I begin with a familiar story. If it wasn't familiar to you already, it should at least be familiar from last night.
Rabbi Simcha Bunam of P'shis'kha was an unusual chassidic rebbe. Unlike many of those in the constellation of chassidic masters, he took pride in being both worldly and intellectual. That is not to say that most of the chassidic masters were parochial and unsophisticated; however, most of those who were saw little use for their worldly knowledge. Simcha Bunam had been a lumber merchant and a pharmacist. He attended the theater and was familiar with the popular music of the late 18th and early 19th century. He was active in the political affairs of both the Jewish and general communities.
He came to chassidism relatively late in his life -- he was not among those young men who threw over their parents' plans for them to follow some charismatic rabbi. But lots of those young men came to study with him, which may explain the central emphasis of what became known as P'shis'kha Chassidism: full and conscious sincerity with oneself. Simcha Bunam was among those who interpreted Leviticus 25:17 in a very personal way: "You shall not deceive another, but you shall fear God" was understood to include one's self. You shall not deceive yourself, and thus will you be able to stand in awe of God. Only the one who is honest with himself or herself can know true devotion.
Without that background, it is easy to omit the last words of Rabbi Simcha Bunam's most familiar teaching, but with that background it is impossible to ignore it. The story is usually told this way:
Rabbi Simcha Bunam used to say, "Every person should have two pockets. In one, [there should be a note that says] bishvili nivra ha'olam, 'for my sake was the world created.' In the second, [there should be a note that says] anokhi afar va'efer, 'I am dust and ashes.'"
In some versions of the story, as if the listener can't figure it out for him- or herself, Simcha Bunam is alleged to continue, "When one is feeling down, he should take out the note that says 'for my sake was the world created.' And when one is feeling smug, he should take out the note that says 'I am dust and ashes.'"
In other versions, the contemporary homiletic reading speaks of how pockets are on either side of a person, and we therefore live in the tension between our arrogance and self-denigration.
You can find both versions on the web, dozens of sermons by dozens of rabbis. I read a bunch of them in preparation for writing this one. So if you like the story, but not the sermon, you can do better after Yom Kippur by googling "dust and ashes."
But I wouldn't be honest with you if I didn't share the rest of the teaching, which I found in the collection Iturei Torah, a verse-by-verse collection of Chassidic teachings on the weekly Torah portion. Simcha Bunam draws his own lesson from his delightful image:
"One must know how to use them, each one in its proper place and right time. For many make the mistake of using them in their opposite applications."
That is to say, too often, when we should be acknowledging our arrogance, we are defending it. And when we should be overcoming our self-denigration, we are confirming it. And so today, I want to spend a little time on the second statement, as I spent last night on the first, and how it might apply to life.
The saying anokhi afar va'efer, "I am dust and ashes," is actually from the Torah. Though you will find the phrase "dust and ashes" in the Book of Job, its original usage, and the phrase in Simcha Bunam's teaching, is actually from the Book of Genesis. Abraham uses it to describe himself as he makes his increasingly bold challenges to God before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He says it after he has thrown down the gauntlet with the words, Ha-shofeit kol ha'aretz lo ya'aseh mishpat?; "Shall not the Judge of all the world do justice?"
It is hard to imagine the description of dust and ashes as meaning anything much more than worthless. After all, what is dust? It is what is left over from dirt. And ashes? They are the detritus of total destruction, all you have when all-consuming fire can consume no more.
Where does Abraham get such a description of himself? You might make the case that for dust - afar - our father Abraham hearkens back to the story of our origin. God gathered dust from the earth and blew breath, blew a soul into it and it became the first human being. But to add ashes to it - even if in Hebrew it has an almost lyrical quality, afar va'efer - seems to diminish any sense of life. Ashes are extinguished. How much lower can you get?
Abraham's self-denigrating description is universally understood by later commentators to be meritorious. Some, including Maimonides, compare the humility of Abraham with the arrogance of Bilaam. Others, including Rashi, claim that by the merits of Abraham we were deemed worthy of two practices that expiate us from impurity - covering spilled blood in dust and using the ashes of the sacrificed red heifer in the purification ritual.
But midrash has Abraham explain his remarks to God: Had it not been for your mercy, the five kings I defeated would have turned me into dust, and Nimrod [who tried to burn me in a furnace] would have turned me into ashes.
And in the nuance of that explanation is the real meaning of this phrase, anokhi afar va'efer. Consider whom it is that Abraham addresses when he speaks those words. He is not speaking to some earthly potentate, like King Avimelekh or Pharaoh. He is not negotiating with a relative like Lot. He is not quarreling with his wife or his mistress of either of his beloved sons. In any of those situations, anokhi afar va'efer, I am dust and ashes, might be understood as having some sort of edge of sarcasm or irony. Those words might be understood as accusatory - "If I am dust and ashes, then so are you."
Instead, Abraham is speaking to his Creator, the Holy One of Blessed Name. By recalling that he is dust and his origin is dust, that he has avoided being an ash-heap only because God decreed he would not be an ash-heap, Abraham is reminding God that he exists for a purpose. And when he pleads for mercy for the denizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, as undeserving a bunch as the Bible can imagine, Abraham tries to remind God that but for God's mercy, they are dust and ashes as well. How can it be that they have any less purpose than he does?
And what an irony - that is exactly what they become, dust and ashes. The populations of Sodom and Gomorrah do not care enough about themselves to stand up for their own lives, let alone the lives of others. And so they get what they deserve: fire and brimstone rain down upon the cities and nothing is left but dust and ashes. Abraham, on the other hand, is saved from that doom by rising above his origin and his fate. He is but dust and ashes, and yet he presumes to challenge even God.
And he has the chutzpah to intimate to God directly that this challenge to God is exactly the reason, exactly the purpose for his very creation.
My friends, anokhi afar va'efer. I am mere dust and ashes. You are mere dust and ashes. God breathed life into your flesh, the dust, and into your bones, the ashes, and you became much more than the sum of your parts. You have arrived here today attempting to clean away the dust that has accumulated in the neglected corners of your soul, to brush away the ashes of dreams and aspirations that have gone up in smoke over the year past. You have come to sit in this sanctuary, hungry and tired and probably more than a little bored, your eyes heavy as if sleep had been dusted on them, your mouth dry as if it were filled with ashes, and you wonder how it is you have the standing to ask God for forgiveness. The formula is rote and you plunge into it while watching the clock tick away the minutes until you can nourish your weary body again.
By all means, recite the roster of transgressions again and again: ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, we have sinned, we have betrayed, we have robbed. By all means, enumerate the possibilities that the human race has accumulated, by hardening our hearts, by abusing our speech, by acting on our lust. Those are sins that other people have committed, and to confess them is to ask forgiveness on their behalf. They live between the pages of that prayer book in your lap, they are rolled up in the scrolls that witnessed our declaration last night, they are confessed by stubborn hearts and willing lips that are drawn to this place this day for this purpose.
But you and I have only one confession to make that is genuine. And what a horrible sin it is! For the sin that I have sinned for not remembering anokhi afar va'efer, I am dust and ashes! I have pretended that to be who I am is not enough, that there is something I need to prove before my worth to stand before God can be justified. I have denigrated myself by believing that unless I produce, unless I excel, unless I succeed, unless I outshine the other piles of dust and heaps of ashes, then I have no reason to be alive in this world.
You have inherent worth because out of the most elemental and irreducible and worthless materials ancient man could imagine, you stood up and looked around and embraced a world of beauty and terror, of pleasure and pain, of justice and inequity. You are able to take the initial gift of life and continuing grace of living from God and turn to God and challenge, "Shall not the Judge of all the world do justice?"
Imagine such a voice from the dust bunnies under your bed, from the burnt detritus of your backyard barbecue, from the corner behind your refrigerator or from the faded embers in your fireplace! Anokhi afar va'efer - that schmutz headed for the trashcan has roused itself before the very God who gave it a soul.
And if, because you have become impressed that dust and ashes can stand and speak, you have not cried out before God for the sake of the rest of the dust and ashes in this world, for the sake of all the dust and ashes in this world that have not found their voice, for the sake of all the dust and ashes just like you, then dust and ashes you might as well be.
How can it be that Rabbi Simcha Bunam would deliver the same message twice - bishvili nivra ha'olam, for my sake was the world created, and anokhi afar va'efer, I am dust and ashes? They seem to be opposites! Why would Simcha Bunam worry that we use them wrongly if they say the same thing - each of us has a place and a purpose in the world, an inherent worth that gives us meaning not just at the end of life, but even before it begins?
There is a difference between them, just as there is a difference between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the bookends of these days of awe. On Rosh HaShanah life is renewed and world that is created for your sake is created once again. On Yom Kippur, you dress in a shroud and deny your mortal body its pleasures, approximating as best you can ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Rosh HaShanah is about unbridled optimism and Yom Kippur about resignation. Rosh HaShanah is about the unique opportunities this new world presents to you and Yom Kippur is about the common end you face with everyone who is, who was, who ever will be.
How long is it between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur? What is the span of time from renewal to decay, from promise to conclusion, from innocence to judgment? What is the measure from the springboard of creation to the precipice of death?
It is a week, seven days, a single cycle. It is a blink of an eye. There is no time to waste.
How long is it from Abraham, who spoke those words anokhi afar va'efer, to the Talmud, where it is written bishvili nivra ha'olam, to Rabbi Simcha Bunam of P'shis'kha, who cautioned us to keep those words at hand and use them appropriately?
At least 1500 years from the first to the second, and at least as many years from the second to the third. A lesson that took 3500 years to learn. Almost all of Jewish history - until you.
You have no time to waste to plead with God to help you discover your purpose. Quickly, hurry, run - the week will soon be over, the gates will soon be closed.
You have all the time in the world to work with God to accomplish your purpose. Be deliberate and relentless. Settle for no less than fulfillment, for there are no shortcuts to redemption.
When you feel like dirt, when you feel like dust and ashes, reach into your pocket and read that note that celebrates the uniqueness of your role in the world around you, the thing that sets you apart from everyone else: bishvili nivra ha'olam, for my sake was the world created.
When you feel as if you bear the burden of the world on your shoulders, when you feel unique and alone, reach into your pocket and read that note that celebrates the commonality you share with everyone around you, with everything, reaching back to the beginning of our history: anokhi afar va'efer, I am dust and ashes.
The right encouragement at the right time. A renewed sense of mission when you feel underqualified or overwhelmed. Just the right nuance to your complex and complicated life so that the choices before no longer seem stark and unforgiving.
Come back tonight, for the very end of Yom Kippur. I have something for you. But in the meantime, I leave you with a story.
Rabbi Simcha Bunam of P'shis'kha used to say, "Every person should have two pockets. In one, [there should be a note that says] bishvili nivra ha'olam, 'for my sake was the world created.' In the second, [there should be a note that says] anokhi afar va'efer, 'I am dust and ashes.' One must know how to use them, each one in its proper place and right time. For many make the mistake of using them in their opposite applications."