September 27, 2001
Find the Gems
Parashat Ha'azinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52)
There once was a man who could provide only potatoes for his family's subsistence. As the monotony and the poverty wore on, he prayed, and his prayers were answered. There fell into his hands a mysterious map to a magical Island of Diamonds.
Begging a boat, he set sail on a long and difficult voyage. One day, he spotted the island, gleaming on the horizon. Upon landing, he discovered a pristine beach covered with diamonds. His heart leapt as, carrying a dozen potato sacks, he pulled his small boat ashore and began to fill the sacks with diamonds.
He was so busy, he didn't notice that the people of the island had come to watch.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm gathering diamonds; I'm going to be rich."
"Rich? Those won't make you rich! The whole island is covered with them. If you want to be rich here, you have to find something much more rare and valuable. The most valuable thing here is potatoes."
"Potatoes? I know potatoes!"
So he dumped all the diamonds from his sack, and ran into the forest. In 15 minutes, he found a dozen potatoes. The crowd looked on in awe. They carried him from the beach, and installed him as king of the island.
After a year, he remembered his family and informed the island people that he would soon be leaving for home.
When finally he arrived in his home port, the whole town turned out to meet him. Fearing him long lost, he was greeted with tears of joy. Finally, his wife mustered the courage to ask:
"Did you find the Island of Diamonds?"
"I became king of the Island of Diamonds!"
"Did you bring back diamonds? Diamonds from the island?"
"Diamonds? Heavens no! I brought back something much more valuable than diamonds! Behold, potatoes!"
Why do we set out in life to find diamonds, only to return with bags full of common potatoes? How were we persuaded that potatoes are more valuable than diamonds? How were we enticed into collecting potatoes when we stood upon a beach covered with diamonds?
The most common Hebrew word for "sin" is het. This word comes from archery. Het literally means missing the mark, missing the target. This is not a failure of intent, nor a failure of fundamental morality. There are other words for that. Het indicates a failure of vision, a problem of distraction. And distraction may be the greatest spiritual problem.
"The great danger facing us all," wrote the American preacher Phillips Brooks, "is not that we shall make an absolute failure of our life. Nor that we shall fall into outright viciousness. Nor that we shall be terribly unhappy. Nor that we shall feel that life has no meaning. 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."
Our nation has embarked on a great campaign to cleanse the world of terrorism and find some measure of justice in response to our tragedy. We certainly have the means. The question is, will we have the resolve? America's attention span is notoriously short. We live for distraction. Soon, there will be new stories, new scandals, new crises to displace this tragedy from our headlines. Can we sustain the commitment to achieve this great goal? n
Contrary to the popular conception, Yom Kippur is not the holiest day of the Jewish year. Today is. True, Yom Kippur is the most severe. Yom Kippur demands fasting, self-denial, prayer and repentance. Its stringency supersedes even Sabbath. On Yom Kippur, we are all saints -- all our intentions pure, all our resolutions robust. Because on Yom Kippur, it's only abstract, theoretical, hypothetical. Today, we go back to the workplace, to the carpools, to the routine. Today, we go back to normal. And today, we discover if Yom Kippur really changed anything. Today is the holiest day of the Jewish year because today we see if we shall come home with potatoes or if we shall come home with diamonds.