Think About It: The Story of Two Old Men

Dr. Don Meyer, PhD, is the President of Valley Forge Christian College
Dr. Don Meyer, PhD, is the President of Valley Forge Christian College

“If you want to be happy, be.”

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy wrote a simple story about two Russian peasants, Efim and Elisha, who set out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Efim had twice served as village elder, and when he left office above 60 years of age, his finances were in good order. Elisha had been a carpenter and lived modestly, and in his old age he stayed home and kept bees.

Years before Efim and Elisha had taken a vow to go on this pilgrimage together. Every time the topic came up, work or family or something caused them to put their vow aside. One holiday they started talking again, and after Elisha’s persuasion, Efim said, “You are right. Let us go. Life and death are in God’s hands. We must go now, while we are still alive and have the strength.”

Over the next week they gathered a little food, some clothing (an extra pair of shoes) and a little money, said goodbye to their family and friends, and set out. They planned to walk across the Ukraine to the Black Sea, where they would take a ship which would take them to the Holy Land.


After walking many weeks covering 500 miles, their shoes wore out. One hot day, as they traveled through a small, poor village, Elisha wanted to stop for water but Efim didn’t. Efim walked faster and Elisha had a hard time keeping up with him. So Elisha told Efim to keep walking and after he got his water, he would catch up.

Elisha turned back to the village and entered a small hut. There he found a family sick and starving to death. He couldn’t just get water and return on his pilgrimage. He just had to help them. Over the next few weeks, he used his resources to care for them, feed them, help them with their crops, literally to save their lives.

Several times he wanted to rejoin his friend, but each time, as he was about to resume his journey, he felt obligated to help this family. Their lives were restored but, since his money was almost gone, he had to return home. When he got home, he told no one about what he had done.

Meanwhile, Efim had taken a nap while Elisha went into the village for water, and when he woke up, he waited and waited for his friend. Eventually he assumed Elisha must have gone on ahead without seeing him, so he got up and went on his way, trying to catch up. At the Black Sea, Efim waited for his friend but since he did not come, he got on the ship and went on his way.

Efim traveled to the Holy Land and visited the sites. He even thought he saw Elisha in a crowd, but he never did find out if it was he. After his pilgrimage was over, he returned home. On his way back, he passed through the village where Elisha had gone for water. There he found a healthy and happy family. They were full of gratitude for the man who had stopped to ask for water and then stayed to help them in their dire time of need.

Efim knew it was Elisha who had helped them. Once he was home, he went to see his old friend. Efim told Elisha about his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, “My feet have been there, but whether my soul, or another’s, has been there more truly…” Elisha interrupted, “That’s God’s business, neighbor, God’s business.”

“On my return journey,” Efim said, “I stopped at the hut where you remained behind…” Elisha said hurriedly, “That’s God’s business, neighbor, God’s business.”

Tolstoy ends the story, “…the best way to keep one’s vows to God and to do His will, is for each man while he lives to show love and do good to others.”

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA

Responses can be emailed to

Official page:

Follow on Twitter: @DrDonMeyer

Archives at: