“The Most Precious Thing in the World”
Rosh HaShanah, First Evening
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
September 4, 2013
The return of the High Holidays represents a bench mark. We have made it through the past year with all of its joys and all of its trials and tribulations. This season rekindles our hope that the worst is behind us. The themes of the season remind us simultaneously that we are fragile mortals, and at the same time, we have the ability to change ourselves and our worlds. Now we are ready to move on with the work of bringing healing to ourselves, our families, the Jewish community, our country and the world.
Part of the healing power of the High Holidays comes from our gathering in large numbers in synagogue on these days. We have an innate need to connect and to be present for one another. Teshuvah is what we call the process of healing relationships that may be broken so that we can strengthen the connections with those around us. Building and strengthening meaningful relationships are part of living a life that matters. Rabbi Harold Kushner, the distinguished rabbi and writer, wrote a book entitled Living a Life That Matters and will be at Temple Torah on January 15, 2014, to speak on that topic. As we eagerly anticipate his visit, I hope over the course of the holiday to offer my take on living a life that matters. Tonight, as we begin our ten-day journey of renewing these bonds, I’d like to share a Jewish folktale that captures the essence of teshuvah and renewing relationships.
“The Most Precious Thing in the World,” told by Joan Sutton in Chosen Tales, Penina Schramm, Ed., pp. 372-375.
Once upon a time, God spoke to an angel and said, “For this Rosh Hashana, the New Year, bring me the most precious thing in the world.” The angel bowed low to God and then winged her way to earth. Searching everywhere, she visited forests, mountaintops, and soft green meadows. But although she saw bright butterflies and flowers, nothing seemed quite right. Then, peeking through a window, she saw a mother holding her baby. As she gazed down at her child, the mother’s smile was full of love and tenderness. The angel thought, “This mother’s smile must be the most precious thing in the world. I will take it to God.” Gently, the angel took the mother’s smile, but the mother didn’t even notice; she had so many smiles left that she would never miss just one! With great excitement, the angel showed the smile to God, who answered, “This is indeed wonderful—the smile of love that a mother gives her child—but it is not the very most precious thing in the world.”
So the angel went back to earth and searched again everywhere. One starry night, in the midst of a deep, dark forest, she heard exquisite music: it was the song of a solitary nightingale singing among the trees. The song was so beautiful that the angel folded her wings and listened for many hours. Then she took the song to God. But, upon hearing the music, God answered, “This is indeed very special, but it is still not the most precious thing in the world!”
The angel was getting tired but she knew she could never give up, so again she flew back to earth. This time she arrived in the big city, where she saw crowds of people. They were all in a hurry to get somewhere. They pushed each other as they passed quickly in the streets. They waited impatiently in long lines at banks and supermarkets. They looked nervous and weary. Everywhere there were traffic jams and tired divers honking angrily.
Standing at one busy intersection was an old man. He was waiting to cross the street, but there were so many cars that he didn’t know when to try. People kept rushing past him, never pausing to notice his predicament. The old man felt dizzy and confused. Just then, a young girl came walking up to him. She had noticed him hesitating and looking ill and felt sorry for him. “Excuse me,” she said to him shyly, “but may I help you cross the street and walk you home?” Gratefully he gazed into her kind eyes and answered, “Yes, thank you, young lady, I was feeling so tired and weak!” he took her offered arm and walked with her across the street. Slowly and steadily, they made their way to his apartment building, which was nearby.
Now the angel was watching all the time, although the old man and the young girl couldn’t see her. The angel was so happy! “This really must be the most precious thing in the world—a kind deed, a mitzvah, a helping hand! It has many names, but it is the same everywhere. If we can help each other, we can have a peaceful world! So I will take the story of this kind deed to God. It must be what I have been looking for all the time!”
God heard the story of the kind deed and answered, “This is indeed important. A mitzvah is one of the most special things in the world—still, it is not quite what I have been waiting for. Go once more, dear angel. You are on the right track, and I feel sure that this time you will find what we seek. Look everywhere—in cities, forests, schools, and homes—but especially look into the hearts of people.”
Sighing with disappointment, the angel again winged her way to earth. And she looked in so many places! Still, she could not find the precious thing. “Maybe I should give up! But how could I fail my God? There must be an answer or God would not have asked me to do this.” Tired from her ceaseless searching, she sat dejected upon a rock, resting and thinking. As she sat there, she heard something—the sound of someone crying! It was not a little child crying, but a grown man! He was walking through the woods with tears rolling down his cheeks. “Soon the High Holy Days will come, and I am thinking that I was cruel and mean to my dear brother! We had a fight about something unimportant. There were harsh words and now we haven’t even spoken to each other in several weeks. Today, this very day, I will go to him and ask him to forgive me. Then I will pray to God to forgive me too, for I am truly sorry that my unthinking anger has caused so much unhappiness.” Another tear rolled down the man’s cheek.
Then angel felt that she had found the answer. Being an angel, she was invisible, so she flew up to the grieving man and gently caught one of the tears that were falling from his eyes. The man thought to himself, “What a soft and fragrant breeze is surrounding me! Suddenly I feel better. Perhaps this is a sign that all will be well!” The angel flew away; she flew away to God. In a small tiny bottle she held the one tear that she had collected. She held it up to God. And God…smiled upon the angel. The radiance of that smile filled the whole world like the sun coming out suddenly from behind dark clouds.
Then God spoke: “My faithful angel, this is indeed the most precious thing in the whole world—the tear of someone who is truly sorry. For it is a tear from the heart, and it will bring peace into the world. The two brothers will forgive each other, and they will enjoy a loving and happy New Year. My dear angel, I bless you for your good work. And may this story be told, so all who hear it can learn from it.”
L’Shanah Tovah—May we all live a life that matters and enjoy a sweet and happy New Year.