parashas Vayeira 5781
“And Abraham answered and said: Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the L-rd, [I] who am but dust and ashes.’” – Genesis 18:27, JPS 1917 Tanach
When H’Shem told Abraham that He was about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham responded by attempting to persuade H’Shem not to do so. Abraham argued that H’Shem’s severity would neglect the lives of the righteous: “Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?’” (Genesis 18:23, JPS).
In humbling himself before H’Shem, Abraham described himself as “dust and ashes” (see above). In other words, as Rabeinu Bachya explains, I started as dust, and I am destined to become ashes (R. Bachya, commentary on Genesis 18:27, sefaria.org).
The Talmud notes in Chullin 89a, as if H’Shem is speaking: “I granted greatness to Abraham, yet he said before Me: And I am but dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27). I granted greatness to Moses and Aaron, yet Moses said of the two of them: And what are we? (Exodus 16:7). I granted greatness to David, yet he said: But I am a worm, and no man (Psalms 22:7) (sefaria.org).
Abraham’s self-perception denotes the character trait of humility; likewise, both Moses and Dovid HaMelech (King David) also exemplified, what is called in Hebrew, anavah (humility), in respect to the Kavod (Glory) of H’Shem. What can we learn, in specific, from Abraham’s example? To answer this question, consider the following:
Rabeinu Bachya explains that when Abraham stepped forward to dialogue with H’Shem about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, “He was on a totally spiritual and intellectual level” (R. Bachya, commentary on Genesis 18:33, sefaria.org). Yet, after the dialogue, “Abraham returned to his place” (Genesis 18:33). I.e., Abraham returned to his normal state of being – “dust and ashes.”
Like Abraham, we may assert ourselves in tefillah (prayer) to H’Shem, while, also remaining aware of our lowliness, knowing that we cannot make demands of G-d. Instead, we must humble ourselves before Him in acknowledgment of our lowly nature. We are no more than dust and ashes; yet, G-d breathed life into us, so that we may have the capacity to approach him on a spiritual level, while always being conscious of our earthly place in regard to the spiritual heights of Heaven.