Legend has it that the city of Vilna was founded many centuries ago through an amazing tale involving a young child. But we have it on no greater an authority than the holy Ben Ish Chai, Rabbeinu Yosef Chayim of Baghdad zt”l, that this story is absolutely true.
Close to eight centuries ago, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Gediminas, was hunting in the forest near the Valley of Šventaragis. Tired after a successful day’s hunt, he went to sleep and began to dream. A huge iron wolf was standing on top of a hill, and the sound of hundreds of other wolves inside filled all of the surrounding fields and woods. Upon awakening, the Duke consulted his pagan priests to interpret the meaning of his dream. He was told, “The iron wolf represents a castle and a city that will be established by you on this site. This city will be the capital of the Lithuanian lands and the dwelling of their rulers, and the glory of their deeds shall echo throughout the world.”
Gediminas was excited and began to plan the construction of his great city. But before he could continue, the pagan priests issued a dire warning: “The gods have decreed that in order for the city to achieve success, it is necessary for a woman to come forth of her own free will and offer her only son as a sacrifice to the gods. This son must become the foundation stone of the new city. This sacrifice will ensure the successful completion of this grand endeavor.”
The Grand Duke, like most people in the Dark Ages, was superstitious, and immediately sent forth messengers throughout the land in search of a woman willing to sacrifice her only son for the “greater good” of the Lithuanian people. This was easier said than done and it required much time and effort to locate such a devoted woman. Soon enough, though, a simple woman from a distant village near the border came forward and offered her one and only son, a bright 12-year-old boy, to be just the sacrifice the Grand Duke needed.
Of course, Gediminas was ecstatic to hear the news. A day was chosen for the event when the child would be buried alive, and the city would be founded. It would be a joyous occasion, a holiday for the entire population. Everyone, from the country’s nobility to the common folk, gathered for this auspicious event: to witness a mother sacrificing her only son.
The child was brought to the public square. The trumpets blared and the drums pounded. Suddenly, the boy spoke up. “Why did you bring me here?” he asked, his obvious intelligence shining forth. “I cannot believe that our god is party to such a terrible injustice. Indeed, the priests claim to have seen this in a vision, but perhaps they misunderstood what they saw. I, therefore, request to be allowed to ask the priests three questions. If they answer these questions correctly, I will concede to their wisdom and go to my death quietly and peacefully, for I will know that this is the true will of the gods.”
Intrigued, the Grand Duke immediately granted the boy’s request. The boy turned to the pagan priests and asked, “What is the lightest thing on the earth? What is the sweetest thing in the world? What is the hardest thing of all?”
The priests snorted derisively and answered in unison, “You call these questions? Why, everyone knows that the lightest thing in the world is a feather, the sweetest thing is honey, and the hardest thing is a stone!” The crowd laughed merrily.
Now it was the boy’s turn to scorn. “Your grace,” he said to the Grand Duke, “the priests do not understand my questions. If they cannot interpret the questions of a young boy like me, how can they be expected to understand the will of the gods? I am no fool. I would not ask a question that has an obvious answer. I was looking for the obscure, the answer that only an astute man can answer. Even a young child knows that a feather is light, honey is sweet, and a stone is hard. I am asking about that which appears heavy but is really light, seems bitter but is actually sweet, and seems soft but is in reality very hard.
“Your majesty, the lightest thing in the world is an only child being carried in his mother’s womb. He may seem heavy, but for his mother, he is no burden. The sweetest thing in the world is a mother’s milk to her nursing child. The hardest thing in the world is the heart of a mother who is prepared to sacrifice her one and only child!” Gediminas and all those assembled were astonished by the young boy’s incisive mind. His penetrating wisdom mesmerized all those who had gathered to see him sacrificed. An announcement was made that the priests had been mistaken and human sacrifice was indeed an injustice. At once, the child was set free.