Diamond in the Rough
You shall place both stones on the shoulder straps of the ephod, remembrance stones for the Children of Israel. (Exodus 28:12)
Moses was commanded to make garments for the Cohen Gadol—‘high priest.’ Included in these was a piece of clothing similar to an apron called the ephod. It had two shoulder straps and held precious gems on which the names of the Twelve Tribes were engraved. Why did the names of the Twelve Tribes need to be inscribed into these gems? Rashi explains that this was so that the memory of the tribes would be invoked when the Cohen Gadol did the special service on Yom Kippur and it would cause G-d to remember their good deeds.
This explanation presents a challenge. Being as the Cohen Gadol’s Yom Kippur service is vital to help bring atonement for the nation, no hint of sin or wrongdoing is mentioned. For example, none of his special Yom Kippur garments contain gold because gold might allude to the sin of the Golden Calf—even something as faint a bit of gold, recalls failure.
How are we to understand the names of Joseph’s brothers being inscribed in the gems? While there is no question that they were individuals of exceptional character and distinction, nonetheless, their history is tainted due to their selling their brother Joseph. Why isn’t that enough of a reason not to include their names on the precious gems on the Cohen Gadol’s Yom Kippur garments?
The answer gives us a new approach in how to deal with the mistakes we make in life as well as helping us to deal with the should have, would have, could have negative mindset that plagues so many people when they look back on the bad choices they made in life. Imagine looking at two large diamonds—one is beautiful but has a minor flaw while the other is seemingly flawless. If you asked a diamond appraiser, he would explain the difference between the two; the diamond with the minor flaw is worth a fortune while the completely flawless diamond is virtually worthless because it is a fake. One of the signs of a diamond’s authenticity is that it contains a flaw even though it might be minor and undetectable to the untrained eye. The only perfect “diamonds” are those made of cubic zirconium, and are used for costume jewelry.
When Adam was formed, it was with the understanding that he would not be perfect. The psychiatrist Abraham Twerski in his book Angels Don’t Leave Footprints observes that angels do their job and move on without leaving a mark, but human beings stumble and scrape their knees and then wonder if they can ever get anything right—we leave footprints. Angels might be perfect but humans aren’t. Throughout life, we are given opportunities to become the greatest of all creatures or sink to a subhuman level that is lower than animals.
By giving us free will, the Almighty allowed us to create and be creative. This doesn’t mean we merely choose; even animals can do that in a limited way. It means we are put into situations where there are two sustainable options, both of which have ramifications for us and perhaps the people in our lives. We are challenged and put into situations of temptation so that we will be given the opportunity to choose good or bad. We will make wrong choices throughout life, so if your life looks like a mess, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure, it means you are alive and can make a choice to clean up your mess.
A teenager’s decision to get into the car with a drunken friend who insists on driving is a choice potentially affecting the rest of his life. Sometimes we are simply lucky and don’t pay the price for our bad choices but the idea of a man or woman living without really messing up at one or multiple points in life isn’t an option.
Joseph’s brothers were great people but they also had flaws and sinned. Each might be compared to a 200-carat diamond – with an imperfection. They were huge, beautiful diamonds, with flaws.
When viewing a diamond, you don’t see the flaw. The only way to identify one is to look through a jeweler’s loop, which magnifies the stone by a power of ten times or more. Only through direct scrutiny does the flaw become noticeable. It is present even though the eye doesn’t see it. Only glimmer and reflected light emanating from an object of extreme beauty is seen.
Our work in life with the time we have left is not to get bogged down by the bad choices of our past; we seek to improve the quality of the diamond and eliminate as many of its flaws as possible. Your life has meaning because you were put in this world (1) to make the right choices and (2) learn how to live with yourself when you don’t. The way to do this is to have a moral barometer serving as a beacon for your decision-making, and the Torah has served that purpose for Jews since antiquity.
What do you do when you are in a dark place due to your poor life choices? The way out of the darkness is not to lose hope, it is to realize that your precious soul has unlimited potential— and the ability to change. What do you do when you reach a point in life that finds you far away from where you thought you would be? Realize that you are a diamond in the rough, the real thing, not cubic zirconium. You might have to be tough to get your diamond sparkling, but realize that you were created for this purpose and that you will be helped along the journey, both by HaShem and also the good people you will meet along the way.
May we all have the courage to make the journey and enjoy the voyage.(Sources: Rashi, Exodus 28:12; The Shmuz pp. 139-143)