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 which were engraved with the names of the Twelve Tribes. 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 righteousness.
There’s an obvious question on Rashi interpretation. In Jewish consciousness, the Yom Kippur service of the Cohen Gadol is so vital that it has ramifications that affect the world’s existence. As a result, anything which has the slightest trace of wrong doing is absent from that service. One example is the fact he does not wear any garments containing gold (even though he does the rest of the year) because of the sin of the Golden Calf. Even the faintest indication of failing is omitted. While there is no question that the Twelve Tribes were men of exceptional character and distinction, their greatness was tainted with the sin of selling their brother Joseph. Why isn’t that enough of a reason to not to mention their names, which were inscribed on the precious gems that were part of the Cohen Gadol’s garments that he wore on Yom Kippur?
The answer gives us a new approach in how to deal with the mistakes we all make in life and helps us 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 a beautifully cut jewel with a minor flaw, the other is a seemingly flawless, perfect diamond. If you were to ask a diamond appraiser, he would tell you that there is a significant difference between the two and tell you that 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 that a diamond is real is that it has a flaw. While it may be a very minor imperfection and undetectable to the untrained eye, genuine diamonds have flaws. The only perfect “diamonds” are those made of cubic zirconium, and are used for costume jewelry.
When G-d formed man, it was not destined that he would be perfect, that realm belongs to angels. 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. An angel might be perfect but humans aren’t. Each man and woman was given an opportunity unique in all of Creation: each of us has the opportunity to become the greatest of all creatures or sink to a subhuman level that is lower than animals.
To allow humanity to create, the Almighty gave us free will. 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 and the outcome of our choice will have real ramifications for us and perhaps the people in our lives. Human beings need to be challenged and to allow for that, each of us is/will be put into situations where we will be tempted to choose either good or bad. The obvious implication is that we will be given the ability to make mistakes; every man and woman will make a mess at some point in life. A teenager’s decision to get into the car with a drunken friend who insists on driving is a choice that potentially will affect his entire 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.
The Twelve Tribes, Joseph’s brothers, were in fact men of unimaginable greatness 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 always present but 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 we have made. Our mandate is to improve the quality of the diamond and to eliminate as many of its faults as possible. As Jews, the way to do that is by Torah study, because that serves as our guide of how life should be led.
We were put in this world to not only make the right choices but to learn how to live with ourselves when we don’t. In order to do that, we need a moral barometer that can serve as a beacon for our decision making. The Torah has served that purpose for Jews since antiquity and it can continue to do so if we allow it. By refining our character with the right barometer, one can change the weight, color, and clarity of the diamond we all possess.
What do you do when you are in a dark place due to the poor choices you have made in life? 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. You are a diamond in the rough and you might have to be tough to get it sparkling but realize that you were created for this purpose and that there are people willing and able to help you in that journey.
May we all have the courage to make the journey and enjoy the voyage.
(Source: Rashi, Exodus 28:12; The Shmuz pp. 139-143)