Rabah bar bar Chanah related that a certain traveling merchant said to him, "Come and I will show you where earth and heaven touch." He saw that heaven was made entirely of windows (Girsa of Bach, Ein Yakov, and Dikdukei Sofrim). He took his basket and placed it in one of the windows, and went to pray. When he finished, he returned and looked for his basket but could not find it. "There are thieves here!" he said. He was told that there are no thieves, but that "it is only the heavenly sphere that is turning." He was advised to "wait until tomorrow, and you will find it here."
The VILNA GA'ON gives a beautiful explanation for the meaning behind this story.
(a) The Vilna Ga'on explains that the "merchant" is an allusion to the Yetzer ha'Ra. The Zohar (Bereishis 80a) says that the Yetzer ha'Ra is called a "merchant" because "it peddles all kinds of evil for the body." Rabah bar bar Chanah is relating the lessons he learned from his experience with this "peddler" and his sales tactics.
The Yetzer ha'Ra is particularly interested in peddling its wares to Talmidei Chachamim in order to prevent them from learning Torah. His tactic in persuading the Talmid Chacham to listen to him is by portraying in glowing colors the material and spiritual pleasures of wealth and power which, the Yetzer ha'Ra claims, will certainly come to the Talmid Chacham if he will stop learning Torah and involve himself in the activity of the marketplace. The Yetzer ha'Ra argues that by working, the Talmid Chacham will gain the best of both worlds -- he will have material success, and he will be able to return to his studies later, with no financial burdens. He promises to show the Talmid Chacham how he can have both heaven and earth -- spiritual achievement and material success. He will show him where "earth and heaven touch."
(b) The Talmid Chacham, confused by the righteous talk of the Yetzer ha'Ra, follows his advice. He leaves his Torah study and goes into business. He works hard at achieving financial success, but to no avail. Recalling the empty promise of guarantees of success that the Yetzer ha'Ra made to him, he begins to see that he was fooled, and the truth becomes clear to him. No man can assure himself of material success; it is Hash-m Who decides who will be rich and who will be poor. He sees that heaven is made all of windows, and all the wealth in the world comes through them. It is Hash-m Who opens His gates according to His will and showers blessing upon His world, as one recites in the Rosh Hashanah prayers, "Open the gates of heaven, Your goodly storehouse fling wide open."
(c) The Talmid Chacham, realizing that all blessing comes from Hash-m and that man must only pray for Hash-m's help, "places his basket in the window of heaven." He recognizes that all of his needs will be provided through Hash-m's mercy, and he goes to pray. Only when this is done is it time for him to go and do business, with a heart full of trust that Hash-m will send success to his endeavors.
However, when he returns from his prayers, he finds that his basket is gone and his prayers were not answered. His business endeavors were not successful. He realizes that "there must be thieves here" -- meaning that he himself has not been sufficiently honest and forthright in his business dealings. For the flow of blessing to descend from heaven, man must first be worthy of it. If he deceives his neighbor in any way, he ceases to be worthy of receiving the flow of blessing from heaven and his prayer is useless. He decides that he must be even more scrupulous in his transactions in order to merit a flow of wealth from heaven.
(d) That is not necessarily the case, though. There is another aspect to Hash-m's Hashgachah other than rewarding man for good and punishing him for evil. There is a "heavenly sphere that is turning." Hash-m's ultimate goal is not merely to reward man, but for all mankind to recognize Him as Creator and King. To lead man to this recognition, Hash-m brings to the world wealth and poverty, happiness and sorrow, health and suffering, plagues and cures, in order that man confront the problems of existence and ultimately realize that only devotion to spirituality and self-effacement before Hash-m's sovereignty can solve his problems. This "heavenly sphere that is turning" might require that there be certain circumstances (such as wealth, poverty, well-being, or sickness) in the lives of certain nations or individuals, even though according to their deeds they do not deserve to be in these situations.
"Health, children, and sustenance are determined not by merit but by 'Mazal'" (Moed Katan 28a). The aspect of Hashgachah that leads the world to its destiny is called "Mazal" since, most of the time, man does not understand its seemingly random guidance of human affairs. When a person's situation has been determined by this aspect of Hashgachah, even prayer -- accompanied by the most scrupulous honesty -- might not be effective to bring him material success (unless it is accompanied by acts of great merit which are able to change one's Mazal). By serving Hash-m in these situations a person contributes (in a way often known only to Hash-m) to the ultimate purpose of the world. Thus, it is not necessarily dishonesty ("thieves") that prevented the Talmid Chacham's prayers from being answered. Rather, "it is only the heavenly sphere turning."
(e) However, the Talmid Chacham was told that he should "wait until tomorrow, and you will find it here." Justice is always done. "Today" refers to Olam ha'Zeh, this world, when we must do the Mitzvos of Hash-m. This world is not the world of reward. "Wait until tomorrow" -- until the World to Come -- "and you will find it there" -- one's reward awaits him there in full. The Talmid Chacham realizes that the most effective way to arrive at that reward is to return to his Torah learning and his Avodas Hash-m.
(Adapted from THE JUGGLER AND THE KING, Rav Aharon Feldman, 5750/1990, Feldheim Publishers, with permission from the author.)