Our Sages once asked Eliyahu HaNavi, “Why are some of our pious people so poverty-stricken? Doesn’t the Almighty answer the prayers of his tzaddikim?”
“I will tell you a story,” answered Eliyahu, “and then you will understand how righteous is the Almighty who foresees the future and realizes the capacity of each person.”
There was once a chassid who would pray three times a day with such deep feeling and in such a plaintive voice that his prayers would reach the very Throne of G-d.
This chassid was very poor and he would usually search the trashcans for rags to clothe his aching body. He was also very proud, and wouldn’t accept gifts. He lived a life of deprivation and he suffered from the heat and cold, for he was too poor to purchase clothes.
When the Almighty saw the man’s struggles, He took pity on him and told Eliyahu Hanavi to give him four zuzim (coins). Eliyahu visited the poor man and found him praying as was his usual custom.
He waited until he finished praying and then said to him, “Greetings, my friend. The Almighty favored me with good fortune today and I would like to share it with you. Here, please accept four zuzim from me.”
The man refused the gift and Eliyahu had to plead with him to accept it. Finally, the poor man agreed to accept the money so that he could buy clothes and appear more presentable when he prayed.
The poor man saw a wonderful coat that sold for the price of four zuzim and he purchased it. Walking out of the store, he was accosted by a stranger who admired his new coat.
“How much did you pay for the coat?” asked the stranger.
“Why do you ask?” asked the poor man.
“The coat is so beautiful that I must purchase it from you,” he replied.
“Sorry,” said the chassid. “I am in dire straits and this is my sole possession.”
“I will offer you 24 gold coins for the coat,” said the man.
The poor man agreed and sold his coat. Miraculously, everything he purchased with those gold coins appeared to multiply and he soon became rich. He purchased servants, maids, ships and merchandise until he became fabulously wealthy.
But as soon as he became wealthy, he forgot his former customs. His business took up so much of his time that he couldn’t find time to pray. He was too busy to observe any of the mitzvos and he even forgot to give charity to the poor. He became a harsh businessman whose only purpose in life was to amass more money.
Seeing this, the Almighty said to Eliyahu, “Look at that former tzaddik. Because I have given him so much wealth, estates and honor, he has forgotten all his good deeds. He has even forgotten to pray. Go to him and take back what I gave him!”
Eliyahu went to the man who was now sitting on a golden chair in a palatial home.
“Greetings to you,” said Eliyahu.
“Who are you?” said the man in fear lest he be a beggar seeking alms.
“Do me a favor,” said Eliyahu, “and return the money I loaned you some time ago.”
“You loaned me money?” said the rich man in surprise.
“Yes, it was four zuzim, which I gave you when you finished praying and you were clothed in rags,” said Eliyahu.
“Oh, yes,” answered the rich man. “Now I remember. I’ll gladly return the four zuzim to you. You were very kind at that time.” He opened his pocket book.
“Not these four zuzim do I want,” said Eliyahu. “I want the original money which I gave you.”
“Impossible,” cried the rich man. “That money was spent a long time ago. What difference does it make as long as I return a similar amount to you?”
“I have a reason,” replied Eliyahu. “Open your purse to me and I’ll find it.” The rich man opened his purse and, lo and behold, a miracle occurred and the same four zuzim appeared. Eliyahu took the coins and departed.
Immediately, misfortune befell the man. Everything he touched went bad. All of his boats sank in a storm, his warehouses burned down and even his sons and daughters died. After a while, he became as poor as he was before, and he again began picking rags to clothe his body. In anguish, he visited the synagogue and began to pray, pouring his heart’s woes to the Almighty.
Once again the Almighty took pity on him and said to Eliyahu, “I love this chassid who offers me such wonderful prayers. I can’t see him suffer. Therefore, go to him, offer him 10 gold coins and make him swear to you that he will never cease to pray to me. For I believe he had learned his lesson and he will not go back to his evil ways.
Eliyahu again visited the man and waited until he finished praying and he then gave him the gold coins and made him swear that he would continue praying the rest of his life. Having learned his lesson, the man remained pious the rest of his life.
“So you see,” concluded Eliyahu, “not every person can be wealthy and continue in his piety.”