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Dust and Ashes

Updated: Jul 29, 2023

Dust and Ashes

Congregation Shomrei Torah 

Handout for the Rabbi’s Tisch with Rabbi Pam Frydman

Friday, December 14, 2012

I am but dust and ashes - The world was created for me

QUESTION: What is Rabbi Simcha Bunim trying to teach us?

TEACHING: Rabbi Simcha Bunim of P'shiskha used to say that everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written, “I am but dust and ashes,” and on the other, “The world was created for me.” 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.

SOURCE MATERIAL: It says in the Torah (Genesis 18:27) that when Abraham was bargaining with God to save Sodom and Gemorrah. Abraham said

וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר         I am but dust and ashes       V'anochi afar va'eyfer

In Talumdic times, the sages created a system for advising witnesses who were preparing to testify in capital cases, that is in cases where the punishment for the crime would be death, such as murder and rape. The sages recommended that the following teaching should be provided to such witnesses before they testified:

לפיכך נברא אדם יחידי, ללמדך שכל המאבד נפש אחת מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו איבד עולם מלא, וכל המקיים נפש אחת מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קיים עולם מלא. ומפני שלום הבריות, שלא יאמר אדם לחבירו אבא גדול מאביך, ושלא יהו המינים אומרים: הרבה רשויות בשמים. ולהגיד גדולתו של הקדוש ברוך הוא, שאדם טובע כמה מטבעות בחותם אחד כולן דומין זה לזה, ומלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא טבע כל אדם בחותמו של אדם הראשון ואין אחד מהן דומה לחבירו. לפיכך כל אחד ואחד חייב לומר: בשבילי נברא העולם.

Therefore was the first earthling (Adam), created singular, to teach us that whoever destroys a single life, it is considered as if that person destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a single life, it is considered as if the person saved an entire world... And for the sake of peace among humans, so that no one should say, “My ancestor was greater than yours ancestor”.. And to show the greatness of the Holy Blessed One, for if a man mints many coins from one mold, they all resemble one another, but the Sovereign of Sovereigns, the Holy Blessed One, made each him in the image of Adam, and not one of them resembles another. Therefore every person is obligated to say, 'The world was created for my sake” (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5)


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