Many years ago, the Rabbis and Sages of the Holy Land appointed Rabbi Azriel to go to the lands of the Dispersion to collect money for the holy Yeshibot (talmudic academies) so that the students might continue their studies and pray for the end of the long night of the captivity. Rabbi Azriel went down to the port of Jaffa, and found there a ship. He paid his fare, and boarded the ship, which was full of merchants carrying all types of merchandise. The hold was packed to overflowing with silks and satins and spices and all good things, each package being carefully marked with the name and destination of its owner. After the ship set sail, the merchants began to make fun of the Rabbi, and to taunt him. "Rabbi," they said, "where is your merchandise? Dear Sir, where is your merchandise?" The Rabbi replied: "My merchandise is better than yours." And the merchants laughed at the response of the Rabbi, for how can nothing be better than something? And they caroused and drank strong spirits, but the Rabbi uttered prayers and benedictions.
The ship made several stops, and the lucky ones among the merchants left the ship with their merchandise, while the other merchants and the Rabbi stayed on board. The ship passed between Scylla and Charybdis, which nowadays we call the Strait of Messina, and the Rabbi watched the wonderful displays of the distant volcanoes on land. And he stood up and said: "Blessed art Thou, Lord who made the works of creation." And the merchants laughed again and said: "Wise man, instead of praising God for volcanoes, which do us no good whatsoever, why do you not pray to Him to give you a little merchandise, which you could sell for a profit?" In order not to repeat myself, I shall not record the response of the Rabbi, but you may be able to imagine what it was. And when the fairy enchantress Morgan le Fay appeared to the passengers in the Strait, and their knees turned to water, and their bowels were loosed, the Rabbi calmly recited a passage from the Holy Zohar, and she disappeared, because the Rabbi knew that Morgan le Fay was from the "Other Side" and could not withstand the powers of light. After that, the passengers respected the Rabbi a little more, but occasionally they would taunt him nonetheless, and he would reply what he invariably replied: "My merchandise is better than yours."
After they left the Strait, a fast, strange ship appeared on the horizon. It quickly caught up with the merchant ship, and its sailors shouted to the Captain in Lingua Franca: "Prepare to be boarded!" The Captain obediently reduced the speed of his ship. The other vessel came alongside, and a flag with an ugly, uncouth device was run up to its masthead. The sailors came on board, brandishing long knives, and the Captain knew immediately that his bark was lost, for there was no way to oppose the Barbary Pirates once they had you in their toils. The young people on board they kidnapped to satisfy their evil lusts. The good things in the hold they took unto themselves, and paid no attention to the names of the owners written thereon. They left the ship in very short order, and shouted to those who were left: "If you know how to swim, swim! And if you do not, may God have mercy on your infidel souls!" And the last man to leave set the ship on fire.
The Rabbi jumped overboard, for he preferred death by drowning to death by fire, which is reserved for great sinners. And as he jumped he recited the Psalm which contains the verse: "From Bashan I shall bring back, I shall bring back from the depths of the sea." The sea swallowed up most of the passengers with great voraciousness, but the waves spotted the Rabbi, and did obeisance to him, and threw him one wave to his fellow, until he was washed up on shore, wet and exhausted. And this was to fulfil the words of wise King Solomon who said: "Cast your bread [i.e. study the Law of God which is called 'bread'] upon the waters, for in many days you shall find it. Read not yamim "days", but rather yammim "seas", in particular the Mediterranean, which is known as the Great Sea.
He saw a young boy, collecting pretty shells on the beach. Using the same strange language that the Pirate had used to the Captain, he said: "My child, are there Jews in this city?" The child replied: "Yes, there are Jews in this city, and if you wish I shall lead you to the Academy where they study every hour of the day and night, save on the day of the birth of my lord and savior, when they play cards instead." The Rabbi said: "Lead on." The child brought the Rabbi to the door of the Yeshibah. The Rabbi said: "My child, I do not have a single denarius to give you for your service, but I give you my blessing." The child replied: "That is no matter. When you acquire wealth, give some of it to the poor, and ask them to remember little Antoninus in their prayers, for my God and yours listens to the supplications of the downtrodden." The Rabbi entered the Yeshibah, and saluted the students in the holy tongue. When they saw his sorry state, they gave him raiment to wear and bread to eat, and gave him permission to sleep on the floor of the Yeshibah, where he might be lulled by the sound of the perpetual voices of the students.
And each day Rabbi Azriel listened to the holy discussions and held his peace, for he was a very modest man. One day the students were discussing some matters concerning stalks. You may find stalks something of a nuisance, but they too are part of creation, and not unworthy of study by the wise. The head of the Yeshibah was having some difficulty in explaining the issue, and seeing that Rabbi Azriel was following the discussion very intently, he asked his opinion. The Rabbi was reluctant to speak, but he was persuaded and gave a scintillating exposition of the subject, so that the students were amazed. Thereafter they constantly sought his opinion, and he solved their questions to their total satisfaction, as though he were adding two to two and coming up with four.
Some months later the Head of the Yeshibah, who was a pious and humble man, came to Rabbi Azriel and said to him in the holy tongue: "My honored one, you surpass me in learning as the Sun surpasses the Moon in light. I beg you, take my place, so that I may drink continually of your learning." Rabbi Azriel was very hesitant, but he was reassured by the earnestness and simplicity of his supplicant, and he consented.
Immediately the students clothed Rabbi Azriel with modest but fine clothing, and when he walked in the street, he never walked alone, but two of the best students accompanied him to his right and to his left, so that he might never inadvertently pass between two women with none to interpose. For then Satan would be given an opportunity to tempt him, since the greater a scholar is, the more does that horrid accuser long to activate his ineradicable evil inclination, and deflect him from the path of the upright.
One day he was walking in the street, when the student to his right hand saw two beggars covered with sores sitting on the sidewalk, and he attempted to shield Rabbi Azriel from them, lest the vapors exhaling from them should infect the Rabbi with a noxious disease. But Rabbi Azriel had already spotted the beggars, and recognized that they were of the merchants who had made fun of him on the boat; but they did not recognize him. "I must help them," he said, "for they must have some merits that the waves protected them as they protected me." He went up to the beggars, and addressing them in Lingua Franca said: "My students will give you some money for food. And tomorrow come to the Yeshibah after our evening prayers, and in the meantime I shall find for you some gainful employment, so that you do not need to beg. For I know that you are capable of making a living, but have fallen on bad times, and were rendered naked and penniless by cruel pirates.
"But admit to me the truth of one thing," continued the Rabbi. "Was not my merchandise better than your merchandise?"