This week's issue is in memory of a measure of purity lost from the Jewish people. When we besieged Shmuel Hanavi to give us a king, we angered him. Not because of the request, Rashi says, but because of how we phrased it. This week we made ourselves our own Martin Luther King or John Kennedy. We saw how we can live to the depth of those words, "lihyos kichol ha'amim -- to be like all the nations".
When Hashem decided to destroy Sodom, Amorah, and nearby towns, Avraham pleads on their behalf. At one point, apologizing for having the audacity to continue bargaining with the Judge of All, "Avraham replies and says, 'Here, please, I desire to speak to my L-rd, but I am afar va'eifer -- dirt and ashes'". (18:27)
The Gemara (Chullin 88b) teaches that Hashem rewarded Avraham for this turn of phrase. In exchange for comparing himself to afar his children received the mitzvah of Afar Sotah (the dust mixed with water drunk by a wife who has fallen under suspicion of adultery). Avraham's reference to eifer earned us the ashes of the Parah Adumah (used to remove tum'ah after contact with the dead).
The Beis Haleivi points at that with these words, Avraham belittles himself from both extremes of time. Dirt is something which has no useful form. It could, in the future, have one, if you grow plants in it, or make something out of pottery or glass. Ashes are the remains of something that once may have had a useful form, but no longer does. What Avraham is saying with these words is simply, "I was nothing, and I will be nothing".
The Beis Haleivi continues by pointing out how well the reward fits the deed. The Afar Sotah are used to reveal that the woman had a pure past, that no sin was committed. The Parah Adumah purifies you for the future. In response to Avraham's declaration that he was nothing and will be nothing, Hashem gives his children tools by which to show that we were of value, and we will have value.
The idea that in the past and future man is nothing, particularly in the context of Divine Judgment, brings to mind a Mishnah in Avos.
Akavia ben Mahalalel says, "Look to three things, and you will not come to the influence of sin: know from where you came, and to where you are going, and before Whom you are destined to be judged.
From where you came -- from a putrid drop; where you are going -- to a place of dirt, worms and maggots; and before Whom are you destined to be judged -- before the King of kings, Hakadosh Baruch Hu."
-- Pirkei Avos 3:1
The Chafeitz Chaim (Sheim Olam, Part II, Ch. 11) points out that at face value there was no reason for the Mishnah to be broken into two parts. The tana could have just said "Look to three things, and you will not come to the influence of sin: know from where you came -- from a putrid drop", etc... Why did Akavia first present the three things and then explain them?
The Chafeitz Chaim explains that the two parts of this Mishnah actually speak to the two poles of man. The first portion addresses a person's spiritual side. Akavia ben Mahalel is telling us to remember the value of our souls, and we would not want to sully them with sin. The soul comes from the "chambers" of glory of Hashem Himself, and spends its entire time on earth striving to return to that glory. Every setback from that journey will be accounted for. Man is "the image of G-d", why would you want to tamper with that by sinning.
In the second portion of the Mishnah, he addresses how puny man's physical side is, how ridiculous it is to take it seriously and make it the goal of your lifetime. It came from nothing, and will return to nothing. Why enslave yourself to it?
The difference between being afar va'eifer or something of value is which set of urges you choose to serve.
Avraham phrases this idea in the negative, echoing the words of the second half of the Mishnah. How can I stand before You? I am a physical animal. Hashem's reward is the ability to serve Him, to become in touch with our spiritual being.
These two mitzvos, Sotah and Parah Adumah, show us the proper use of the physical. We take dust and ashes, symbols of the pointlessness of striving for our physical selves as the goal, and use them to validate spiritual purity. The physical becomes a tool for remembering that we come from G-d, and yearn to return to Him.© 1995 The AishDas Society