Rising from the Ashes

Rabbi Zvi Teichman

After the angels conclude their mission in bringing the good tiding of Yitzchok’s future birth, Avraham escorts them on their way out. Unbeknownst to Avraham they were on their way to destroy Sodom and save Lot. G-d realizing that Avraham is in the dark regarding this plan feels compelled to reveal to Avraham His intention, after all Avraham is destined to become a mighty nation, and will instill his progeny with the values of kindness and justice, it is only appropriate that he be informed. Avraham’s immediate reaction to the news is to intercede and appeal to G-d to save the five cities in the region if each of them possesses ten righteous men. The merit of this nucleus of righteous souls would encompass the entire city, even the wicked among them, warranting their being spared. G-d readily accedes.

Worrying that perhaps there weren’t even fifty righteous men among the populace; Avraham continues to bargain with G-d for mercy. But before making his next proposal, Avraham interjects with a now famous statement. 

Behold, I desired to speak to my Lord although I am but, עפר ואפר — dust and ash.  

Avraham then goes on to request of G-d that in the event there are only forty-five righteous men, with only nine worthy men per city, would He also be so benevolent in saving all the inhabitants?

Why did this second petition justify a preface and his original plea did not? What was the purpose of this introductory remark?

On the face of it, it would seem that Avraham feared he may appear audacious in being so brazen to question G-d’s decision and therefore asserted his utter sense of humility and unworthiness before G-d before making his next pitch. If that be the case shouldn’t Avraham have made that clear from the get-go even before he initiated any defense on behalf of Sodom?

From the onset it seems evident that the specific presence of a quorum of ten men, transforms them from being viewed merely as individuals into a representative grouping that reflects positively on the entire populace, thus justifying the whole city escaping punishment. What then would be the logic in beseeching that nine should be sufficient?  Rashi quoting the Midrash explains that Avraham suggested that G-d Himself, the Righteous One of the world, will be counted with them, bringing each group to the magic number ten.

Perhaps it was precisely due to the innovation of this unique and very bold proposition that Avraham reiterated his lack of any pretentiousness in his request.

The greater question that begs is how can G-d serve as a contributing member of the requisite ‘ten’ righteous men? Isn’t the justification of this grouping being a saving grace for the entire city predicated on their having maintained a community of righteousness despite the negative influences around them? How can G-d then possibly factor into the equation?

Avraham chooses to describe himself in modest terms comparing himself to dust and ashes. Why does he choose these lowly entities specifically to symbolize humility? Rashi elucidates, quoting the Midrash, that Avraham was referring to his nearly being trampled into ‘dust’ in his battle with the kings, and his almost turning into ash in the furnace of Nimrod, if not for G-d’s mercies that stood by him. 

If you think about it, if this indeed was his intent, then he wasn’t necessarily being humble as much as he was being grateful. Avraham was expressing the reality that if not for G-d’s intervention he would’ve perished, becoming dust and ashes. It certainly stresses his attributing his salvation entirely to G-d’s benevolence without taking any credit to himself, a lesson in humility no doubt, but then the reference to dust and ashes is merely tangential, not the  crux of his statement. So why then did he emphasize, עפר ואפר — dust and ashes?

Additionally, we wonder as to why the reference to the dust of battle is made first and then mention of the furnace of Nimrod. Chronologically, the episode of Avraham being cast into the fire preceded the battle of the kings.

Years ago, my beloved late father, Mr. Morris Teichman, made a marvelous observation. If you analyze the two words עפר and אפר, they both possess the letters פר, which means bull, with one word beginning with the letter ע, which is numerically equivalent to 70, while the other begins with an א, corresponding to the number 1. He suggested that it cryptically alludes to the עפר — the ‘seventy’ bulls that were brought in the Temple over the seven days of Sukkos, and the א — the ‘one’ bull that was brought on the eighth day, Shemini Atzeres. The 70 bulls, we are taught, correspond to the 70 nations, whom we acknowledge with the bringing of these sacrifices, and the lone bull, representing the Jewish nation and its exclusive relationship with G-d alone. Avraham, my father explained, was declaring his right to advocate for Sodom for after all he was called Avraham, since he was the, אב המון גוים — father of a multitude of nations, and thus entitled to represent their interests. It is for this reason Avraham mentions עפר and אפר at this juncture. 

I subsequently discovered that remarkably the Vilna Gaon, as well as the famed Mekubal and disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch, Rav Yitzchak Issac Katz of Koritz, note this idea. 

There were two pivotal events in the early days of Avraham’s ascent. The incident with Nimrod depicted the unique relationship Avraham had with G-d. One man struggling alone against an entire world, facing pressures from family and his community, overcoming many obstacles, and finally defining and discovering himself, fortified by the knowledge of G-d’s love and constant encouragement. The second episode took place after Avraham and Sarah had conquered the hearts of all whom they encountered, enlisting a family of thousands of admirers and disciples who were ready to transform a world of dark pagan beliefs into a realm of light, meaning and benevolence. The battle with the kings displayed before the world arena the hope and promise that is in store for those honest enough to see the truth in all its glory and commit to live by its principles.

The seventy bulls, commemorating the 70 nations, that we bring on Sukkos are not brought on their behalf, but are rather an expression of our role as the chosen nation, whom through properly fulfilling its mission will inspire and uplift all the nations of the world to a common higher ideal. It is the full manifestation of that which began during Avraham’s victory over the four kings, which symbolized the four exiles we would be destined to endure as a nation, in eventually realizing our potential greatness. 

On Shemini Atzeres we stand though alone, with merely one bull in hand. G-d summons us for a private audience, pining to experience just one more moment of exquisite closeness before we part. We stand before G-d on that day, devoid of the ‘weapons of victory’— the four species, exposed and vulnerable — no longer in the shelter of the Sukkah, presenting our weaknesses, failures, and challenges. Yet, even though we have not yet succeeded in completing our mission as a nation in bearing the standard of Torah perfectly to the point of total triumph over our 70 antagonists, nevertheless G-d embraces us, encouraging us to never give up, to continue our struggle. He cherishes our devotion even in the face of failure; our striving to get closer; our refusal to give up. It is in those battles that G-d sees how deeply we yearn for His closeness.

This is reminiscent of that lonely moment when Avraham stood before the lapping flames of Nimrod’s furnace, unaccompanied but for the abiding invisible presence of G-d, he knew would never forsake him.

Perhaps therein lays the answer to all our questions. 

Initially Avraham remained confident, without need for any introduction, that were there to be a cadre of ten righteous men yet among the mongrels of Sodom, G-d would certainly consent to save a city in the hope that their light will conquer the darkness.

But how can Avraham expect G-d to spare the populace if only individuals remain? 

Avraham therefor prefaces and states, “Although I am עפר — dust, conjuring the imagery of his victory over the four kings where the legions of righteous defeated the corrupt masses, but I am also אפר — ash, the champion of those individuals who despite being isolated, never accept defeat, battling ceaselessly towards greatness.”  

Perhaps, that is the deeper meaning in the sentiment that G-d, the Righteous One of the World, should be ‘ — literally, ‘join’ with them — not merely being ‘counted’ — attaching Himself to them, connoting a close personal relationship that is at times more evident among those who seek Him isolated, without the benefit of the support from society or compatriots. 

The Talmud refers to the Mashiach as בר נפלי — the ‘fallen one’, alluding to the prophecy of Amos who states that G-d will raise up the סכת דוד הנופלת — the fallen Sukkah of David, a metaphor for the Temple. The Maharal teaches that a Sukkah even when it falls is still called a Sukkah and can rise to its former status, as opposed to a house that collapses must be rebuilt totally anew. Perhaps it is that unique ability to continuously rise up after one has fallen repeatedly that this title of ‘fallen one’ extols.

The message of the א — the ‘one bull’, must accompany us in all the challenges we face. We may be down, but never out. We are assured that if we bounce back despite our failures, Avraham’s prayers will intercede on our behalf and guarantee us success! 

May we merit greeting the ‘fallen one’ very soon.

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