‘I am but dust and ashes’. A famous phrase: Where does it come from? In Genesis chapter 18 (:27), we read that Abraham spoke these words in the midst of his bargaining with the Eternal One over the fate of the ‘wicked’ cities of Sodom and Gomorrah: ‘Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak to my Lord, yet I am dust and ashes’. Interestingly, in Hebrew, the two words, ‘dust’ and ‘ashes’ – afar and eifar – share the same root: Ayin Pei Reish.
Abraham’s realisation recalls the second account of the creation of humanity in Genesis chapter 2 (:7): ‘Then the Eternal God formed the human [ha-adam]; dust from the ground [afar min-ha-adamah].’ At the conclusion of the narrative, after the first two humans have eaten of the forbidden tree and ‘the eyes of both of them were opened’ (Genesis 3:7), they learnt the shadow side of their affinity with the ground: ‘In the sweat of your face, you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground [el-ha-adamah]; for out of it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return’ [ki afar atah, v’afar tashuv] (3:19).
We are dust and ashes. The message is one of humility. And yet… In one of the works of ‘wisdom’ literature included in the Bible, the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), we read towards the end of the final chapter (12:7): ‘The dust returns to the ground as it was; but the spirit [ha-ru’ach] returns to God, Who gave it’. Quoted in the funeral service, these words remind us that according to Jewish teaching, we are more than dust and ashes. The verse in Genesis chapter 2 (:7) that begins: ‘Then the Eternal God formed the human being [ha-adam]; dust from the ground [afar min-ha-adamah],’ concludes: ‘and He blew into its nostrils the breath of life [nishmat chayyim], and the human [ha-adam] became a living being [nefesh chayyah].’ Significantly, the designation ‘living being’, nefesh chayyah, is applied in the first account of creation to the other living creatures, too (Gen. 1:20). And so, after the flood, although humanity is permitted for the first time to eat flesh (initially, all human and animal life is vegetarian – Gen. 1:29-30), the eating of blood is prohibited: ‘But flesh [basar] with its being [b’nafsho], which is its blood [damo] may not be eaten’ (Gen. 9:4). All living creatures, it seems, are more than dust and ashes…
Of course, all of this is debatable. From a material, scientific perspective, life is ‘matter’, and ‘matter’ is made up of tiny particles – molecules and the atoms within them. ‘The breath of life’ is not a mysterious added extra; a gift breathed into us by the Divine. And yet, the sense that we are more than matter is not just the preserve of religious systems of thought; many people feel strongly that what animates our ‘matter’ cannot simply be explained in physical, biological and chemical terms. At the same time, Abraham’s realisation that he was ‘dust and ashes’ is an important corrective to humanity’s potential for arrogance and hubris. Rabbi Bunim of P’shiskha (1765-1827), whose teachings were transmitted orally, taught: “Everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written: ‘I am but dust and ashes’ [quoting Genesis 18:27], and on the other: ‘The world was created for my sake’ [quoting Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37b]. From time to time we must reach into one pocket, or the other. The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each one.”