Diamonds in the rough
The Power of Stories Series
Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer
One of the greatest Mishnaic sages, Rabbi Meir was widely admired for his exceptional scholarship, deep wisdom, and warm humanity. He lived by the value of tolerance for the views of others with whom he disagreed. Most notably he continued to confer with his teacher, Elisha ben Avuyah, an extraordinary Jewish sage who became a heretic called Acher, “the other,” by his contemporaries. Rabbi Meir’s colleagues reproached him, believing any involvement with Acher was disgraceful.
However, in a dream-dialogue with Elijah the prophet, Rabba bar Sheila famously challenged their stance: “‘Why should he be judged unfavorably for that? Rabbi Meir found a pomegranate and ate its contents while throwing away its peel.’ (Elijah) said to Rabba bar Sheila: ‘Indeed, your defense has been heard above.’”
How could an anecdote about a pomegranate influence the heavens? Smooth and leathery on the outside but overflowing inside with jewel-like seeds, the pomegranate is a biblical symbol of blessing.
The short tale implies that Rabbi Meir discovered many blessings in Asher and turned his attention to them while ignoring Asher’s outward heresies, a position with which heaven seems to have agreed. “Look not at the flask but what is therein,” Rabbi Meir taught.
Three scholars explain the wisdom behind Rabbi Meir’s stance. Created in the image of God, every human is a “timeless connection to the holy, to the creative spark,” Jewish educator Josh Troderman writes.
As a consequence, “each person is endowed with three intrinsic dignities,” according to Rabbi Irving Greenberg, “infinite value, equality, and uniqueness.”
Therefore, Rabbi David Teutsch concludes, “no human being should be treated merely as an object, and we should always attempt to see the humanity in those we encounter.”
In Judaism, this multifaceted virtue is known as kavod habriyot, the honor of the created beings or human dignity.
“The Hebrew word for honor, kavod, is related to the word for weight, as in gravitas, or giving weight to the presence of another human being,” explains Dr. Ronit Ziv-Kreger. Truly weighty, kavod habriyot overshadows Rabbi Akiva’s great Torah principle, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” By honoring and respecting the divine dignity of fellow human beings created in the image of God, one honors God the Creator as well.
How can one acknowledge another’s dignity? Grant every person basic decency. Refrain from denigration and insults. Enhance the prestige of the others around you. Look for the image of God in every person, as illustrated in the following stories.
Roadside Tefillin. Walking along a country lane, two rabbis came upon a farmer greasing the wheels of his wagon while wearing tefillin. One rabbi shouted in dismay, “What’s going on? You’re doing one of the most disgusting jobs possible, and you’re wrapped in one of the holiest objects a Jew can put on! There are rules about wearing tefillin. What’s wrong with you?” The simple Jew was ashamed and embarrassed. “You’re right, rabbi. I’m so sorry!”
The other rabbi suddenly shouted with joy. “Master of the Universe, look at this holy Jew! See how devoted he is! Even when greasing the wheels of his wagon, he wants to be wrapped in your presence. That’s how much he loves you!”
Mistaken Identity. A well-known Jerusalem rabbi thought he saw the illustrious rosh yeshiva (seminary head) Rav Velvel Soloveitchik in the distance, coming toward his building. He quickly set the table and, while his wife finished preparations for an impromptu meal, the rabbi ran to greet the renowned sage.
As he drew closer, however, it became clear that the elderly man on the path only resembled Rav Soloveitchik from a distance.
The rabbi paused. He could pretend he had been running for some other reason and no one would know. However, he decided that if a nice meal had been prepared for the rav, it was also fitting for other company. So he invited the old man to his home where they dined together.
Diamond Within. As Rabbi Abraham Twerski spoke to a group of ex-convicts in recovery, a man named Avi interrupted. “How can you talk to us about self-respect? I’ve been a thief since I was 8. When I’m out of prison I can’t find work, and my family doesn’t want to see me.”
The rabbi responded, “Consider the diamonds in a jewelry store window. When they come out of the mine they’re lumps of dirty stone. You’re like that dirt-covered stone, and our business here is to find the diamond within and polish it until it glows.”
Two years later, after completing the program, Avi was working in construction. While helping to move donated furniture into his former halfway house, an envelope bulging with cash fell out. Instead of keeping the unexpected find, Avi called the program director.
Ultimately donated to the halfway house, the money provided for one more room, creating another opportunity for recovery. And Avi wasn’t a crook anymore. Today there’s a sign above the halfway house entry, “Diamonds Polished Here.”
We are all diamonds in the rough. Nevertheless, every one of us and every person with whom we interact is created in the divine image, filled with a holy spark and imbued with infinite value, human equality, and individual uniqueness.
We are all equally deserving of being treated with dignity. We are all capable of treating others with kavod habriyot. We can all polish the diamonds.
Literature to share
Not a Partnership: Why We Keep Getting Marriage Wrong & How We Can Get It Right by Tod Jacobs and Dr. Peter Lynn. Combining ancient wisdom from Jewish tradition and Kabalah with insights from psychology research and clinical experience, the authors offer practical advice about ways of thinking and acting that contribute to a real-world flourishing marriage. Do you know what a successful marriage looks like? Isn’t a good marriage a 50-50 partnership? How can it be that love isn’t one of the four essential pillars of a flourishing marriage? Thoughtful, funny, and provocative, this slim volume is a wonderful read and a perfect engagement or wedding gift.
37 Days at Sea: Aboard the M.S. St. Louis 1939 by Barbara Krasner. Neither diary nor poetry but with elements of both, this freeform first-person Holocaust narrative recounts the story of the St. Louis through the youthful eyes of Ruthie Aarons. True events — false Cuban visas, America’s dismissive responses, the captain’s reluctant return to Europe — are incorporated into this historical fiction account. Targeted to middle grades, this muted introduction to a difficult topic is a recommended read.