2360 Story: The Dirty Penny (print)


In the city of St. Petersburg two-hundred years ago, a desperate situation arose in which a ransom of ten thousand rubles was demanded for a young bridegroom. This was not an uncommon experience in those days, when unscrupulous police, military, or other people in power would arrest or kidnap Jews and demand ransom, for they knew that Jewish law required the Jewish community to do anything--including the sale of a precious Torah scroll--to save a Jewish life.

Three talmudic students in the area realized that the only place to get such a sum was from a wealthy man named Ze'ev. Now Ze'ev is the Hebrew word for wolf, and this man was aptly named. He was ravenous for wealth and would do anything to acquire it. He could also be vicious when turning people away who requested donations. He never contributed to anything.

These three rabbinic students were to become famous rebbes. The youngest of the three was later known as the Alter Rebbe, Shneur Zalman of Lyady. He was the leader of the three because he was certain that they would be successful with Ze'ev. The other two were Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev and Reb Mendel of Vitebsk. They were far more skeptical about getting money out of Ze'ev and were concerned about wasting precious time. But they wanted to accompany Shneur Zalman to provide protection. He agreed on condition that they would not say anything during the fund raising, no matter what happened.

Ze'ev was stunned, and somewhat honored, to see a delegation of three rabbis at his door. He also was suspect, but he invited them in, nonetheless. They had tea and talked about the weather for a while. Finally Shneur Zalman got around to telling the story. He told of an orphan boy who had no family and whose wedding was only a week away. The boy had been arrested on a trumped up charge, and now he could not be released without paying a ten thousand ruble ransom.

As Shneur Zalman spoke, Levi Yitzhak and Mendel could see tears welling in the eyes of Ze'ev. At the end, Ze'ev said, "Such a sad story. You have touched my heart. So I would like to help." Levi Yitzhak and Mendel were startled. How had the Shneur Zalman done it? Then, quite suddenly their delight turned sour, for Ze'ev reached into his pocket and pulled out one rusty, dirty kopek--worth a penny--which may have been in his pocket for ten years. He handed this paltry sum to Shneur Zalman as if it were a major contribution. 

The two older students were shocked by such miserliness, but they had agreed before coming not to say a word. This was Shneur Zalman's project. What did he do? He began to praise in the most lavish language imaginable this wonderful contribution. "Oh, sir, you do not know what this means to us. We are so grateful for your generosity. I want to bless you and your wife and your children that you should be successful in your business, you should be the beneficiary of good health, you should be graced with love...." On and on he went, giving blessings in abundance. 

Finally, when he had finished, the three gathered to leave. Ze'ev stood at the door. As they were departing, he said, "You have touched me so much with this story, I feel that I must give you more." He reached into his pocket and pulled out another dirty kopek.

Reb Levi Yitzhak and Reb Mendel were infuriated, but they said nothing, as they had promised. Reb Shneur Zalman, on the other hand, began a new round of praises and blessings that lasted another ten minutes.

Finally they were out on the street, walking away from the house. Levi Yitzhak said to his friend, "Are you crazy? We just spent an hour for two lousy kopeks!"

"Hush," whispered Shneur Zalman.

Sure enough, when they were about a hundred feet from the house, the front door opened and Ze'ev called out. "Teachers, come back."

They returned to the front door. With a great deal of fuss, Ze'ev proudly handed them a one ruble coin. "I want to make a serious donation." Of course, Shneur Zalman spent yet another five minutes with new praises and blessings.

They began walking away. Mendel said, "The way I calculate it, we just spent over an hour to get one ruble. At this rate, it will take us ten thousand hours. We ought to have the boy out of jail in four or five years."

"Hush," whispered the future Alter Rebbe.

Again the front door opened and Ze'ev called out. They returned, but this time he gave them ten rubles. A few minutes later it was one hundred rubles. Then five hundred; then one thousand. Finally, after a dozen returns, he wrote out a check for the balance so that they had the full amount of ten thousand rubles.

The two skeptics were numb with amazement. It had taken a few hours, but they had the entire sum. As they walked away, they asked, excitedly, "How do you do it? How did you know he would give so much?"

Reb Shnuer Zalman said, "When our hearts are covered with a thick shield, the barrier not only keeps things from coming in, it also keeps them from going out. There is no way to remove this shield over the heart all at once. So what we must do is find a way to make the tiniest crack. Then, each little opening of generosity leads to another. 

"This idea of slowly breaking down our barrier's is the secret of all success; it works for charity, it works for learning, it works for love. Every time we do a good deed, it builds the capacity to do more. No matter what you want to accomplish, you can begin with something that may seem trivial, even a dirty penny. Let yourself slowly evolve, widening the crack; ultimately you will be able to pass through easily."


The story of the dirty penny is a metaphor for attaining messianic consciousness. We have many wisdom teachings about the potential for human awareness, but unless we begin to actualize these teachings, they remain in the realm of ideas, conjecture, and abstraction. To bring the new reality of messianic consciousness, we must find a way to make a crack in our own barriers so that the light of awareness will shine through.

            The story of the dirty penny suggests that we can reveal this light by opening ourselves to it one step at a time. We learn that once we make a crack, the barrier can be split open quickly. Higher awareness is a huge reservoir. All we need do is remove our fingers from the dam of self-identity. If we have the courage to do so, we will be flooded in light.