Vayeira: Both pockets

And Abraham answered, “…I am but dust and ashes.” (Bereishit 18:27).
I pull the crumpled slip
from one side,
gently smooth the creases:
“I am but dust and ashes,”
the faded writing says,
reminding me
of what awaits
and since that’s so
my offering can be but meagre.

I pull the crumpled slip
from over,
gently smooth the creases:
“For my sake was the world created,”
the faded writing says,
reminding me
Who has with life imbued me
and since that’s so
then I too have a gift
which I alone can offer.


Abraham makes increasingly daring challenges to God, attempting to avert the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. First he asks, “Ha’shofet kol ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat? – Shall the Judge of all the world not do justice?” to which God responds that for fifty righteous people, He will spare the cities. Abraham then prefaces his pleading with the words “Anochi afar ve’efer – I am but dust and ashes…”
Abraham’s self-abnegating description is considered by the commentators to connote praiseworthy humility. In a Yom Kippur sermon from 2004, appearing on his website, http://leaches.net/moline/sermon–044.html, Rabbi Jack Moline brings the Midrash which expands this verse, in which Abraham says to God, “Without Your mercy, the five kings I defeated would have turned me into dust, and Nimrod [who tried to burn me in a furnace] would have turned me into ashes.” Rabbi Moline suggests that this is the real meaning of the phrase – Abraham is reminding God that He created him for a purpose. Only by God’s will is Abraham not dust and ashes.

R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa taught on this verse, that one should have two pockets: in one, a note saying, “I am but dust and ashes,” and in the other, a note saying, “Bishvili nivra ha’olam – For my sake was the world created.” R’ Simcha Bunim derives the inscription on the second note from the Mishnah in Sanhedrin 37b: “The Holy-One-Blessed-be-He, fashioned every man in the stamp of the first man, and yet none of them resembles his fellow. Therefore every single person is obliged to say: the world was created for my sake.”

Martin Buber develops this notion: ““Every person should know and consider the fact that you, in the particular way that you are made, are unique in the world, and no one like you has ever been. For if someone like you had already been, there would be no reason for you to be in this world. Actually, everyone is something new in this world, and here we must work to perfect our particular being, for, because we are still imperfect, the coming of the Messiah is delayed!” (From Ten Rungs: Collected Hasidic Sayings.)

Rabbi Simcha Bunim adds an important rider. He teaches that one should know how to use the notes – in the right time and place and not, as he cautions many do, in the opposite context.

In a sermon on Kol Nidrei in 2011, http://dorsheitzedek.org/writings/two-pockets, Rabbi Toba Spitzer addresses the need for this balance between the two pockets in the work of teshuvah. She suggests that the “dust and ashes” note is an antidote to feelings of entitlement; a reminder of our minuscule place in the cosmic scheme; and a reminder, too, of our ultimate mortality (and therefore of the gift of life).
She submits that the pocket of “For my sake was the world created,” is a reminder “that we are all created in the image of God. It is a reminder that as bnei Adam, children of the first human, our inheritance is all the blessings of Creation. This world is here for us, too.” She continues, “… We are unique and necessary creations. For our sake the world was created. And not only that — we each have our own particular work to do…Each of us has some work to do in this world, something to repair, that only we can do. To ignore or shirk that task by pleading our own incompetence or unworthiness is a kind of affront to God, to the Source of Creation.”
Rabbi Spitzer concludes, “Most of us, I would imagine, fall somewhere between these two pockets, sometimes knowing that the world was created for my sake, sometimes feeling like dust and ashes. It is good to move back and forth between the two pockets, as Reb Simcha Bunem used to do. And perhaps best of all is to experience both at the same time: the radical humility of “dust and ashes,” and the acceptance and love of self of “the world was created for my sake.”

Rabbi Chaim Ha-Cohen Rapaport was a fierce opponent of Chassidism, which originated in his time. Consequently, there was strong animosity between him and the Baal Shem Tov who founded the movement. Once, according to legend, Rabbi Chaim was sitting alone in his Bet Midrash studying Torah, and another man came in. Rabbi Chaim asked him:”Who are you?” The stranger replied: “I am but dust and ashes,” and in return inquired of R’ Chaim, “and who are you?” Rabbi Chaim responded in kind: “I, too, am but dust and ashes.” The guest retorted: “Why then should there be controversy between mere dust and ashes?” and Rabbi Chaim understood that his guest was the Baal Shem Tov himself!

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