Rebbe Avraham Yehoshua Heschel sat at a book laden table, deeply immersed in his studies, surrounded by eager students, who absorbed every word. Suddenly, he lifted his head, leaned back in his chair, and smiled. “I don’t remember if I have told you this Pesach story before, but it is good to retell the story of Eliyahu’s cup before Pesach.”
Once there was a very wealth man, named Elkana, and his wife named Penina. They lived in a splendid mansion, according to the standard of their wealth. They owned china, crystal, silver, jewelry, furs. One possession was more precious to them than all the rest: a magnificent, jeweled cup of Eliyahu which they proudly used as their table centerpiece each seder night.
Elkana and Penina were both G-d fearing, hospitable, righteous people. They recognized that the source of all their blessings was the Almighty. In gratitude, they opened their home to the poor of their city and to travelers who passed through.
Sadly, Elkana invested in a few bad business deals. Slowly, he lost much of his assets. In order to cover his expenses, he started to sell some of his possessions, thinking that future business investments would be profitable. But Elkana’s choice of investments continued to be a financial disaster. Years passed, and Elkana and Penina became poorer and poorer. Their sole remaining possession was Eliyahu’s cup.
Penina never complained. That year, as Pesach approached, she wondered how she would be able to purchase matzos, wine, and other necessities for the festival. There was simply no money available.
The morning before Pesach, Penina gently reminded her heartbroken husband that there was not one ruble in the house with which to purchase Pesach food.
‘I think,’ said Elkana, ‘you will have to take Eliyahu’s cup to the pawnbroker. The pawnbroker will undoubtedly give you more than enough money to buy food for the holiday.’
Until that moment, Penina suffered silently, always hoping that their lot in life would improve, that her husband would invest in a good business that would restore their wealth. She never despaired. But when she heard her husband’s suggestion, she could not bear her pain any longer. She cried out in anguish, ‘What! Sell Eliyahu’s cup! I will never sell it. It is our one remaining precious possession. There has to be another way. I simply will not part with Eliyahu’s cup!’ Elkana recognized the tone of Penina’s voice: she would never change her mind, no matter what he said.
Not knowing how to solve the crisis, he slipped sheepishly out of the house and headed straight for the study hall, the one place where he found solace.
Penina did not know where she would find the money to buy food for Pesach. She wandered around alone in the big mansion, walking from one empty room to another. Only a few pieces of furniture were left where once overstuffed sofas stood and exquisite paintings and tapestries hung.
Suddenly, Penina heard a knock at her door. She ignored it at first, not wanting to face anyone, but the intruder persisted. Finally, Penina opened the door. An elderly, well-dressed gentleman stood on her doorstep.
‘Is this the house of Elkana and Penina?’ he queried. ‘I have come from a distant town. I have a letter of recommendation from a mutual friend of ours. He told me that you home is always open to travelers. I need a place to stay for Pesach. Is it possible that I may stay here for the holiday week? Penina could not speak: only tears streaming from her eyes betrayed her emotions.
‘Yes,’ she stammered, ‘our house was formerly open to the poor of our city and to travelers who passed this way, but my husband has had some business reverses. We have sold most of our possessions to sustain ourselves. Right now we don’t even have any money to buy matzos or wine for Pesach.’
‘Money is no problem,’ said the elderly, well-dressed gentleman politely. ‘I have plenty of money. I don’t want to be alone in an inn for Pesach.’ With these words, he put his hand into his jacket pocket and withdrew a bag of coins.
‘Please take this money and buy what you need,’ he continued. ‘Tell your husband that I will meet him in the synagogue tonight, and I will walk home together with him.’
The elderly, well-dressed gentleman walked slowly down the path, leaving Penina dumbstruck.
After she composed herself, she ran to the marketplace to purchase food for the holiday. For the first time in many months, she had plenty of money. She did not stint on her grocery list: matzos, wine, apples for charoses, horseradish for the marror, fish, eggs to dip in salt water, a bone for the zeroa, meat, potatoes for the kugel. As Penina ran from stall to stall through the marketplace, she hummed one of the melodies from the seder, the one she remembered by heart, the one sung just before drinking the second cup of wine: ‘Therefore it is our duty to thank, to praise, to laud, to glorify….Him who performed all these miracles.’ Laden with packages, she ran all the way home. The preparations for the holiday went quickly. Penina was so happy.
Hurry! Hurry! She kept urging herself onward.
Elkana came home late in the afternoon to see how Penina was. To his surprise, the house was pesadik. Everything was ready for the seder. Penina was shining and joyous.
‘Elkana,’ she shouted incoherently, ‘there is an elderly well-dressed gentleman in town. He was here this morning. He wanted to be our guest. He gave me a bag of coins. He said he would meet you in the synagogue.’
Elkana changed his clothes in honor of the holiday and went to find his guest in the synagogue. When he arrived, only the townspeople were present. There was no stranger.
He joined in the evening prayer service with the congregation, one eye on the door, waiting expectantly for his guest. The service ended. No stranger came. The townspeople went home to begin their seders.
Elkana was puzzled. He sat around the empty synagogue for about an hour, waiting patiently. When no one came, he went home
Penina and Elkana waited to begin their seder. Eight, nine, ten o’clock. They waited until eleven o’clock, but the elderly, well-dressed gentleman did not appear.
Finally, Elkana decided to begin the seder.
‘I’ll do everything very slowly,’ he thought aloud. ‘Maybe our guest will show up soon.’ Elkana poured the wine for kiddush, washed his hands, broke the afikomen matzah, and recited the Haggadah. The guest, however, did not arrive. They ate the meal. Elkana grew sleepy. He managed the grace after meals, then fell asleep at his place at the table…at the moment he should have gone to open the door for Eliyahu HahNahve.
Penina decided to finish the seder herself. She stood, walked to the door, and opened it. The elderly, well-dressed gentleman was standing outside.
‘Please come in,’ blurted out Penina. ‘Where were you? We waited and waited. Why have you taken so long to come?’
The elderly, well-dressed gentleman nodded his head, walked into the house, approached the table, and looked around. Penina was right behind him.
‘Wake up, Elkana, wake up! Our guest has arrived,’ she said as she bent to gently shake him from his sleep. But Elkana did not move. He slept soundly. When Penina straightened up, the elderly, well-dressed gentleman had disappeared.
The next morning, Penina told Elkana that he missed his guest’s visit. He felt sad that he did not meet him.
‘I guess I did not have the opportunity to meet him,’ he whispered, ‘because I wanted to sell his cup!’”
The Apter Rebbe concluded the story, still smiling.