About two and a half centuries ago, there lived in Kosov a wealthy textile merchant named Reb Moshe. He lived in the best section of the city, in a luxurious mansion on a huge estate, on which grassy lawns, lush gardens and orchards of fruit trees all flourished. Basically a simple person, his innate humility seemed to remain unaffected even as his wealth grew from year to year. But then, one day, an unusual idea entered his mind and took hold of his heart. Moshe had become possessed by the desire to experience a revelation of Elijah the prophet.
Not that he was under the illusion that because of his wealth he was entitled, at present, to see Elijah. He knew better than that. So, to become “worthy” of attaining his objective, he undertook a series of fasts and other forms of deprivations and self-afflictions, hoping that these would enable him to fulfill his wish.
But to no avail.
He started to keep company with the chassidim and the other strictly religious people in the community, emulating their ways. He hoped that their superior spiritual attainments would rub off on him, and his resultant elevation would allow him to attain his goal.
That also didn’t work.
Your task is to perform acts of kindness and charity . . .
Unsure what to try next, he decided to consult the local tzaddik, Rabbi Boruch of Kosov. The rebbe listened intently, but to Moshe’s dismay then said, “Reb Moshe, why are you trying to pursue such lofty matters? Your task is to perform acts of kindness and charity—that’s what your soul requires for its rectification.”
Moshe left the rebbe’s room, frustrated. He still felt sure that he knew what he really needed.
From that day on, Moshe the merchant’s behavior changed radically. He abandoned his business for hours at a time in order to be in the beit midrash. He no longer paid much attention to his personal appearance or the upkeep of his estate, abandoning almost completely the aristocratic lifestyle he had adopted over the years.
After some time, he went to visit the tzaddik again. Eyes downcast, the dark shadow of depression on his face, it was clear he was deeply troubled. His desire to see the prophet left him no peace. As he told the rebbe of his frustrations, he involuntarily emitted a deep sigh.
The rebbe repeated his advice that the proper path for Moshe was that of kindness and good deeds. This time, however, he seemed to accept Moshe’s sincerity, and advised him to greatly increase his distribution of tzedakah. Then, after a pause, the rebbe added mysteriously, “If a poor man should approach you and request even a thousand gold pieces, don’t refrain from granting his request.”
A pathetic-looking, poverty-stricken man had knocked on the door of the house, begging for help . . .
Moshe, once again, felt belittled by the rebbe’s reply. Nevertheless, he decided to adhere closely to his counsel. Any poor person that crossed Moshe’s path was immediately endowed with a generous contribution, without any delay to check the recipient’s worthiness. For several years Moshe conducted himself in this manner, but still there was no revelation of Elijah. His frustration gave him no rest.
One day, while he was busy at work with a number of different customers, a messenger arrived from his house telling him that a pathetic-looking, poverty-stricken man had knocked on the door of the house, begging for help. The pauper, however, had refused to accept the food that a servant had brought. Instead, the pauper had insisted that he be invited into the dining hall so he could sit and eat there. Reb Moshe’s wife wasn’t sure how to handle the situation, so she had sent to ask her husband’s advice.
At first Moshe was outraged by the needy man’s chutzpah. But then, remembering the rebbe’s counsel, he instructed the messenger simply to tell his wife that he would come home as soon as he could, and that in the meantime she should fulfill the stranger’s unusual request and invite him in. When he arrived about an hour later, he found his wife pacing near the entrance, exasperated, impatiently awaiting him. As soon as she saw him, she burst out bitterly, “Not even sitting in our dining hall satisfies this beggar; he demanded to take a nap in our bedroom!”
“How about a little donation?”
Moshe dashed upstairs to the master bedroom. He could barely believe the sight that greeted him: a disheveled, crude-looking person, wearing what seemed to be more rags and patches than actual clothing, sprawled across his bed, with the stains and remains of his meal spread all over himself—on the hitherto fresh linens. As Moshe stood there with bulging eyes and mouth opened wide, the “guest” looked up at him and drawled, “Nu? So, how about a little donation? A modest, insignificant sum—only a measly thousand gold pieces.”
Moshe wasn’t sure whether to erupt in anger or burst into laughter. He was so taken aback, he felt powerless to move or speak; he could only stand there in stunned silence.
“If you won’t give me right now one thousand cash, I won’t leave!” announced the strange beggar defiantly.
Moshe calmed down a bit from his initial shock. Deciding to ignore the insult to his honor, he simply offered the man a lesser sum. “Fifty . . . a hundred . . . one hundred fifty . . .” Eventually he offered him 200 gulden—hardly a small sum.
It was as if the man on his bed had sealed his ears. He kept arrogantly asserting he would take 1000 gulden, and not a penny less. Moshe finally lost all patience with this rude boor, and signaled his servants to remove the impudent pest from his presence. But the target was much too quick. Before they could lay a hand on him, he climbed out of the window and disappeared.
Elijah appears to people according to the root of their souls and the level of their deeds . . .
All this occurred just a few hours before Lag BaOmer. That night, all the chassidim gathered at the tzaddik’s table in honor of the occasion. Moshe was among them. Rabbi Boruch spoke about the divine revelations that are manifest on this special day, but that not everyone merits to recognize them. Moshe decided that this must certainly be an auspicious moment to mention his burning request.
The rebbe’s response shocked him like an icy hand squeezing his heart: “But didn’t you already meet a poor person who requested from you one thousand gold pieces?”
Moshe quickly told the tzaddik about the impudent beggar who had so crudely pushed his way into his house earlier in the day.
“Ach. What a pity!” the rebbe sighed softly. “You saw Elijah the prophet, but didn’t recognize him.”
“That vagrant was Elijah the prophet?!” Moshe screamed in dismay.
“Yes,” explained the rebbe. “He appears to people according to the root of their souls and the level of their deeds.”
Moshe was truly brokenhearted. He and his wife decided to move to the Holy Land. They settled in the holy city of Safed, where a change came over him almost immediately. He no longer sought greatness or extraordinary revelations. He served G‑d simply and wholeheartedly.
Before Lag BaOmer, he would go to Meron and devote himself to serving the myriads of attendees who crowded in to the tomb area around the clock. He rubbed shoulders with the masses of simple Jews who came to honor Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, taking pleasure from their company and helping to take care of their needs.
Several years later, in Meron on Lag BaOmer, as Moshe was hurrying to and fro to help serve the many guests, he suddenly saw in front of him a face that was burned into his memory: it was the “beggar” who had appeared at his house so many years ago!
Moshe froze in his tracks. He stared in amazement at the person in his path. This time, the eyes that looked back at him were no longer outraged and challenging; they were bright and shiny in the midst of a smiling face . . .
Translated and adapted from Sichat HaShavua #487.
Rabbi Boruch of Kosov [?–13 Cheshvan 1782], an important disciple of the Maggid of Mezeritch and of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, worked actively to propagate and publicize the ways and teachings of Chassidism. He is the author of Yesod HaEmunah and Amud HaAvodah.
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