Our Gemara on amud beis quotes an interesting idiom:
Rabbi Yannai said to Rabbi Yoḥanan: Had I not lifted the earthenware shard for you, would you have discovered the pearl [marganita] beneath it?
Rabbi Yannai was referring to the fact that his teaching inspired Rabbi Yochanan to notice a Mishna that was “hiding in plain sight” which really made the same point as his teaching.
Tosafos (Bava Metzia 17b, “Iy Lav”) explains this metaphor. Pearls are often hiding under plates that seem like earthenware shards. When the diver goes down to find the pearls he is unsure if he will bring back worthless shards or priceless pearls.
Rabbi Yannai was hinting at the process of discovery and creativity. We have to reach and brainstorm for whatever we find. We cannot know what we will bring up until we come to the surface. We cannot skip the process of lifting the shards. We must go through an unknown number of iterations of trial and error until we hit the jackpot.
Zohar (2:161b) tells us an important mystical principle that Hashem used the Torah as blueprint and guide for the creation of the world. The way I understand this, is that throughout creation, from the smallest to the largest, there are recurring patterns and themes that have significance beyond its physical manifestation. The physical manifestation is merely the tip of the iceberg to a deeper, universal truth. As an example, the Shalah (Toldos Odom:15) famously takes this principle to its ultimate conclusion. He states that every word in Hebrew, the holy tongue, is a metaphor or borrowed term from a spiritual reality. Thus, for example, he says the Hebrew word for rain, geshem, is not actually rain. Rather it means the way in which G-d brings down sustenance and blessings from the upper world to all the lower worlds to allow for growth and development. In this world, rain is the physical manifestation of that, and thus Hebrew uses geshem as a metaphor to represent rain. Or, we might say, mother’s love is a representation of the Shekhina’s involvement, love and care in this world. In Jungian psychology this is known as an archetype, which is a recurring pattern or theme of human behavior and possibly the natural and elemental world.
Therefore, the idea that one must dive into the dross, bring up shards, and not know what will be found until you find it, is not merely a metaphor for learning. In every aspect of existence, we must engage with the physical world, the earthen shards, in order to bring up the good. We simply do not know what we can achieve or what will be achieved. By definition, more often than not, we will not get pearls. This is the process, and oh so worth it, when we finally get the pearl.
The words of John Steinbeck’s the Pearl come to mind:
An accident could happen to these oysters, a grain of sand could lie in the folds of muscle and irritate the flesh until in self-protection the flesh coated the grain with a layer of smooth cement. But once started, the flesh continued to coat the foreign body until it fell free in some tidal flurry or until the oyster was destroyed. For centuries men had dived down and torn the oysters from the beds and ripped them open, looking for the coated grains of sand. Swarms of fish lived near the bed to live near the oysters thrown back by the searching men and to nibble at the shining inner shells. But the pearls were accidents, and the finding of one was luck, a little pat on the back by God or the gods or both.
Translations Courtesy of Sefaria, (except when, sometimes, I disagree with the translation .)