Only Dust (And Ashes) In The Wind
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
Then Avraham answered and said, "I have taken it upon myself to speak to my
G-d, yet I am but dust and ashes." (Bereishis 18:27)
So began one of the most unusual bargaining sessions in the history of
mankind, and the stakes were quite high. Unbeknownst to the people of S'dom
miles away, their lives were on the chopping block, and Avraham was to make
a last bid to save them. It was a bold move on Avraham's part, as he well
knew and the posuk above reveals.
After all, we rarely argue with flesh-and-blood kings. What business do we
have arguing with the King-of-Kings, the Creator of the Universe. And the
truth is, Avraham probably wouldn't have considered doing it had G-d not
first engaged him in the discussion, informing him of His plans to destroy
S'dom and its sister cities in advance. This seemed to imply that G-d was
open to discussion about the judgment, even at that late moment in time.
However, the Talmud makes a statement that seems to shed a different kind
of light on the dialogue, and perhaps what it was really about. The Talmud
Rava elucidated: In reward for Avraham Avinu saying, "I am but dust and
ashes," his children merited two mitzvos: the ashes of the [Red] Heifer and
the dust of the Sotah. (Sotah 17a)
The ashes to which the Talmud is referring to are those of the Red Heifer
after it has been slaughtered and burned to ashes, as part of the procedure
for purifying a person from contact with a dead body (Bamidbar 19:1). The
dust to which it refers is that which was added to the "bitter waters" that
the suspected adulteress had to drink as part of her procedure to be
absolved of any guilt (Bamidbar 5:11). But, aside from the words, what is
the connection between this and Avraham's humility?
Often, the Talmud will make what is called a "gezerah shavah," one of the
thirteen principles of elucidation used for understanding the Torah on a
deeper level. It means that, according to tradition, when the same word is
used in different contexts, perhaps even referring to two completely
different laws, still, they can shed light on each other. It's as if the
Torah used the same word in each verse to connect them to one another, a
connection that would not otherwise be so obvious.
It is not a random thing. Rather, most gazerah shavahs are known from
tradition, and just spoken about in the Talmud. One would have to have the
stature of Rebi Akiva to create new ones, and even then, they would only be
expressing laws we already know from the Oral Law. In fact, like the other
12 principles of elucidation, the point of a gazerah shavah is to show how
the laws from the Oral Law are implied in the words of the Written Law.
But this is different. What is there to learn from Avraham's reference to
"dust" and "ashes" that we have halachos of burning the Parah Adumah (Red
Heifer) to ashes, and to include dust in the waters of the Sotah? And
besides, it is not halachos we are learning anyhow. Rather, we are learning
about that which led to the merit of having received these halachos, and
the question, why?
The starting point to answering this question is in understanding the sod -
the esoterical basis - of each. Why must the ashes be added to the waters
to be sprinkled on the spiritually-defiled individual, and why did dust
from the floor of the Mishkan have to be added to the Mei-Sotah. Is there a
connection between the two?
You are dust, and to dust you will return. (Bereishis 3:19)
As Rashi explains, the Parah Adumah came to "clean up" the mess that the
aigel hazahav - the golden calf - created. And, as the Arizal reveals, the
aigel hazahav was just a later-day repeat of the sin of the Tree of
Knowledge of Good and Evil, and both of them led to the death of man.
Why death? A better question is, what death? Because, the physical death we
suffer in this world is only the result of a spiritual death we caused back
at the beginning, as the Arizal explained:
The three from the World of Atzilus are called "Zehira Ila'a of Adam," and
are mentioned in the Sisrei Torah (Kedoshim 83a), and as explained in the
Zohar. Before Kayin and Hevel were born, Adam HaRishon sinned, and the
Zehira Ila'a was removed from him, that is, the three portions from Atzilus
we mentioned before. In this manner, the decree of G-d was fulfilled: "On
the day you eat from it you shall surely die," for the three portions of
Atzilus were removed from him and there is no harsher death than this.
(Sha'ar HaGilgulim, Chapter 31)
We were like executives who abused our positions and, as a result, lost our
privileges. As a result of the sin of the fruit, mankind lost access to his
higher levels of soul, resulting in a tremendous reduction in our capacity
to feel the presence of G-d in every day life. As the Arizal said, there
can be no greater death than this.
Why did Adam HaRishon do it? The Leshem explains:
This was the first stumbling block for Adam HaRishon: he allowed himself to
look at the strength of the Chitzonim (spiritual impurity) to understand
the extent of their power [as embodied in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and
Evil]; he investigated how they operate in general and in detail. He delved
into this using his great wisdom until they pursued him and became attached
to him, as the Zohar explains. In the beginning, he had acted this way for
the sake of Heaven, assuming that The Holy One, Blessed is He, only warned
him against eating, but not touching. Thus, (he assumed) the only
prohibition was against tasting and enjoying it, whereas approaching and
touching it was not prohibited. Therefore, investigating was also
permissible, for it was on the level of touching and not eating, the latter
of which is more a matter of tasting and enjoying. He relied upon his great
wisdom to protect him from being seduced after them into actually enjoying
them. His wisdom was his stumbling block, though his intentions were for
the sake of Heaven. (Sha'arei Leshem, p. 342)
Don't get the wrong idea. Adam HaRishon was not one to act out of pride.
The yetzer hara had yet to enter him, and therefore everything he did prior
to the sin was for the sake of Heaven. Rather, he made a miscalculation,
not about his greatness, but about what he was capable of doing with it. He
took on the fiery dragon with his brilliant sword before he knew how to
wield it properly.
That was a mistake that "sorry" was not going to correct so easily. His was
a mistake that set into motion all kinds of negative forces within creation
that caused G-d to make adjustments in creation, just to keep the evil
forces in check enough to allow man to live and continue to strive for
spiritual goals. The main adjustment was to Adam HaRishon himself - and
therefore all of mankind - as the Talmud (and Arizal) states:
We have already explained that there are some souls that were not part of
Adam HaRishon's soul when it was first created. These are truly "new
souls", whereas the souls that were already included in Adam HaRishon are
called "old souls" by comparison, of which there are two types. Thus, there
are three types, the first being those which were not included in Adam
HaRishon, and those which are considered to be completely new souls. The
second type is the result of Adam's sin, after which his limbs "fell off"
and he was reduced until he was no higher than one hundred amos, b'sod,
"and laid Your hand upon me" (Tehillim 139:5). Just as it happened to his
body, so too did it happen to his soul (Chagigah 12a). (Sha'ar HaGilgulim,
The extent of this transformation was visible even in Adam's physical
appearance. Prior to the sin, Adam HaRishon's skin looked different. Rather
than the physical skin we have today, which is solid and dull, Adam's skin
gave off light, just like Moshe Rabbeinu's did when he descended Mt. Sinai
after G-d passed by him. He had what the Kabbalists call, "Kesones Ohr" -
Clothing of Light - spelled Aleph-Vav-Raish.
However, what Adam HaRishon walked away with after the sin was Kesones Ohr,
except that Ohr is spelled: Ayin-Vav-Raish, which means "skin." In fact,
another name that the Kabbalists use for our epidermis is "Mishchah
d'Chiviya," aramaic for "Clothing of the Snake," since the Original Snake
played a major role in our physical outcome.
Which brings us to the root of the problem, and why humans must die in the end:
Immediately Adam descended tremendously from his level, and so did the
worlds to where they are now . . . They became material, and so did Adam
and Chava. Their "clothing" transformed from clothing of light to clothing
of skin, the "skin of the snake." (Sha'arei Leshem, p. 344-345)
The goal of rectification, therefore, is to return back to clothing of
light. That cannot be achieved during Yemos HaMoshiach, as it says:
In the future, the righteous will be dust, as it says, "The dust will
return to the land as it was" (Koheles 12:7), and it says, "You are from
dust and to dust you will return" (Bereishis 3:19); (Shabbos 152b). This
will occur a moment before Techiyas HaMeisim, when those who are still
living will die in order to dissolve the physicality of their bodies in
order to transform them from clothing of skin to clothing of light. Death
will not be the result of the Angel of Death then, G-d forbid, for that was
destroyed completely (Succah 52a) . . . but by The Holy One, Blessed is He,
Himself, in order to recreate them anew completely, like the body of Adam
before the sin when he entered Gan Aiden. (Sha'arei Leshem, p. 489)
And look how the Torah describes death:
By the sweat of your brow will you eat bread, until you return to the earth
from where you were taken. You are dust, and to dust you will return.
Kesones Ohr with an Aleph doesn't need to die or dissolve in the ground,
but Kesones Ohr with an Ayin does, in order to get back to being Kesones
Ohr with the Aleph once again. And, the ashes of the Parah Adumah and the
dust of the Sotah are not only reminders of this, but part of the
rectification process itself. For, both come to rectify the disloyalty that
Adam showed to G-d when he violated the commandment not to eat from the
Tree, a disloyalty that was repeated through the sin of the golden calf,
and for which the Sotah is the symbol (Nefesh HaChaim).
The only question remaining is, how did Avraham express all this by
referring himself to dust and ashes when arguing with G-d over the fate of
Avraham stretched out his hand and took the butchering knife to slaughter
his son. (Bereishis 22:10)
The tenth and final test for Avraham was the Akeidah. He passed, and with
flying colors we might add. Indeed, so willing was he to slaughter his
beloved Yitzchak that the angel had to command him not to, on G-d's behalf.
Instead, Avraham slaughtered a ram that had been caught in a thicket, and
that acted as the sacrifice that his son had almost been.
Nevertheless, since Avraham had been so willing to obey G-d and sacrifice
Yitzchak, it is looked upon from Heaven as if Avraham actually carried
through with the sacrifice of his son. Indeed, the Talmud says:
. . . How did they know the location of the altar [when designing the First
Temple]? . . . Rav Yitzchak Napcha said, "They saw the ashes of Yitzchak
piled in that spot." (Zevachim 62a)
That was the main result of the Akeidah: ashes. But they were not just any
ashes; they were ashes that spoke a world, and they said, "We are but dust
and ashes." For, Avraham was not only willing to sacrifice a son, but a
dream as well. Yitzchak was beloved to him, but more importantly, he
represented the physical means to continue Avraham's spiritual legacy. With
the death of Yitzchak, came the death of Avraham, spiritually-speaking.
At least that is what the yetzer hara would have us believe, and every
aspect of Avraham's being screamed at him as he prepared Yitzchak to die
for G-d. For, as long as we believe that the physical world is the only way
to fulfill our spiritual dreams, we are doomed to compromise the very
values we seek to protect and continue. The end result of such a belief
system, believe it or not, is the Sotah.
Look at what we say towards the end of the Viduy of Yom Kippur:
My G-d, before I was formed I was unworthy, and now that I have been
formed, it is as if I had not been formed. I am dust in my life and will
surely be so in death. Behold - before You I am like a vessel filled with
shame and humiliation. May it be Your will, Hashem, my G-d and the G-d of
my forefathers, that I not sin again . . .
In a sense, this is the essence of the Viduy, because all sin comes as a
result of thinking just the opposite. And, as the Torah testifies, the more
man believes that he is the opposite, the more his life becomes worth
little than the dust from which he was made. Yet, as Avraham's life shows,
the more one understands that their physical worth is little more than dust
and ashes, the more they are valued in the eyes of G-d, even made His
partner in determining the direction of creation.
For it is this perception of our physical being that allows the soul within
us to overwhelm the body, and to shine through it. And, it is the shining
through the body that purifies it, and elevates it, and transforms it back
to Kesones Ohr with the Aleph, once again. This was what the Akeidah came
to teach and instill within us for all the generations.
Thus, Avraham wasn't only saying that he was unworthy even to talk to G-d.
He was saying that it was his very appreciation of this unworthiness that
made him worthy and able to talk to G-d, and even bargain for the lives of
people as evil as those of S'dom. And, it was his internalization of this
concept that led to the merit of the ashes of the Parah Adumah and the dust
of the Mei Sotah, both of which represent tikunim to return back to
sin-free lives, loyalty to the values of G-d, and skin made of light.
G-d withdrew when He had finished speaking to Avraham, and Avraham returned
to his place. (Bereishis 18:33)
As to why the Torah was compelled to inform us of this, Rashi explains: G-d
only left the bargaining table after his fellow bargainer left. The
question is why did it work that way? We know that Avraham stopped because
he had already received G-d's word that He wouldn't destroy the cities if
10 righteous people could be found. He didn't ask for less than 10, since
he had seen that less than 10 did not save the world in Noach's time, so
why assume otherwise with S'dom.
Yet, the posuk and Rashi's comment seem to imply that G-d would have at
least entertained the possibility of an additional request, had Avraham
made it. And even if Avraham had asked for nine and G-d had said no, what
would have been lost? Given Avraham's love of mankind and his sense of
responsibility for them, it is amazing that Avraham didn't go down to one
Perhaps we can answer this question from the following story in the Talmud:
When [Rebi Yochanan ben Zakkai] arrived [at the Roman camp], he said,
"Peace unto you, king! Peace unto you, king!" [General Vespasian] answered
him, "You are now deserving of death twice. Firstly, I am not the king and
yet you have called me king. Secondly, if I am the king, why did you not
come to me earlier?" He answered, "I called you king because one day you
will be, for, if you weren't a king then Jerusalem would not have been
given over to you, as it says, 'And the Levanon will fall by a mighty
(adir)' (Yeshayahu 10:34). Now, 'mighty' (adir) refers to a king, as it
says, 'And the leader (adir) shall be of themselves' (Yirmiyahu 30:21).
'Levanon' refers to the Temple, as it says, 'This goodly mountain and the
Levanon' (Devarim 3:25). As to your question, that if you were a king why
did I not come to you earlier, it was because the rebels among us prevented
me from leaving." However, Vespasian responded, "If there is a barrel full
of honey and a serpent is around it, is it not proper to break the barrel
because of the serpent?" Rav Yosef and others say Rebi Akiva applied the
following posuk to him, "Who makes wise men retreat and makes their
knowledge foolish" (Yeshayahu 44:25). [For, Rebi Yochanan] should have
answered, "It is better to take tongs and remove the serpent from the
barrel and kill it, and leave the barrel intact." (Gittin 56a)
Rashi and Tosfos do not explain the meaning of the posuk quoted by Rebi
Akiva. However, the Maharshah does, and as a result brings to light another
very important concept. He wrote:
In other words, the sin of the people of the city was the cause for The
Holy One, Blessed is He, to "make wise men retreat," denying them the
knowledge to answer. (Maharshah, q.v. Who makes wise men retreat)
The Talmud is not saying that there was something wrong with Rabbi Yochanan
ben Zakkai, G-d forbid, but with the people he was leading. As the
Maharshah teaches on this, Heavenly help and Divine Inspiration flow to the
Torah leaders of the generation based upon the needs and merits of the
generation. As we know from Brochos 32a, leaders are made leaders by Heaven
for the sake of the nation they are meant to lead.
Thus, had S'dom merited to be saved, even for 8 or 9 righteous people among
its entire population, Avraham would have asked for that too. However, that
had not been the case, and thus Avraham "felt" as if he had gone far enough
by asking only for 10, and no less.
Thus, before we look at the Gedolim of any generation and proffer our
personal criticisms of the way they lead, let us not forget who they are
leading. Ultimately, they are the ones to receive the tap on the shoulder
and the gift of Heavenly help, but it is because of us that they do or
don't. We may be simple folk, but we play a very complex role in the
process of connecting Heaven and Earth.