Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812, founder of Chabad Chassidism) was raising money to ransom Jewish prisoners.
He went first to a city that was famous for its miser. It seems that this stingy man, despite his considerable wealth, was loath to share his blessings, no matter how worthy or urgent the cause. Rabbis and beggars alike avoided his home. Anyone who did unwittingly end up on his doorstep was offered a single rusty copper coin, which even the most desperate pauper would promptly refuse.
When Rabbi Schneur Zalman arrived in the town, the elders of the community graciously received him. But when he announced that he wanted to visit the house of the miser and wanted two rabbis to accompany him, he was met with serious resistance. The rebbe was adamant, however, and they finally acquiesced and gave him the escort he requested.
The next afternoon the three of them were standing in front of the miser’s mansion. Before knocking on the door, the rebbe turned to his companions and requested that they not utter a word, no matter what they hear or see. Several moments later they were sitting in the luxurious front room, and the owner was returning from his safe with a small velvet money pouch.
“Yes,” said the rich man. “A touching story indeed! Widows and orphans in captivity. Ah, the suffering of the Jewish people! When will it all end? Here, Rabbi, take my humble donation.”
To the miser’s surprise, the rebbe seemed pleased by the gift. He was actually smiling at him warmly as he put the coin into his pocket and said, “Thank you, Mr. Solomons. May G‑d bless and protect you always.” The rebbe then proceeded to write him a receipt, adding all sorts of blessings in a most beautiful script.
“Thank you again, my friend,” said the rebbe as he stood and warmly shook the man’s hand, looking him deeply in the eyes with admiration. “And now,” he added, turning to his two companions, “we must be on our way. We have a lot of collecting to do tonight.”
As the three rabbis walked to the door, the rebbe turned and bade his host yet another warm farewell. “You should have thrown it back in his face,” hissed one of the rabbis after they heard the door close behind them.
“Don’t turn around and don’t say a word,” whispered the rebbe as they walked down the path to the front gate.
Suddenly they heard the door opening behind them and the miser calling: “Rabbis, rabbis, please come back for a minute. Hello, hello, please, I must speak to you, please . . . please come back in.”
In a few minutes they were again sitting in the warm, plush drawing room, but this time the rich man was pacing back and forth restlessly. He stopped for an instant and turned to the rebbe. “Exactly how much money do you need to ransom these prisoners?”
“About five thousand rubles,” the rebbe replied.
“Well, here is one thousand . . . I have decided to give one thousand rubles; you may count it if you want,” said the miser as he took a tightly bound stack of bills from his jacket pocket and laid it on the table. The other rabbis were astounded. They stared at the money and were even afraid to look up at the miser, lest he change his mind.
But the Rebbe again shook Mr. Solomons’ hand, warmly thanking him, and wrote him a beautiful receipt replete with blessings and praises, exactly like the first time.
“That was a miracle!” whispered one of the rabbis to the rebbe as they left the house and were again walking toward the gate. Once more the rebbe signaled him to be still. Suddenly the door of the house again opened behind them. “Rabbis, please, I have changed my mind. Please come in once more. I want to speak with you,” Mr. Solomons called out.
They entered the house for a third time as the miser turned to them and said, “I have decided to give the entire sum needed for the ransom. Here it is; please count it to see that I have not made a mistake.”
“What is the meaning of this?” wondered the rebbe’s astonished companions after they had left the rich man’s home for the third time that evening. “How did you get that notorious miser to give 5,000 rubles?”
“That man is no miser,” said Rabbi Schneur Zalman. “No Jewish soul truly is. But how could he desire to give, if he never in his life experienced the joy of giving? Everyone to whom he gave that rusty penny of his threw it back in his face.”