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Last year, on the first night of Chanukah, I told the family the story of the first meeting between King Solomon and that Queen of Sheba. The hoopoe delivers the message to a stunned King Solomon that there is a land where they have never heard of him, and, even more unbelievably, it is ruled by a woman!
That story was the beginning of me putting together The Golden Labyrinth, a show that premiered at Festival at the Edge in July 2012 and gave me many hours of fun as I put it together.
So it seemed only fitting that this year’s First Night Chanukah story should be about our old friend, the Hoopoe.
How the Hoopoe Got His Golden Crown
As we all know, Solomon had many wives and concubines, and was quite exhausted trying to please them all. One day his queen asked for a special birthday present. Without waiting to find out what it was, Solomon agreed that she could have whatever she asked for. He felt that a king of his power and wisdom would be able to grant whatever she asked. And what did she ask for but a palace of bird beaks?
Without giving it a second thought, King Solomon went out and called all the birds to him, and told them they must surrender their beaks in order for the Queen’s birthday present to be built. The birds were horrified; they shuffled and hesitated. Some thought about pleading, but hung their heads. They wept and cried, but still they lined up. Then who should turn up, late as usual, but the Hoopoe. He noticed how upset the other birds were, and when he found out the reason for their distress, he plucked up all his courage and went to the front of the line.
“Please, your Majesty,’ he said, “I will willingly give my beak – my very life – to you and your Queen, but I would ask you three riddles. If you can solve them, then my life is yours. But I would ask that, if you cannot, you would allow the birds – also your subjects – to keep their beaks.”
The little Hoopoe swallowed hard and waited, the longest wait of his life. All the other birds held their breath. For who would challenge a king?
Solomon admired the little bird’s courage, and said that he would accept the wager.
The first riddle that the Hoopoe asked was this:
Tell me who it is who was never born and will never die?
Solomon did not even stop to think before answering.
“Why, of course, it is the Lord himself, who created all creatures to be free.”
“My second riddle is this. What water never rises from the ground, nor falls from the sky?”
Well Solomon thought for a moment and then said, “Why, that would be a tear shed in sadness and grief.”
As he finished answering the little Hoopoe, he noticed that all the birds around him hunched before the throne, their wings heavy with sadness as they waited for their beaks to be cut off. Just for a moment, he thought maybe he had done a foolish thing in agreeing to build a palace of bird beaks. He shook himself from this thought.
“Your third riddle, Hoopoe.”
A hush filled the air and the Hoopoe spoke. His voice wavered a little as he only had one more chance to save himself.
“My third riddle, o King, is this: what is delicate enough to put food in a baby’s mouth yet strong enough to bore holes in wood?”
It took King Solomon longer to answer than usual. He looked around him at all the terrified and miserable birds and said in a voice filled with shame. “Why, it’s a bird beak, of course!”
And, for maybe the first time, he realized how amazing the birds were: how they woke him each morning with song and what their beaks meant to them.
The Hoopoe bowed his head and sighed. “Do what you wish with me, your Majesty, but please spare my brothers and sisters.”
The king said: “Dear Hoopoe! I am known for my wisdom, but today it was you that was wise. You showed me that these creatures need their beaks, and it would be vain and foolish to build a palace of bird beaks.”
The birds wanted to celebrate, but dared not move, until the Hoopoe suggested that they would still love to give the queen a present, and each donated some feathers, and they wove her a tent of bird feathers, a glorious and wonderful place.
The King held up his hands in silence, called the royal jeweller, and commanded him to make a small golden crown. This he placed on the Hoopoe’s head, to remind everyone of the little bird’s bravery. The birds sang and cheered, and to this day the Hoopoe wears a golden crown, and the other birds, even the eagle, treat him with the utmost respect.