Earthly Existence

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Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

           One of the most unforgettable events on Parshat Vayera is the destruction of Sodom. Equally important is Hashem’s decision to inform Avraham Avinu of this intention coupled with Avraham’s response to this information. Avraham immediately goes into his chesed mode, praying for the salvation of Sodom, and for Hashem to practice mercy toward the city and the inhabitants of the entire area. Avraham approaches Hashem with humility, describing himself as merely afar vaefer/dust and ashes. What is the significance of this phrase and how does it relate to its reward, for the Gemarrah in Chulin tells us that Hashem rewarded Avraham with two mitzvoth for his descendents, the mitzvah of parah adumah/the red heifer and the mitzvah of isha sotah/the wayward wife. The mitzvah of the parah adumah involves slaughtering and burning a completely red heifer, and using its ashes in the process to purify someone contaminated by coming in contact with death. The mitzvah of sotah is the ritual process through which a wife suspected of infidelity is proven innocent (hopefully), brought back to her husband’s home, and blessed with children. In this ritual, the woman drinks water mixed with the dust of the Beit Hamikdosh, and this holy dust interacts with her digestive system, positively or negatively, determining her status.

           Let us begin our discussion with what may have been Avraham’s motivation in using the lowly terms of dust and ashes. One might argue, as the Ksav Sofer suggests, that the people of Sodom could have learned proper behavior from Avraham, especially since he had saved them in war. But Avraham contends that a true model is someone who is important, while he is merely dust and ashes. Why would the Sodomites use such a lowly person as their role model? Hashem, please don’t fault them for my not being a star to them.

           But there is also history related to these two descriptions. Citing Rashi z”l, Rabbi Wolbe z”l notes that Avraham is recalling Hashem’s chesed to himself, when Avraham would have turned into dust and ashes. In his youth, after Avraham had destroyed his father’s idols, Nimrod threw Avraham into a fiery furnace. Avraham should have turned into ashes, but Hashem in his mercy saved him. More recently, in Avraham’s war against the four kings, he should have been defeated and turned back into the dust of the earth. Again, Hashem in His mercy saved him and he was victorious. Avraham is calling upon Hashem to exercise that same attribute of mercy now, writes Rabbi Yosef Salant z”l, the Be’er Yosef, and not destroy Sodom. If they are not deserving, neither was I. Further, continues Rabbi Salant, the entire reason I should have been turned into dust and ashes was on account of Lot. His father died by jumping into the fiery furnace after me, and I entered the war to save him. Please, Hashem, exercise that same compassion now.

           We are still left with the question of how the mitzvoth of isha sota and parah adumah become the reward for Avraham’s plea. Rabbi Sternbach in Taam Vodaat explains that these two mitzvoth also serve the purpose of mercy. Whether one is defiled by contact with the dead or a woman is accused of possible infidelity, each remains outside the circle of normal society. Through the rituals of these mitzvoth, they are reintegrated into the circle of society or their family.

           Even more than a history lesson, though, is the lesson from Avraham Avinu for ourselves on how to understand and approach prayer. Rabbi Schorr in Halekach Vehalebuv offers an interesting analysis about prayer and how we are to approach it. We are under the illusion that we may deserve some blessings, and so we limit our requests to what we believe we deserve. In truth, we are worthy of nothing, and only through Hashem’s chesed do we merit any blessing. When we realize this truth, we nullify ourselves to His will and can pray for anything, as Avraham did here with Sodom.

           Avraham Avinu became the source of blessing when he nullified himself to do Hashem’s command, not knowing and not questioning to which land Hashem was sending him, and later not knowing to which mountain he was to go to place his son upon the altar. It was only after lech lecha/go, without a destination, that Hashem blessed Avraham with veheyei beracha/you be a blessing.

           Expanding on this idea, Rabbi Schorr notes that Shabbos contains within it blessings for the entire week. How is that? Because on Shabbos we acknowledge the Creator, we nullify our physical existence and return to our Source, to an understanding that our physical existence is but dust of the earth, and our true essence is spiritual. Shabbos gives us an ability to sense Hashem within ourselves and follow His will. During the week, we are too involved in providing for our physical existence, but on Shabbat, we silence that part of our being, in effect nullifying it, and focus on our spirituality. This is our neshamah yyeseirah, not an “additional soul”, but the added (yeser) dimension of the soul Hashem has implanted in us. The soul is within us all week, every morning we thank Hashem for “returning” it to us; every morning we acknowledge that the soul He implanted within us is pure. But on Shabbos we become aware of that purity, and we submit ourselves to that spiritual essence.  That’s how Shabbos becomes the source of blessings, because we have tapped into the Source of blessings.

           How do we bring blessings to the world? Not by focusing on ourselves, but by focusing on God. It is not about me, but about Hashem. Avraham understood this, and so he was able to nullify himself and ask for Hashem’s blessings and mercy.

           Let us now return to our discussion of the two “reward” mitzvoth for additional insights into the connections we’ve been discussing. Rabbi Svei  z”lcites the Meshech Chaim in reminding us that on Yom Kippur we acknowledge that we become purified before Hashem, and only through His purifying us do we become purified. How are things purified? Either through dust/earth and/or water. Seeds that have somehow become impure can be replanted in earth, and the resulting plants and food that grow are pure. They have connected back to their source, the earth, that has cleansed them. Water similarly cleanses and purifies, for water is also the source of all. Symbolically, then, by comparing himself to dust and ashes, Avraham Avinu was nullifying his physical self and reconnecting to his Source. Similarly, Bnei Yisroel can reconnect with our Source when we observe these mitzvoth consisting of dust, ashes and water. We are purified and blessed.

           Rabbi Pincus z”l on Prayer writes that chinun/pleading is a form of prayer that asks Hashem to grant us our request without any merit of our own, simply from His mercy. We plead as a beggar at the door, with no right to charity, and as Moshe Rabbenu pleaded before Hashem (va’etchanan) to enter the Land.

           As King Solomon writes seven times in the first two verses of Kohelet, vanity, and all is vanity. Rabbi Schwab z”l notes that our Sages incorporated this idea of vanity and futility into our morning prayers by asking seven times, “What are we, what are our lives…,”  continuing with seven phrases that imply that our skills are meaningless, and concluding with seven expressions of praise for Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

           Here was a major error in the reasoning of Lot’s daughters. Rabbi Kofman z”l in Mishchat Shemen writes that Lot’s daughters thought there would be no man to marry them. Did they believe all mankind had been destroyed, including their righteous uncle? Rabbi Kofman z”l quoting Seforno suggests that the daughters were prideful of their own merit in having been saved from the devastation of Sodom, and that no man would be worthy of them. Contrast this perspective with that of Avraham Avinu, who considered each chesed a gift from Hashem in spite of his own unworthiness.

           The Yalkut Lekach Tov understands Avraham’s words on a different level. Focusing on the first word, Anochi/I in my true essence, the Yalkut Lekach Tov notes that Avraham was not speaking of himself as unworthy of only the miracles, but rather that his entire essence was really just dust and ashes. He owed his entire existence, not only miraculous survival, to Hashem. Even more important, continues Rabbi Kofman z”l, Avraham Avinu attributes even his spiritual attributes to be gifts from Hashem. Even for his humility, Avraham was thanking Hashem. When we are gifted with kindnesses or with skills and talents, are we ready to acknowledge that these are gifts from Hashem? In fact, in the Shemoneh Esrai/Silent Meditation, each blessing, whether for physical or spiritual requests, ends by blessing Hashem and acknowledging that Hashem is the Source of each. As the Sifsei Chaim notes, “Bechol derachecha da’ehu/In all your ways know Him.” Recognize that Hashem is giving you the ability and the skill to do everything in your life, to perform every detail, not just the finished product or deed. All our positive qualities are also gifts from Hashem, and therefore there is no excuse for arrogance, adds Rabbi Wolbe z”l.

           Avraham Avinu’s humility extended both back to the past and forward to the future. Dust of the earth has no present value, but has value only for the future, for it is the medium in which plants can grow. Ashes, on the other hand, is evidence of past value, but has no present value. Avraham Avinu was humble in both past and future. Therefore, writes the Beis Halevi, Hashem rewarded his descendants with mitzvoth that would declare a woman innocent of suspicions about her past, and that would purify an individual for the future.

           But don’t let the idea that you are dust and to dust you shall return keep you from living, for your soul is holy and comes from beneath the Heavenly Throne, reminds us Rabbi Chasman z”l. Rather, as Avraham Avinu understood, life is temporal, and therefore make each moment count towards building the structure of our spiritual lives, writes Rabbi Scheinerman in Ohel Moshe.

           The Tallelei Chaim takes this idea a step further. The ashes of the red heifer are a reminder of death, but also a reminder of the origins of Man. When the ashes are mixed with water for the purification process, it hints at the creation of Adam when Hashem mixed the dust of the earth with water to form the body of Man. The ritual reminds Avraham and us that although there is death, there is also rebirth, This was the gift of this mitzvah.

           In a beautiful vignette on this idea, Rabbi Bachya notes that Hashem lovingly calls Bnei Yisroel “My beloved son Efraim.” Rabbi Bachya notes that Efraim is twice efer/ashes. Which two ashes does this refer to, that make us so beloved to Hashem? These are the ashes that were willingly submitted to but never really happened, the ashes of Avraham Avinu in Nimrod’s furnace, and the ashes of Yitzchak Avinu on the mizbeach/altar. Both Avraham and Yitzchak lived and became the conduits of blessings from above. May we, in humility, understand that we are nothing on our own, but exist only through Hashem’s chesed. As such let us open the gates of heaven through our prayers and be conduits of blessings from Above.