Dust Yourself Off

Rabbi Zvi Teichman

Bilaam tells Balak the Jews are impervious to his curses, for “Who has counted the dust of Yaakov, or who can number the seed of Israel”.   

Rashi explains the first half of this verse as referring to the ‘countless’ mitzvos that are fulfilled with עפר, ‘dust’:  You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey [together]; You shall not sow your field with a mixture of seeds, the ashes of the red cow, the dust used for a woman, a Sotah, suspected of infidelity, and others similar to these.

The second half of the verse alludes to G-d attending to each potential ‘seed’ during copulation, wondering when will the drop of the righteous one come to fruition.

What is so unique about the various mitzvos that revolve around ‘dust’, and are they truly innumerable? 

The first and second parts of the verse seem totally unrelated. Why are they matched up?

What relevance is there to these sentiments and our impregnability to Bilaam’s curses?

Rashi’s presentation of the sampling of dust related commandments seems perplexing as he chose not to list them in the order they appear in the Torah. 

The order does though seem to follow an intended progression. 

The first prohibition of not engaging different species of animals in a joint task, is mentioned in its relationship to the plowing of the soil, the dust of the earth, a דומם — an inanimate entity.

The second command governs the proper planting of seeds for future growth, צומח — flora.

The third refers to the taking of a Red Heifer, a חי — animal life, burning it and turning it to ash, a form of dust.

Finally, the earth that is on the floor of the Tabernacle that is added to the ‘bitter water’, the suspected adulteress drinks in determining her innocence, impacts on the מדבר — a speaking human life-form.

The progression of mineral, vegetation, animal, and man embodies the sum-total of all the strata of physical life as we know it.

For you are dust and to dust will you return.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that ‘dust’ is the beginning and end of all matter. All organisms being borne from earth and decompose into dust. Dust represents our truthful and absolute essence. It is the only component of our physical entity that is eternal. 

Our nation is compared to the stars and to the dust of the earth. When we rise, we ascend to the heavens radiating our brilliance. When we fall, we descend to the lowly earth. This is not our deficiency but rather the secret of our revival. Each time we drop we connect to the essence of unadulterated truth, of life itself, utilizing the regenerating powers of the soil to arise anew, refreshed and more vital than before.

Avraham Avinu famously exclaimed, I am but dust and ash. Dust, soil, is nothing, is silent, is fully submissive, yet miraculously enables the production of fruit. Ash is the evidence of that which formerly had value and purpose now transformed into mere valueless ash.

Avraham stood before G-d attesting to the power of man in humbly placing himself as the agent of G-d in bringing His inspired and enthused presence to the world in the numerous opportunities availed to us in every experience in a very physical world. But after we succeed, we modestly submit we are like worthless ash. Avraham expresses his ultimate humility and commitment to G-d. (בית הלוי)

Was Avraham belittling his marvelous accomplishments? Perhaps what he was conveying was that there is an endless journey, where yesterday’s benchmark is tomorrow’s soil to be plowed afresh in bringing even more glorious fruit. 

The Jewish people, Bilaam realized, are indestructible. They are a nation that after being crushed into dust will transform that state into one of growth.

With this, Rebbe Nachman teaches we can understand the second part of the verse.

G-s is not waiting for that one special seed among the myriad of potential conceptions that will become the Tzaddik, the righteous one. G-d longs for the day when every seed, every child, in its unique journey — whether Rasha or Tzaddik — the power of ‘dust’ will enthuse it to regenerate — despite it having fallen — towards its destined greatness. It may take generations, but ultimately it will come to its glorious fruition.

Bilaam realized his efforts are futile. Who is like this nation that is invested with the power of ‘dust’, not only in the several mitzvos that relate to dust, but in every endeavor and challenge? 

Those mitzvos merely reflect on the very character of this nation, prodded on by their Father in Heaven, who patiently waits and longs for their success, never losing hope, never giving up.

We encompass in our mission all aspects of the world from mineral to elevated man.

We continue our mission, despite our failures, knowing that G-d believes in us.

Years ago, a young man who is now married, a father of a beautiful family, and successful in his career, approached me and said he wished to share with me something very personal. What he told me blew me away. He went on to relate that it was because of me that he is religious today. I was quite astounded as I never realized during that time that he was so challenged to such an extent. Sure, he had created his share of trouble, both in and out of the classroom — which I most certainly did recall — but if someone asked me whether he was in danger of falling off the precipice, I would’ve said, definitely not. I asked him what was it that I did that was so heroic that kept him from opting out. He simply stated that despite his recurrent antics and his fear of being caught and having to face the dire consequences — although I was enraged with his behavior — I never let him feel that he was a failure and kindly and warmly expressed hope he would improve. I was no hero; I simply liked the kid and wrote off his mischief to his natural restlessness. I’m afraid if I knew the extent of the trouble he made, perhaps I might have reacted differently. The lesson in the anecdote, though, is that in the eyes of the ones going through personal challenges, what keeps them buoyant is their knowing they aren’t failures and that they can ‘dust’ themselves off and get back on track to their appropriate destinations.

The Almighty says when observing how we keep the ‘precepts of the dust’ in our lives, brushing ourselves off, never losing hope, He too promises that He will finally call out, התנערי מעפר —Shake off the dust, קומי — Arise, Sit [on your throne], O Jerusalem”. (ישעיהו נב ב)

He raises the needy from the dust, from the trash heaps He lifts the destitute. (תהלים קיג ז) 

Speedily in our days.

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