Every Jew a diamond: Learning to value the beauty of each life

Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum

By Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Acharei Mot-Kedoshim – Leviticus 16:1-20:27.

Since the last time I wrote for this paper, I have one less reader. Just before Purim, my beloved mother-in-law passed away. She had a great deal of nachas from seeing her son-in-law’s byline in this paper, and I am eternally grateful to the Chicago Jewish News for giving me this venue to give her nachas.

This week’s double parsha, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, is also the punchline of a cynical one-liner, Acharei Mot (literally, “after death,”) Kedoshim (literally, “holy.”) In other words, no matter how unholy a person’s life may have been, after death he/she is remembered as holy (at least in the eulogies.)

In my 30-plus years at The ARK, I have officiated over one thousand funerals, burying not only our clients or members of their families, but any unclaimed Jew in the morgue or hospital as well.

Most eulogies write themselves, describing the good works most Jews occupy themselves with in their lives. Occasionally, there are the more challenging ones, which require some creativity to bring out the good. One truth I have discovered is that unlike the punchline, we’re better off trying to see the good in people, and their holiness, while they are with us, and not just after they are gone—like the old adage to buy flowers when the person is alive.

One motto that has guided my career at The ARK is, “Every Jew is a diamond.” Some shine on the surface, and some require some mining and polishing to reveal the facets and glow.

I’ve been privileged to see, time and time again, that with a little love, dignity, and support, a broken vessel becomes a Hope Diamond.

Many years ago, there was a Jew who spent a Shabbat in Australia as a guest in a wealthy man’s palatial home. The furnishings were breathtaking, and both the food and the words of Torah were invigorating. As the guest was noting his surroundings and his good fortune in being a guest in such an environment, he noticed that in the center of the breakfront, between the silver, gold, and priceless crystal pieces, there was a simple broken bottle surrounded by its shards of glass. The guest inquired about it, and his host replied, “That bottle is the most valuable piece I own. Let me tell you the story.

“When I was just a young boy, my father died, leaving my family destitute. I had no choice but to go out and earn bread for my family. Even while I was still a young child, I noticed that every business venture I looked at turned to gold. I was already quite wealthy at a young age. But the more I made, the more indulgent I became, and I slipped further and further away from the faith and practices of Judaism.

“One day, as I was walking down the street, I saw a Jewish child crying bitterly. ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked. The boy told me, ‘My family is very poor, and my father had to borrow money to buy oil tonight, the first night of Chanukah. He sent me out to buy it, but a cat jumped out in front of me and the bottle broke. How can I tell my father?’”

The wealthy man relayed that upon hearing the boy’s story, he reached into his pocket and handed the boy some money, saying, “Here. Buy two bottles of oil—one for you, and one for me.” He told his guest, “I was moved not only by the boy’s plight, but that I had strayed so far that I didn’t even know it was Chanukah; and like the boy, how could I face my father, and my Father in Heaven? So that night, for the first time in many years, I said “Shehechiyanu,” and began my Jewish journey back. I gathered up the broken glass from the ground, and pledged to keep it as a reminder of my own shattered spirit and my return to the rich past of our forefathers.”

At every funeral I preside over, I say Psalm 23, “My cup overflows.” Often, the only attendees are myself, the funeral staff, and the unknown Jew, unclaimed at the County Morgue, being laid to rest. I am reminded constantly that I am placing a diamond back in the ground, and that every Jew—especially those among the living—“overflows” with goodness and kindness.

Let us all try to see the holiness in our fellow Jews before it is too late to fully appreciate them.

Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum is Director of The ARK’s Michael E. Schneider Spiritual Enrichment Program.

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