomon, there lived a young shepherd by the name of Barzilai. He was a dreamer, who spent long hours listening to the murmur of the brook and gazing into the blue of the sky, where he saw the glory and splendor of higher spheres. He dreamed of strange adventures as his eyes followed silvery clouds to the distant horizon. Most of all, Barzilai enjoyed the song of the birds. His father, who was poor and blind, could not afford to send him to school or hire a teacher to teach him the holy scriptures. Barzilai thus knew little more than what his parents taught him, and had no hope of knowing more. Yet G‑d guides the fate of man, and no earthly eye can foresee what the future holds.

The birds in the trees sensed Barzilai’s thirst for knowledge, and their songs made up for what the young shepherd lacked in education. They told him of the miracles of the Creation, and they taught him to understand the working and the powers of nature, which G‑d had created in His infinite wisdom. Soon Barzilai was able to understand the song every creature sings in honor of the Creator; and he too joined in with his praise of G‑d, who had given him life to enjoy the beauty of this wondrous world.

One day Barzilai was driving his sheep through unfamiliar pastures, when sweet music such as he had never before heard reached his ears. He followed the sounds and came to a little hill. There, beneath a tree, sat an old shepherd who was playing a harp with the ease and enchantment of a true master. Barzilai stood beside him for a long time, listening spellbound. When the old shepherd finished playing, Barzilai fell down at his feet and begged him to teach him his art, for he too would love to express his feelings to the melody of a harp. The wise man saw the sincerity and genuine desire of the youngster, and agreed to teach him to play.

Every day Barzilai returned to the same spot, and while his flock grazed peacefully in the meadow, the old man taught him how to produce soft melodies using fingers on the harp strings. Barzilai was an excellent student, and quickly acquired the skill of playing the harp. Once he had mastered the art, it was easy for him to create any musical mood he desired. He had only to listen to the sighing of the wind, to the rustle of the leaves in the trees, to the howling of the storm and to the silver bell sound of the waterfalls. He found the richest music in the harmonies created by the universe around him.

The old man was astonished by the ease with which Barzilai learned the complicated technique of playing the harp. Yet his astonishment grew to admiration when he heard Barzilai’s melodies, which flowed in an unceasing stream of beautiful harmony. Undoubtedly, here was a born artist whom G‑d had given the heart and the skill to create the most beautiful and profound music ever heard.

He was a generous old man, who understood the great joy that comes from giving. One afternoon, when Barzilai wanted to return the harp to its owner after he had taken pleasure in its melodies, the old shepherd told him: “Son, I have lived my years to their fullest. Take my harp, and scale the heights of music that are barred from me. In your hands, it will bring happiness and fulfillment. With me, it would rot in the grave.”

Barzilai was deeply moved by the generosity of his kind teacher. He thanked the old shepherd from the depths of his heart, and took leave from the man who had given his life new meaning.

No treasure was ever better cared for than the harp in the hands of Barzilai. As soon as he reached his home, he made a wooden box and padded it with soft sheep’s wool. It held the harp when he was not playing it, and it stood right beside the heap of straw that served him as a bed. Every morning when the young shepherd opened his eyes, he looked anxiously for the harp to make sure that it was still there.

One day he was in the pasture as usual, and his fingers played upon the strings of his beloved instrument. Even the birds who had introduced him to the world of song, and who had taught him understanding of universal harmony, stopped to listen to his interpretation of their teachings. Wild animals stopped in their warpaths, and so did their fleeing prey. For all alike were enchanted by the soothing melodies of Barzilai’s harp.

Not only animals and birds listened to the young shepherd on that fateful afternoon. A man dressed in simple white robes, a jeweled headpiece upon his head, was walking across the fields, immersed in thought. He, too, was searching for harmony. For this lonely wanderer, King Solomon, had the gift of understanding the language of every creature, the lowest as well as the highest. And he, too, was able to weave the various strains and patterns into one great symphony of tribute to the Almighty.

Suddenly he stopped. Was it possible? he wondered. King David, his father, had been dead for may years, and his precious harp had not sounded since its great master’s death. As far as King Solomon knew, his father had been the only one able to bring to life the melodies and tunes which filled the air at every moment. Yet he was not mistaken. The sound of the harp was real, and it had a certain quality that was more vigorous and youthful than the playing of his father as he remembered it.

Hurriedly, King Solomon crossed the large meadow that separated him from the unknown harpist. Barzilai stood beneath a tree, surrounded by a flock of grazing sheep. His father, King David, must have looked like this in his younger years, the king mused.

When the young shepherd finished his music, King Solomon walked over to him and asked his name. Barzilai realized that the man who stood before him so majestically was no common person. Very courteously he told the stranger that he was a simple shepherd by the name of Barzilai, who knew not how to read or write. He said his parents were old and poor, and his father blind.

“Who taught you to play the harp like this?” Solomon asked. Barzilai told the king of his chance meeting with the old harpist. “Did he teach you the melodies you just played?” asked the king further, curious to know the origin of the rich music.

“No, your honor,” replied the shepherd modestly. “The birds in the trees, the waterfalls and brooks, the wisps in the winds, they all sing their songs. I try to catch their tunes, yet I can never really get close to the beauty and harmony that make them soar to heaven.”

King Solomon was deeply moved by the words of the young shepherd. “I am your king,” he said to Barzilai, “Solomon, the son of David. Since my father’s death I have not heard a harp played like yours. Pray, come with me to Jerusalem and play for me whenever I call on you. I shall reward you handsomely.”

Barzilai had heard of King Solomon, but had never dreamed he would personally cross the path of this illustrious king, of whom the world spoke with such admiration and reverence. Without hesitation he replied:

“Far be it from me, O King, that I should ask for a reward. If your honor feels that my simple playing can help you carry the heavy burden of this country and its people, I will consider it an honor to follow you wherever you want me to go. Only one request I have to make. My old parents depend on my poor earnings. I shall go whither you command, as long as they may come with me.”

Next day King Solomon returned to the village where Barzilai lived with his parents, and he himself brought them to Jerusalem in his royal coach. He gave them a small house in the middle of his beautiful royal park. Surrounded by the most exquisite plants, and the most exotic and melodious singers of the bird world, Barzilai played his harp to the honor of G‑d and for the pleasure of his king. The fame of King Solomon’s harpist spread far and wide.

One day, King Hiram of Tyre came to pay a visit to his friend, the king of Israel. During his stay he heard of Barzilai and his wonderful playing.

“Don’t boast of your shepherd harpist until you have heard Maran, my own court musician,” said Hiram. “He is truly a master of instruments, and the magic of his skilled fingers will beat anything your harpist can produce.”

King Solomon’s courtiers then asked their master for permission to arrange a contest between the two musicians, as Hiram of Tyre had suggested. After some thought, King Solomon finally agreed, although it was very much against his own feeling. “If Maran does not make your shepherd look like a beginner, he shall be yours,” promised Hiram, sure of his musician’s superiority. Then he sent for his artist to come to Jerusalem.

Maran, a proud and rich man who had spent all his life studying music, felt slighted at the suggestion that he should be matched against a simple shepherd. Yet his king had commanded, and he had no choice but to obey.

Soon after his arrival in Jerusalem, he visited the house in the park where Barzilai and his parents lived in quiet happiness. The shepherd was not at home. He lay at the edge of the beautiful, blue lake and watched the royal swans make circles in the rippling waves.

Suddenly Barzilai heard the unmistakable sound of a harp. He jumped up and listened carefully. Surely this was his beloved instrument, but it sounded different, hard and obstinate, as if forced to play. In his own hands, it was a willing tool ready to respond to any mood and touch of his fingers. Something was wrong. Without further hesitation he ran all the way home to his little house. There he found Maran strumming his harp. “Please, sir,” he gasped, short of breath from the run, “do not touch this instrument so rudely. This in not the proper way to handle a harp!”

“Who are you to teach Maran, the master of all instruments, how to pluck these simple strings! As far as I know, there is no man alive who is superior to me in this skill.”

“That may be true,” replied Barzilai humbly. “I am completely ignorant of any fine art. Yet I know how to bring forth the music that is stored in this simple instrument. Give it to me, and I will show you what I mean.”

Maran’s purpose in coming to the house in the park had been to find out what his opponent was able to do. He therefore willingly surrendered the harp to the shepherd, and sat back to hear what kind of music he could produce. He soon found out how wrong he had been about the instrument, its master and his music. The natural ease and richness of Barzilai’s melodies made his own music sound anything but masterly. Jealous to the point of fury, yet striving to appear polite, he begged Barzilai to teach him his skill.

The shepherd had never experienced evil during his young life. He did not like the proud man and his rude speech. Yet, without hesitation, he agreed to the request. “An old shepherd was kind enough to teach me. Why should I be different and hoard the little knowledge I possess?”

Maran spent several days in the company of the good-natured young shepherd, who led him to various places in the park where he could listen to the different voices of nature. Maran was a good and eager pupil. He easily grasped the novel approach to music that distinguished Barzilai’s playing from that of anyone else.

The date of the big event approached. King Solomon had not told his harpist about the contest, for he knew that the simple shepherd would not care to compete with another man. The day before the contest, he sent for Barzilai to introduce him to Maran, who, dressed in glittering gold- and silver-embroidered garments, looked prouder and haughtier than ever.

“Tomorrow night, both of you will play before the court. I ask it as a personal favor of you, Barzilai, that you do not refuse to play before my people.”

The shepherd immediately realized how his opponent had tricked him into teaching him everything he knew, in order to ensure his victory. Yet he felt that it was not noble to betray the evil scheme of his opponent. On the other hand, he would never refuse the request of King Solomon, to whom he owed so much. For frequently the king visited him in the park, and they spent much time together. Solomon had explained the things Barzilai knew only vaguely through the medium of his music. He made the shepherd see and understand what he played, and he made him realize that there was deep meaning to all the voices that whispered, sang and roared in the universe, and he wove them together into one majestic symphony. Barzilai cherished these frequent talks, and he loved King Solomon more than ever.

“I wish your majesty could spare me the embarrassment and shame of competing with such an accomplished master musician. I am only a simple shepherd, and know little else but the few tunes for which my fingers grope. Yet, if it is your wish that I play tomorrow night, I shall not refuse you.”

Solomon was glad that Barzilai had answered him in such a frank and dignified manner. In his great wisdom, he had been able to look into the hearts of the two opponents, and he had seen the evil plan of Maran. “I am confident, my good Barzilai, that you will do us honor. Yet I suggest that you visit your native village and spend the day in the fields, as you used to do before I brought you here.”

Barzilai did as the king suggested. His own heart drew him to the pastures which had nurtured him and his music. They were not as beautiful and artfully planned and planted as the royal park. Yet their voices were free and true. Delightedly he listened again to the birds who had been his teachers, and whose songs abounded with the sweetness he had missed for so long. Wind and water, trees and leaves, birds and crickets and the traveling clouds, all were full of harmonious, refreshing tunes. And their melodies expressed clearly what he had heard only dimly in the royal park.

Next evening he returned to the crowded court of Jerusalem, where Maran was waiting in anticipation of his victory over the shepherd. King Solomon, too, was waiting for Barzilai. He looked into the shepherd’s eyes and saw the warm glow that was still there from his rich experience of the previous day. He, too, became sure of victory.

Lots were drawn, and it was Maran’s turn to play first. The court musician from Tyre rose, and everyone present in the crowded gala hall of the palace realized that here was a true master of music. It took the spellbound audience several minutes to shake off the magic he had cast over them. Not only Hiram, king of Tyre, but all the courtiers were ready to give Maran the victory before his opponent had even played.

Only King Solomon knew better. At his signal Barzilai stepped forward, and his simple white garb contrasted sharply with Maran’s rich robe. Equally sharp was the contrast between the instruments used by the two artists.

But Barzilai saw nothing. His soul was in the pastures. His ears still heard the song of the birds, the whispering of the wind and leaves, and the ringing bells of the waterfalls. His eyes did not see the marble and glittering silver and gold. He looked far beyond, into the clouds that seemed to float towards heaven. His fingers wandered along the metal strings of the harp, and the instrument responded richly to Barzilai’s song of tribute and homage paid to the glory of G‑d by His creation.

Maran turned pale. Suddenly he seized his harp, lifted it high into the air and brought it down upon the marble floor. It shattered into a thousand pieces. Angrily he swore that he would never again touch an instrument as long as Barzilai lived.

King Solomon refused to accept Hiram’s master musician as his prize of the wager. “I am satisfied,” he said, “to know that there is a simple shepherd among my people who, like my beloved father long before him, is able to find G‑d in the harmony of the universe. To him I shall turn when I fail to grasp it in my own way.”

After the contest, Barzilai asked his master for permission to return to his village, to spend his life with his flock and the birds and trees of the green pastures. “When you sent me back that day, I realized what I had been missing in the luxurious beauty of your park. I belong there, whence my music springs.”

King Solomon was sorry to let him go. Yet he knew that Barzilai was right. The shepherd returned to his poor hut in the country. And whenever King Solomon felt the burden of his kingship weighing him down, he visited his harpist shepherd in his village. Barzilai played for him, and the wisest of all men returned to his royal duties refreshed and happy.