Reb Monye Monissohn, a wealthy diamond merchant, went to visit his rebbe, Reb Shalom Ber of Lubavitch. Reb Monye was eager to show the rebbe some of the diamonds he had recently purchased in the hope of getting a blessing for the success of his business. The rebbe seemed more interested in extolling the praises of certain common laborers whom Reb Monye had criticized for their lack of learning.
“Rebbe,” the merchant said at last, “I just do not see what you see in these people. They are illiterate boors.”
“In fact, Reb Monye,” the rebbe replied, “each of them has many honorable traits.”
“Maybe so, Rebbe, but I for one cannot see them.”
The rebbe sat silently for a few moments. “Nu (Yiddish expression for “So?”), Reb Monye, show me your new diamonds.”
Reb Monye eagerly untied a velvet sack and spread a glittering pool of diamonds on the rebbe’s desk. Lifting one in particular to the light streaming in from a window, he said: “This one is especially fine, Rebbe.”
“I see nothing special in it,” Reb Shalom Ber said.
“I would not expect you to, Rebbe. One must be a connoisseur of gems to see what makes each one worthy of such praise.”
“Every person is also a gem, my dear Reb Monye,” the rebbe said. And just as with your diamonds, you must be a connoisseur to see them truly.”
To be a connoisseur of people is to see the true value of each person. Seeing the true value of a person does not mean that we overlook people’s flaws. On the contrary, we have to find a way of honoring the person despite her or his flaws.
Where do our flaws come from? Are we born flawed? The Torah says that “the imagination of a person’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21). This suggests that it is not we who are flawed, but our imaginations. Sometime in our early years, perhaps around six or so, we begin to imagine that we are separate, independent, and autonomous creatures in competition with other humans and perhaps life itself for our personal survival. We imagine ourselves to be an independent “I” and the rest of life to be “other.” As our sense of alienation from the other grows, our ability to excuse our evil and exploitative behavior grows as well. And all of this comes from a flawed imagination.
Reb Shalom Ber was a connoisseur of people. He understood the flawed imagination and how it defines our world. Unlike Reb Monye, he did not equate flaws with rejects. In Reb Monye’s business, flawed diamonds are discarded. In Reb Shalom Ber’s business, flawed people are simply diamonds in the rough; they need cutting and polishing. We cut the rough human by pointing out the flawed imagination and the anxious and painful world it creates. We polish the rough human by treating her with justice and compassion, and responding not to her flawed imagination but to the pure divine diamond that is obscured by the imagination.
When you meet another, do you see the flaws or the gem? Do you respond from imagination or from truth?