In our lives, each of us must establish our priorities, then constantly keep them in mind and see to it that our decisions and actions reflect those priorities. In this famous, unforgettable parable of the Chofetz Chaim, we learn about maintaining our perspective.
Reb Nachman lived in a small town in Poland, where he found it very difficult to make a living. He tried his hand at many things but nothing seemed to work for him. Financially strained, he decided he would travel to an island near Africa, where, it was said, diamonds were so plentiful they lay scattered in the streets. Even though the sea voyage was risky and would last more than a year, it would be well worth taking. When he would return home with the diamonds he could sell them and attain great wealth and be able to live the kind of life he had always dreamed of.
He told his family of his decision and began making preparations for the trip. After weeks of excitement and planning, the day of departure arrived. He said his farewells to friends and family, assuring them that he would return in a few years. His ship sailed off beyond the horizon for his long journey across the seas.
Ships did not travel often to this remote island and so he would have to be there for a year at least. With great anticipation he watched as the ship drew closer to land and in the distance he imagined he could see diamonds glistening in the streets.
He disembarked and as he walked the streets he observed that the rumor was true, there were diamond chips everywhere he went and people were actually casually stepping all over them. Not able to contain his exuberance he dropped his packages, bent down and began gathering diamonds; big ones, little ones, perfect ones, imperfect ones, he took anything he could get his hands on and stuffed it in his pockets.
As he was picking up the stones, he noticed that the people standing near him were laughing. He couldn't understand it. "What's your rush?" one person asked Reb Nachman. "You're going to be here a whole year!"
"Yes," added another man, "look at everyone else, they came here for the same reason you did, but here we take our time."
"Well," thought Reb Nachman, "maybe they're right. I'm going to be here for a while and there seems to be an endless amount of diamonds here, so there's enough for everyone." The following day, as he familiarized himself with the island, he again began to pick up diamonds.
But he noticed that no one else was doing it, and he began to feel foolish. Didn't diamonds mean anything here? How could everyone just ignore them? As he asked questions, he came to realize that, truly, diamonds had no value on this island. The commodity that the islanders regarded most highly was fats (oil or shortenings) used in baking and frying. They were of basic importance and extremely hard to obtain. Anyone who could make fats, produce it, store it or sell it could become wealthy. The people on the island were so far from civilization that they had no cooking oil -something that was so easily obtained everywhere else.
Reb Nachman was a man of determination and he set out at once to seek the ingredients for fats, even developing methods of storing and selling them. The work was hard and he spent a few weeks exploring the island until he found the proper ingredients.
As the weeks rolled by, he became so completely immersed in his attempts to develop fats that he completely forgot why he had come to the island in the first place. Every day he would pass the diamonds in the streets and ignore them, just as everyone else did. If he happened to see an exceptionally shiny one he'd examine it and slip it into his pocket. It brought him back to his senses for a moment, but then he would say to himself, "There is always tomorrow. Meanwhile I have to build up my supply of fats."
The weeks turned to months and eventually news came to the island that in two weeks the boat was coming to pick up all the "foreigners" who did not belong there. Reb Nachman was too caught up in his pursuit of fats to pay much attention to what he heard, but a few days later when the boat arrived, it suddenly occurred to him that he had better pack his fats and get ready to carry them back home. He was proud of himself, for he had a successful year. The people on the island had given him much honor and now his wife and family back home would surely be proud of him.
But as he was carting all the fats to the boat, it suddenly occurred to him that the accumulation of fats had not been the reason for this trip. He had come for diamonds, not fats! Now it was too late, but he rationalized that the wealth of the fats would surely help him anyway. He picked up a few diamonds on the way to the boat, and then, after an enthusiastic send-off, began the long journey back home.
After a few weeks on the boat, the fats began to smell. The odor became so bad that the people on board complained to the captain. The captain ordered his crew to locate the source of the stench and they found the rotting fats which Reb Nachman admitted was his. He pleaded with them not to throw it overboard for he had worked so hard to accumulate it. The workers tried to contain the odor by covering the fats, but in a little while the stench was so bad, there was no choice but to throw it all overboard. The fats for which he had worked so hard had become nothing but a lingering bad smell.
As he watched the last box go overboard, he realized that he had been a failure. He had wasted his precious time on the pursuit of worthless goods.
The days dragged by in dreaded anticipation. In his mind he saw his wife and children awaiting him and looking towards the "good years ahead" and their "happy" future. The ship finally docked, but embarrassed and forlorn, Reb Nachman was one of the last to leave the ship.
His wife and children greeted him excitedly but he could not share their happiness. All he wanted was to be left alone. Friends and relatives gathered at his home to hear all about his experiences but he went to his room, downcast and deeply humiliated.
In his room, Reb Nachman lay on his bed and cried himself to sleep. His wife, thinking that he was simply exhausted, left him alone. After a few hours she went up to talk to him. When she saw that he was still asleep she decided not to disturb him and instead picked up his coat and looked into his pockets. She found two big diamonds. With great joy and excitement she ran to the local jewel dealer to ask him for an evaluation. The dealer could not believe his eyes. "Lady," he said after examining the stones, "you are a lucky woman. Whoever got you these diamonds brought you great wealth. You will be wealthy for years to come with the proceeds of these diamonds!"
The woman ran back to her husband who had awakened, and she thanked him profusely for his great efforts. But he was still downcast. "Why are you so unhappy?'' she asked him anxiously. "We are so lucky and you are so smart to have accomplished so much."
"I was not smart at all," said Reb Nachman sadly. "If I had been intelligent I would have kept my mind on what I had come to the island to do. I got caught up in what those people considered in their world to be important rather than what was really important for us. It's true, I do have a few diamonds, but I could have amassed a fortune that would have provided not only for us and our children, but even for our grandchildren and friends, forever."
The reason that we came to this world, said the Chafetz Chaim, is to collect diamonds - which are mitzvahs. While we are here, however, we let ourselves become influenced by those who disregard the value of mitzvahs. We get caught up instead in trying to gain wealth.
Throughout a person's life, mitzvahs are just "lying in the streets" waiting for someone to perform them. There are mitzvahs that involve kindness such as visiting the sick, helping the poor, or consoling the bereaved. There are moments of free time that add up to hours, days, even months which can be used advantageously for Torah study.
Unfortunately, most people pass through life, letting time and opportunities slip by. When it's time to return to the real world, he tries to snatch a few "diamonds," but by then it is too late. He should have kept his goal and priorities in mind all the time. Picking up a few diamonds here and there is wonderful, but imagine what level can be reached by the person who makes "diamonds" his life's endeavor.