“You shall place both stones on the shoulder straps of the ephod, remembrance stones for the Children of Israel. Aaron shall carry their names before Hashem on both of his shoulders as a remembrance.” — Shemos 28:12
Hashem told Moshe to engrave the names of the twelve shevatim onto the stones of the Ephod as a remembrance. Rashi explains that this was so that the memory of Reuven, Shimon, Levi, etc. would be invoked when the kohen gadol did the avodah, and Hashem would then remember their righteousness.
This Rashi seems to be difficult to understand. The avodah of the kohen gadol is vital and highly sensitive; the world’s very existence depends upon it. As a result, there are many items that are avoided in the avodah so as not to bring up even the faintest memories of sin. While there is no question that the namesakes of the shevatim were men of extraordinary greatness, that greatness was also tainted with the sin of selling their brother. They had a rationale for what they did, but they still plotted and carried out an attempt to kill Yosef, one of the greatest tzaddikim in the history of mankind. Didn’t that sin permanently affect who they were? Shouldn’t that be reason enough not to mention their names in such a critical situation?
The answer is based on an issue of perspective. A diamond is an object of beauty, yet even a minor imperfection can greatly devalue it. A small flaw can transform a priceless gem into an almost worthless stone. However, not every flaw destroys a diamond’s value.
Imagine there are two large diamonds in front of you, one a beautifully cut jewel with a minor flaw, the other the same as the first but flawless – a perfect diamond. We would assume the flawless diamond would be far more valuable than the other.
If we were to ask a diamond expert to appraise the two, there is no doubt he would tell us that the difference between them is huge. He would say the diamond with the minor flaw is worth a fortune while the completely flawless diamond is almost valueless – because it is a fake. One of the signs a diamond is real is that it has a flaw. While it may be a very minor imperfection and almost unnoticeable, all genuine diamonds have flaws. The only perfect diamonds are made of cubic zirconium, and are costume jewelry.
So too, the human. When Hashem formed man, it was not for him to be perfect. Perfection rests in the realm of the angels. An angel will spend its entire existence without sin. As such, angels are perfect. But angels aren’t man. Man and man alone was given the unique opportunity in all of Creation: to determine his destiny either by becoming the greatest of all or by sinking below the animals.
To allow man to create what he would be for eternity, Hashem gave him free will. However, free will doesn’t mean the theoretical ability to choose; it means being put into situations where either choice is viable and either option is real. Man has to be challenged. To allow for that, man has to be tempted to choose either good or bad and be given the ability to make mistakes. Every man has made and will make mistakes. Some are large, and some are small, but man living without sin hasn’t happened yet and will not ever happen.
At the end of his days, man is measured not by how much he sinned but by how great he became. The real damage of sin is that it prevents growth. If a person becomes mired in sin, his focus is diverted, his energies consumed, and he doesn’t become a fraction of what he could. Even still, it is a given that every man has sinned and will sin.
The answer to the question on Rashi seems to be that the namesakes of the shevatim were in fact men of unimaginable greatness, but they also had flaws and sinned. Each would be compared to a 200-carat diamond with an imperfection. They were huge, beautiful diamonds – with flaws.
When viewing a diamond, you can’t see the flaw. To perceive it, you need to look through a jeweler’s loop that magnifies the stone by a power of ten times or more. Only via direct scrutiny does the flaw become noticeable. It is always present, but the eye doesn’t see it. All the eye can see is glimmer and reflected light in an object of extreme beauty.