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Finding Diamonds

04/06/2015 08:19:00 AM


Finding Diamonds
Yom Kippur 1997 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

There once was a very poor man who could only provide the barest, most meager of subsistence for his family...potatoes. Potatoes for breakfast. Potatoes for lunch. Potatoes for dinner. The monotony and the poverty of potatoes wore on him, on his wife, on his kids. And they said to him: Isn't there anything you can do to bring us home something besides potatoes? The man was uneducated, he lacked skills, all he knew were potatoes. But he promised his wife and children that he would try. He remembered that, before he died, his father had left him a book -- a book he had tried unsuccessfully to read on many occasions. But this time, convinced that the solution to his problem was found there, he tried again to fathom the wisdom of the book. In the course of his reading, he came upon a map. Marked on the map was a curious notation: The Island of Diamonds. Immediately, his imagination got the best of him. An island of diamonds? The answer to his poverty, to his hunger, to his need. Of course, it's so simple, sail to the island, collect the diamonds, return home a king! And so he set out.

The man borrowed a boat from a friend. And with map in hand, he sailed out to the island of diamonds. The seas were not easy. Many times he thought he might be washed into oblivion by the storms and the wave. But finally, one morning, he awoke, and there, on the horizon was a brilliant light -- brighter than the sun. "It is the Island of Diamonds!" he thought, and started to row the boat furiously.

Soon the Island came into view. And it was true. A beautiful pristine white beach, stretching as far as he could see, and covered with diamonds. His heart leapt as he pulled his small boat ashore. "I'm rich! I'm the richest man in the world!" He jumped from the boat carrying the dozen potatoes sacks that he had brought from home, and began to fill the sacks with diamonds.

While he busied himself packing the sacks with diamonds, he didn't that notice the people of the island had come down and were watching him.

"What are you doing?" they asked curiously.
"What do you mean, what am I doing?!" he replied in astonishment, "I'm gathering diamonds, I'm going to be rich...the richest man in the world!"
"Rich?" they laughed, "You're not going to be rich. Those won't make you rich! Why the whole island is covered with them; they're as common as rain. Rich? No!"
"These won't make me rich?" he responded in utter puzzlement. "What would make me rich? What is it that you people value here?"
"Well, there was once a fellow who found something infinitely more valuable than those. He went up into the forest and came back with potatoes. At least seven or eight. Maybe you've heard of him, his name is Bill Gates. Potatoes -- that's real wealth!"

"Potatoes? Potatoes are real wealth? I know more about potatoes than anyone! Just wait here." And with that, he dumped all the diamonds out of his sack, and ran into the forest. Inside of 15 minutes, he found a dozen potatoes. He returned to the crowd at the beach.
"Here, potatoes. And plenty more where these came from!"
"Potatoes!" the crowd chanted in awe. They carried the man on their shoulders from the beach, and instantly installed him as king of the island. All the luxuries of the island were brought him. He was revered; was worshipped. And all he had to do was go into the forest and find a few potatoes each week.

After a year of this, he remembered his family back home, and informed the island people that he would soon be leaving. Finally, he set sail and faced the harsh trip home.

When he arrived in his home port, his family, his friends, his neighbors all turned out to meet him. Fearing him lost at sea these many months, he was greeted with tears and hugs. And finally, his wife mustered the courage to ask:
"Did you find the island of diamonds?"
"Did I find the island of diamonds?! I became King of the island of diamonds!"
The breathlessly, she asked him, "Did you bring back diamonds? Diamonds from the island?"
"Diamonds? Heavens no! I brought back something much more valuable than diamonds!"
"More valuable than diamonds? What could be more valuable than diamonds?"
With that, he hefted two huge sacks from the boat and spilled their contents on the dock.
"Behold," he announced triumphally, "I bring you POTATOES!"
Unbelieving, incredulous, he wife looked at him trying to find the sense of this. "Have you lost your mind? You went to an island of diamonds, and you brought back potatoes? We have potatoes coming out of our ears!"
The expression of triumph quickly left his face as he recognized what he had done. It was replaced by the air of a man utterly lost in the world.
"Go away!" she screamed at him, "I don't want to see your face!"

And away he walked, muttering about diamonds and potatoes, potatoes and diamonds.

The story has a happy ending: Resigned to the fact that she would never see diamonds, the wife at least took the potatoes home and prepared them for dinner. As she cooked the potatoes, the children played with the empty sacks. As they turned them inside out, they found there, in the mesh of the bag, a few, small diamonds -- diamonds that remained from the very first time the man had filled the bag on the beach. Not enough to make them rich. But enough to clothe and feed the family, and once in a while, provide something besides potatoes for a meal.

This is a simple story. But it is our story.

How many of us went out this year to find diamonds and came back with potatoes? How many of us went into life searching for diamonds only to return with potatoes? How many of us went with ideals, with visions, with goals, with purposes, with aspirations, and came back with something so paltry, so meager, so poor, so empty, so hollow? What happened? Who persuaded us -- how were we convinced, how were we seduced, how were we tricked into believing that potatoes are more valuable than diamonds? How were we distracted into collecting potatoes when we stood upon a beach covered with diamonds?

This is what we've come tonight to figure out, to confess, to repent. In the words of the preacher Phillips Brooks:

"The great danger facing all of us is not that we shall make an absolute failure of our life, really that's not going to happen.
Nor that we shall fall into outright viciousness. Most are not going to do that. Nor that we shall be terribly unhappy. Nor that we shall feel that life has no meaning. No, not any of these things are what we need be afraid of.

The danger is that we shall fail to perceive life's greatest meaning, fall short of its highest good, miss its deepest and most abiding happiness, be unable to tender the most needed service, be unconscious of life ablaze with the light of the Presence of God, and be content to have it so.

Content with the ordinary, mediocre, useless life -- that's the danger. That some day we may wake up to find that always we have been busy with husks and trappings, really having missed life itself. Satisfied too soon with too little -- with a life that falls short of the best."

This Yontif will recite a confession. Nine times in all, al het sheh-hatanu lifanecha, for the sin which we have committed before You. This word het, which we translate as sin, this word comes from archery. Het literally means missing the mark, missing the target. This is not a failure of intent, not a failure of fundamental morality -- there are other words for that -- this is a failure of vision, the problem of distraction.

The truth is that vision is very fragile. Vision is easily lost, it is easily compromised. We are easily distracted. I know the good. I know what kind of person I would be. I know what kind of family I want, what kind of world I want, but I fail, because I forget. Distraction is a spiritual problem. l'maan tizkru vaseetem et kol mitzvoti we recite this as the conclusion to the shema: so that you will remember who you are, where you are, why you are, I have given you my mitzvot. The Torah's image is of the people Israel, wandering in the wilderness for forty years -- a lifetime -- because they keep forgetting who they are and where they're going. Every obstacle, great or small -- bitter water, tasteless food, the designs of an enemy -- send them pining for the good old days in Egypt, the safe, secure, unchallenged life of the slave.

We too meet obstacles. We meet distractions.

We are distracted by the cynic who tells us our visions, our ideals, our goals are foolish. He laughs at us. Why do you care so deeply? Why do you try so hard? What is this illusion you call meaning that you pursue with every ounce of your being? Not me, he says, not me. I'm no fool.

Who is he? Who is this cynic, this skeptic, who calls into question the ideals, the purposes we strive for. Often, he's a person who has himself tried and has been hurt, disappointed, betrayed by life and has given up. And he says, the only thing I can get out of this life is what I can grab, and what I can keep and that's what I'm gonna have.

The trouble with this cynic is that he's unable to make a crucial distinction between foolish expectations and high ideals. He abandons both. But what the cynic fails to remember is that every benefit he enjoys, every comfort and freedom of his life, was won because others sacrificed, and others cared for more than themselves. He's like the wicked son of the Hagaddah who says: What is this that you are doing? And the Hagaddah rightly says, were he in Egypt, he would not have been redeemed. Of course. Because only one prepared to dream, to hope and to risk, would have followed Moses across the desert, across the Sea.

The cynic forgets that evil in the past was overcome only because there were those in the past were willing not to be cynics, not to despair, not to surrender, but to take on the burden of others. More significantly, he forgets that the question is not really what can I do to satisfy myself -- but what kind of self will it most satisfy me to become? In his cynicism, he becomes so narrowly self-centered as to cease to be human. V'eem ani rak l'atzmee, mah ani. If I am only for myself, Hillel asked, then what am I? al het sheh-hatanu lifanecha, for the sin which we have committed before You in giving up, in surrendering our visions to the cynic's despair. slach lan. Forgive us and release us.

This summer, I carried out a fascinating research project. I went to barbecues and sat with men in plaid shorts, Izod golf shirts, drinking Corona Beer, and with women in sun dresses drinking raspberry ice tea. The men talk sports, computers, and business. The women talk about kids, schools, doctors. And I asked them: What is the meaning of your life? How do you find purpose in life? And do you know what? They laughed at me. They really did. And then they went on talking about golf courses, modems and pediatricians. OK it's inappropriate at a summer barbecue. But when? Why do we consistently trivialize and repress these questions? Why are questions about the meaning of life treated as a joke in our culture?

My son is 13 and he can't wait to be an adult. Because he thinks that adulthood will bring him all the toys that I won't let him have as a child. The truth is that for so many of my peers, he's right. So wealthy and yet so poor, their lives amount to a constant search for new toys, new distractions, new entertainments. First it was TV. Then cable TV. Then big screen TV. Then VCR, home theater with stereo sound, video games, now Web TV, chat rooms, and the internet.

We reward this in our culture. Much like the people of the island, we celebrate those who can find potatoes and ignore those who seek diamonds. Look at who is celebrated in our culture. The superficial, the vacuous, the purposeless, the shallow. Who was the last moral hero celebrated in our culture? Martin Luther King? Robert Kennedy? Go look at the posters our kids have hanging in their rooms -- Do we really want our kids growing up to become like these people? Where do you think kids get the idea that toys bring happiness? Who will teach them that life is serious? That their choices are serious? Who will teach them reflection? Who will liberate them from the incredible lightness of this culture?

Because just as in the story, there always comes a time when truth comes crashing through. Except by then, it's too late. In the waiting room at the hospital, in the chapel of the funeral home, it's too late. I have been a rabbi long enough to know that the saddest, most bitter tears at the graveside are those for the life not lived, for the love not shared, for the tenderness not expressed, for the words unspoken, for the opportunities wasted. In the haunting words of Alfred Camus, "Death makes the lie definitive."

The rabbis taught that a person should be sure to repent one day before he dies. And since no one knows when he'll die, he must repent each day. But the culture around us is indifferent to this. When and where in this culture, is a person allowed to say: I'm lonely, I'm empty, I'm lost, I'm needy?

It's especially hard on men. Because men don't have the kind of peer circles that women often have. And men don't have the words that women have. And because we men have been taught since childhood to suck it up, bear the pain, and never, never, never ask for help. Only a weakling asks for help. Only a wimp needs a hand. Real men tough it out. Sure. Until they break. Until they fall apart. Or explode and destroy everyone around them.

I may never get invited to another summer barbecue. But I know that somehow we must have the time and the words and the permission and the support to search for a sense of life's purpose or we forever be stuck with potatoes in a world filled with diamonds. I know that at some point, each one of us will be forced, if not by life, then surely by death to ask these questions. V'eem lo achshav, aymatai. And if not now, when? al het sheh-hatanu lifanecha, for the sin which we have committed before You in closing our eyes, in shutting out Your questions, God. For the sin of waiting until it is too late to take life seriously. slach lanu. Forgive us, pardon us and release us.

I suspect that for most of us the reason we lose our vision, the reason we come home with potatoes instead of diamonds, may be much simpler. We are just distracted by our busy-ness. Who can keep up -- work, carpools, children, parents, take this one to the doctor, that one to school, get this project out on time, see this patient, this client... In a poem I prize greatly, the poet shakes his fists toward heaven..."God, You've made a mistake, a terrible mistake. There aren't enough hours in the day, enough days in the week, enough weeks in the year."

We start them when they're young. I remember a mom called me, some years back, to see if I'd could speak to her child. He was suddenly morose -- he'd lost interest in school, in sports and in his friends, he seemed tired and depressed all the time. Sure, I'll speak to him, when can you come in? How about Monday. No, Monday he's got school then soccer practice then he's tutored in math. Ok, Tuesday. No, Tuesday is Hebrew school then karate. Wednesday? No, Wednesday is his acting class, and then swimming lessons. Thursday? No, Thursday is piano, then Hebrew school....I think I know the problem. My son got his first Day-Timer as a Bar Mitzvah present and I'm afraid to give it to him, afraid he'll grow up just like me.

So busy at work. So busy with children. So busy with carpools. So busy with activities, obligations, commitments. So busy getting somewhere, we have forgotten where we're going. So busy filling bagfuls of potatoes, we have forgotten that we came for diamonds.

In Kabballah, in the mystical traditions of Judaism, God creates the world through an act of tzimtzum, of concentration -- pulling inward into the self. Creativity requires a turn inward -- a move countervailing the centrifugal forces of our daily routine. Because the real question is: for all we do each day, how much is really accomplished? For all the places we go, where are we really in the end? For all the appointments, the tasks, the meetings, the arrangements, how many real moments of joy, of fulfillment, of peace do we enjoy? I know what my busy-ness earns me. But do I really know what it costs me? A constant state of exhaustion. An inability to communicate with those I love. An estrangement from the parts of myself I once liked the best. When do we stop and ask ourselves what this is all really costing?

al het sheh-hatanu lifanecha, for the sin which we have committed before You in losing our way, and in losing ourselves. slach lanu. Forgive us, pardon us and release us.

There were soldiers who returned from fighting in the First World War so shell-shocked that they suffered from complete amnesia. To help them, veterans groups brought them to public events, wherever there were large gatherings of people -- to the theater, to sporting events, to churches -- to see if anyone would recognize them. One author who witnessed this describes the terrified, frustrated look in the eyes of this soldier as he was paraded around the auditorium, and in his anguish he cried, Does anyone know who I am? Is these anyone who can tell me who I am?

Why do I come home with potatoes instead of diamond? Why do I feel like the man in the story -- returning triumphally from my odyssey with sacks and sacks of potatoes, and trembling with the realization that somehow, some way, I've missed the whole point of it all. Certainly, because I'm too cynical, because I'm oblivious, because I'm too busy, because I'm distracted. And at the root of each of these is a common sin. The sin of forgetting who I really am.

It is a question of how I describe myself, of how I imagine myself. It is a question of how I read my own subjective, personal autobiography. How I imagine myself makes a difference in how I raise my children, how I contend with the challenges of their adolescence, how I define my individuality in the world, how I cope with the strangeness of old age, and how I confront and accept my death. How I imagine myself determines how I will find my place and purpose in the world.

My culture tells me that I am composed of body and mind, of reason, emotions and will, id, ego and superego, the word used most frequently is "self". Look in the New Oxford Dictionary and you will find seven columns of entries under "self": self-actualization, self-awareness, self-esteem, self-realization, self-defeat, self-destruction. These have all become part of our vocabulary. And for much of life they work well. But there are moments when the language of self fails us.

I watch my children grow up. And I am always surprised. Each one is such huge a personality, stuffed into such a small package. Did I put that there? Did I create that? Where did that come from? All the seven columns of self can't fully capture the uniqueness of the child's being and my sense that there's something more than self here. I provided only the container. I provided only, I pray, a nurturing environment. That gigantic personality comes from elsewhere. The psychologist James Hillman argues that children don't grow up as much as they grow down, down from somewhere beyond, down into the world. Parents, he suggests, don't plant a personality, as much as we provide the soil, a place in the world, for the acorn that comes from someplace else.

I said goodbye to some good friends this year. And in witnessing the burial service there is a very real appreciation that what I so loved in that person's life -- their wisdom, their humor, their vision, their strength -- although it was tied to the body that we now bury, it was not of the same stuff as the body.

We are more than self, more than body and mind, more than emotions, reason and will. There is yet another part, a part that connects each one of us with Eternity. It is the source of our craving for a sense of purpose, our sense of meaning, a reason to be. In Jewish tradition, this is called soul, neshama. The soul is part of you, but more than you. It is at the center of your being but its origin and orientation is somewhere else.

"Every soul," teaches Adin Steinsaltz, "is a fragment of the divine light. As a spark, a part containing something of the whole, the soul's essential wholeness cannot be achieved except through effort, through work with the greater whole."

Know that you have a soul, teaches the Jewish mystical tradition, but know too that you must work on your soul. The Christian, Calvinist idea that soul is a gift of grace is not a Jewish idea. No one is born spiritual. And the New Age idea that spirituality is natural, easy: "Just Do It" "Just Let It Happen". That's also not a Jewish idea. We are Yisrael, those who struggle, who wrestle with God. Growing a soul is a struggle.

Meaning in life does not rain on you like manna. A sense of purpose, a sense of direction, a connection with the infinite, must be sought, must be wrought, must be wrestled out of the world. You cultivate a soul. That is the deepest purpose of your tradition; the meaning of all the rituals, all the symbols, all the mitzvot.

When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70, the people came to Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, the only surviving teacher and asked him, What now? With no Temple, no priests, no sacrifices no City, no King, what holds us together as a people, what connects us with our past, what connects us with God. Our identity, our faith, our world has been destroyed. Rabbi Yohanan answered no, the Temple is gone but not the world, for as his teacher Shimon HaTzadik taught, al shlosha devarim ha olam omed, the world stands on three things In three ways do we enter the Presence of God, in three ways to do we discover who we really are, the true meaning of existence: al hatorah through the cultivation of wisdom, al ha-avodah through the cultivation of inwardness, v'al gemilut hasadim through the cultivation of compassion. This is the spiritual way of Judaism.

Do you know what the holiest day in the Jewish is? Yom Kippur? Because it is the most stringent of all the holidays, canceling even the laws of Shabbat? No. The holiest day of the Jewish year will be Monday. The first workday after Yom Kippur. Today we are all saints. Today all our intentions are pure, all our resolutions robust. Because today, it's only abstract, only theoretical, only hypothetical. Monday we go back to the carpools, back to the office, back to the meetings and phone calls and paperwork, back to the routine. Back to normal. On Monday we'll know if Yom Kippur really changed anything. The holiest day of the Jewish year is Monday, because we'll see on Monday night, if we come home with potatoes or if we come home with diamonds.

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Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780