Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Dirt and Ashes- Is there anything more?

This past Shabbos, I found myself thinking of the conversation that goes on between HaShem and Avraham, when HaShem is about to destroy Sedom. Although I read this story many times, I thought of something new, which might be worth exploring.

It is HaShem who initiates the conversation:

יז וַֽיהוָֹ֖ה אָמָ֑ר הַֽמֲכַסֶּ֤ה אֲנִי֙ מֵֽאַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֲנִ֥י עֹשֶֽׂה: יח וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם הָי֧וֹ יִֽהְיֶ֛ה לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל וְעָצ֑וּם וְנִ֨בְרְכוּ־ב֔וֹ כֹּ֖ל גּוֹיֵ֥י הָאָֽרֶץ: יט כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַ֩עַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַֽחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְהֹוָ֔ה לַֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט לְמַ֗עַן הָבִ֤יא יְהוָֹה֙ עַל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם
אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֖ר עָלָֽיו

HaShem rhetorically asks whether he can hold back from Avraham that which he is about to do. After all, it is through Avraham that the whole world will be blessed. Additionally, Avraham is the one who will teach his family and descendants about righteousness and justice.

Immediately upon being told of the impending destruction, Avraham starts to argue, saying:

כג וַיִּגַּ֥שׁ אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּאמַ֑ר הַאַ֣ף תִּסְפֶּ֔ה צַדִּ֖יק עִם־רָשָֽׁע: כד אוּלַ֥י יֵ֛שׁ חֲמִשִּׁ֥ים צַדִּיקִ֖ם בְּת֣וֹךְ הָעִ֑יר הַאַ֤ף תִּסְפֶּה֙ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֣א לַמָּק֔וֹם לְמַ֛עַן חֲמִשִּׁ֥ים הַצַּדִּיקִ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּקִרְבָּֽהּ: כה חָלִ֨לָה לְּךָ֜ מֵֽעֲשׂ֣ת ׀ כַּדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֗ה לְהָמִ֤ית צַדִּיק֙ עִם־רָשָׁ֔ע וְהָיָ֥ה כַצַּדִּ֖יק כָּֽרָשָׁ֑ע חָלִ֣לָה לָּ֔ךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט֙ כָּל־הָאָ֔רֶץ לֹ֥א יַֽעֲשֶׂ֖ה מִשְׁפָּֽט:

Using the very same terms that HaShem used to describe Avraham, Avraham asks God how he can punish the righteous along with those who are evil. Surely the city should be saved if there enough righteous people within its borders. "Will The Judge of the whole earth not do justice!?!". At that point Avraham begins to negotiate, starting off with the possibility that there might be 50 righteous people in Sedom. Ultimately he gets God to agree to spare the city provided there are at least 10 righteous people in the city.

What struck me was the way Avraham describes himself:

כז וַיַּ֥עַן אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּאמַ֑ר הִנֵּה־נָ֤א הוֹאַ֨לְתִּי֙ לְדַבֵּ֣ר אֶל־אֲדֹנָ֔י וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י עָפָ֥ר וָאֵֽפֶר

He says of himself "I am (but?) dirt and ashes".

I had several questions pop to mind when I thought of this phrase:

  1. If Avraham wants to say that he is insignificant, why you use these descriptors? Why not simply say "I am nothing"?
  2. How can Avraham describe himself in this manner when he is in the midst of talking to God? What greater proof is there of his significance and value?

It seems to me that dirt and ashes refer to two separate aspects of being human. Dirt (symbolically) refers to the substance from which he was created. He is a creature, and not just a creature, but one who is made up of inorganic material. In some ways, he shares certain qualities with inanimate objects. Ashes refers to that which will occur to him, and all life forms; death. Although he is not an inanimate object, he shares certain similarities with animals. Although he is alive, his end and the animal's end are similar (echoes of Koheles?).

Avraham is noting the paradox of man. On the one hand, we are finite, and similar in makeup to objects and in form to animals. On the other hand, we have significance in the eyes of the creator. There is a relationship that we enjoy with him, which is different from His connection to all other creatures. He cares about us not just as a species, but as individuals. God values our prayers, and asks us to imitate His ways, however imperfectly we may do so. Avraham anticipates the Psalmist's cry of "Mah enosh ki tizkerenu?".

Modern science and philosophy sometimes seem very reductionist. Materialists and Positivists suggest that we are nothing more than our chemical and physical makeup. Camus wondered, if this is true, why one should go on living. Although we can not prove it or quantify it, we have what religion calls a soul, which marks us as unique in the physical world. The very tools of the scientist and philosopher, mark us as unique. Is the importance and value we see in ourselves, nothing but a conceit? We are finite, and destined to die. At the same time, our Creator calls out to us, and asks us to be his partner in creating a just and righteous world. Dare we conceal ourselves from Him?

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