Dust and Ash: VaYera 5780

“Look who thinks he’s nothing!” That’s the punch line to one of our oldest Jewish jokes—the NY Times claims it’s officially known as Jewish Joke No.73. It isn’t so funny, and I’m not retelling it here, but it does reflect an ancient Jewish conviction: True humility is a significant spiritual accomplishment.

When Abraham accuses God of injustice by planning to wipe out the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, this appears to be the height of audacity, of hutzpah. And when God quickly agrees not to destroy the cities if fifty righteous people are found in Sodom, Abraham pauses before pushing further, not to celebrate, but to admit his own inadequacy: “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.” That last phrase, וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר  “but dust and ashes” becomes Abraham’s hallmark.

This episode reflects the paradox of Abraham in all of his relationships—with Sarah and Isaac, with Hagar and Ishmael, with Lot, and with God. Abraham can be self-effacing or assertive, generous or selfish. These opposite tendencies co-exist within his heart, making you wonder who Abraham is in the end.  His only self-description is this one—dust and ashes, which is to say an ephemeral presence. As Qohelet says near the end, “And the dust returns to the ground as it was” (12:7). At his moment of greatest power—reversing a divine decision—Abraham recalls his mortality.

The Rabbis love this aspect of our first patriarch. In Avot D’Rabbi Natan (2:45) they say that his three signal qualities are generosity, deference, and humility, which are variants on a theme. Anyone who has these qualities is a disciple of Abraham. Yet Abraham is not the only biblical personality to demonstrate humility. Indeed, he is not the only one to compare himself to dust and ashes. The other paragon of this quality is Job.

In chapter 30, Job laments his physical agony and says of God, “He regarded me as clay, I have become like dust and ashes.” (NJPS). In his new translation, Ed Greenstein offers, “It’s thrown me down to the clay, making me seem like dust and ashes.” The first translation has Job view himself through God’s eyes and concede his nothingness, but the second has Job pushing back against the perception of his lack of worth.

This is the main argument of Ed Greenstein’s edition, made more emphatically at Job’s final words, which are again, “dust and ashes” (42:6). JPS translates together with Jewish tradition, “Therefore I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes.” Greenstein reads differently. His Job is battered but defiant, growing ever more assertive in response to his afflictions and the wounding speeches of his friends. His last words are, according to Greenstein, “That is why I am fed up; I take pity on dust and ashes!” While Abraham challenged God’s justice, Job went further, questioning God’s love for humanity.

I’ve looked for support from traditional sources for Greenstein and may have found one in Rashi’s comments to Job 30:19 based on Midrash Tanhuma. Rashi reads Job as saying, “I compare myself to Abraham who said, ‘I am but dust and ashes,’ but [God] treated me like the wicked generation of dispersion [the builders of the Tower of Babel] of whom it said, ‘and bitumen served them as mortar.’” This comment acknowledges a gap between Job’s self-perception and God’s judgment, and sticks to his positive self-image.

In other words, Job is humble, aware of his mortality, but God treats him like a brick to be compressed while building a grand edifice. Indeed, Job doesn’t realize just how bad things are in heaven—God has afflicted him not for anything that Job has done wrong, but to prove a boastful claim made to Satan. Job is humble, but he refuses the crushing role of building block in the palace of heavenly hubris.

Other commentaries are more conventional—Abraham ibn Ezra and David Kimchi both read Job as conceding his own ignorance and God’s superior judgment in the end. But following Rashi and Greenstein, there is a chance that Job, like Abraham, was doing something more difficult: maintaining personal humility even when standing up to God. Defiance, not capitulation, is how Greenstein understands his pose.

Whatever he was up to, Job was well regarded by the sages. In Bavli Bava Batra 15b, Rabbi Yohanan claims that Job was greater than Abraham, since the Bible’s praise of Job as “a perfectly righteous and God fearing man” exceeds that of Abraham, who was only, “God fearing.” Humility is indeed an essential spiritual quality, but as we learn from both characters, it does not require meekness. Injustice demands audacity; walking away from suffering is not humble but cruel. Perhaps the old joke is on to something after all—to see oneself as nothing requires the ultimate in audacity.

בראשית פרק יח, כו-כז

(כו) וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אִם אֶמְצָא בִסְדֹם חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר וְנָשָׂאתִי לְכָל הַמָּקוֹם בַּעֲבוּרָם: (כז) וַיַּעַן אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמַר הִנֵּה נָא הוֹאַלְתִּי לְדַבֵּר אֶל אֲדֹנָי וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר:

קהלת פרק יב, ז

(ז) וְיָשֹׁב הֶעָפָר עַל הָאָרֶץ כְּשֶׁהָיָה וְהָרוּחַ תָּשׁוּב אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר נְתָנָהּ:

מסכתות קטנות מסכת אבות דרבי נתן נוסחא ב פרק מה

כל שיש בו ג’ דברים הללו [מתלמידיו] של אברהם. וג’ דברים הללו [מתלמידיו] של בלעם. של אברהם עין טובה רוח נמוכה נפש שפלה. עין טובה מנין שנאמר ואל הבקר רץ אברהם ויקח בן בקר (בראשית י”ח ז’). בן שלש רך בן שתים וטוב בן שנתו. רוח נמוכה מנין שנאמר גר ותושב אנכי עמכם (שם כ”ג ד’). נפש שפלה מנין שנאמר ואנכי עפר ואפר (שם י”ח כ”ז). [וחילופיהן בתלמידיו] של בלעם עין רעה ורוח גבוהה ונפש רחבה.

איוב פרק ל, יט

(יט) הֹרָנִי לַחֹמֶר וָאֶתְמַשֵּׁל כֶּעָפָר וָאֵפֶר:

איוב פרק מב, ד-ו

(ד) שְׁמַע נָא וְאָנֹכִי אֲדַבֵּר אֶשְׁאָלְךָ וְהוֹדִיעֵנִי: (ה) לְשֵׁמַע אֹזֶן שְׁמַעְתִּיךָ וְעַתָּה עֵינִי רָאָתְךָ: (ו) עַל כֵּן אֶמְאַס וְנִחַמְתִּי עַל עָפָר וָאֵפֶר:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת בבא בתרא דף טו עמוד ב

א”ר יוחנן: גדול הנאמר באיוב יותר ממה שנאמר באברהם, דאילו באברהם כתיב: כי עתה ידעתי כי ירא אלהים אתה, ובאיוב כתיב: איש תם וישר ירא אלהים [וסר מרע].

רש”י איוב פרק ל

ואתמשל – נדמיתי ובמדרש רבי תנחומא אמר ר’ ברכיה סרס את המקרא אני נמשלתי לאברהם בצדקתי שקרא עצמו עפר ואפר (בראשית יח) והוא דנני כרשעי דור הפלגה (שמרדו בו בבנין המגדל) שכתוב בהם והחמר היה להם לחומר (שם /בראשית/ יא):

אבן עזרא איוב פרק מב פסוק ו

(ו) על כן אמאס – בכל דברי:

ונחמתי על עפר ואפר – כי אנכי נבזה כטעם ואנכי עפר ואפר:

מצודת דוד איוב פרק מב פסוק ו

(ו) על כן – בעבור אהבת ההשגה אשר השגתי במה שעיני ראתך אמאס בכל הקניינים הגופים כי כמוהם כאין מול יקר ההשגה ההיא:

ונחמתי – עתה יש לי תנחומין רב על הצער שהייתי בו לשבת בתוך עפר ואפר כמ”ש והוא יושב בתוך האפר (לעיל /איוב/ ב) כי הצער הזה היה סבה להשיג האמת: