Judaism is a religion, but even more it’s a philosophy, an ethnicity and an identity. We have special foods, customs, and stories from wherever “our people” have lived through the centuries.
It was during the time among the Babylonians, and later among the Persians, we incorporated into our folklore shedim (demons) and dibbukim (migrant spirits) as well as the concept of angels and demons (derived from Zoroastrianism). These influences have become a permanent part of Jewish literature, right through today.
One of the characters who appears frequently in Jewish folklore is — of all people — Alexander the Great. As a kid, I was astonished to find Alexander showing up in stories from the Talmud.
This one is my favorite.
The Acquisitive Eye
Alexander is on his way home to Macedonia after conquering the entire world. The great ruler comes to a stream whose waters originate in Paradise. He follows the stream until he comes to the gates of Paradise itself, and pounds on the gate crying: “I am Alexander, conqueror of the world! I demand you let me in!”
Alexander is told that “Only the pious may enter Paradise,” but being as he is Alexander, they make an exception and he is allowed to come through the gates. As he stands at the entrance, he see something rolling towards him. Alexander realizes it’s a human eye. He picks it up, brings it to the wise men and asks them, “What does this mean?”
The wise men tell Alexander to place the eye on a scale and try to balance it with gold and jewels. Alexander heaps the scale with piles of riches, but no matter how much he piles on, the eye outweighs it.
“The eye is never satisfied as long as it can see,” say the wise men, “Therefore it can never be satisfied. All the treasure in the world cannot outweigh it. The eye will want more and more.”
The wise men instruct Alexander to remove the gold and place a pinch of dust on the eye. They then place a feather on the opposing scale and it is heavier than the eye. At last the great Alexander understands the Talmudic lesson on greed and materialism.
He says: “So long as a man is alive, his eye can never be satisfied. Yet as soon as he dies, the moment dust covers his eye, even a feather outweighs it. Only in death does the eye lose its power. Only in death is man satisfied.”
And so Alexander left Paradise a wiser man.
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