Shaya Cohen -


Creating Value from Worthless Dust

I want to talk about dust. Regular, old-fashioned dirt. The stuff that has virtually no value in its raw form.

Why does this interest me? Because the way the word for dust, afar, is used in the Torah is fascinating, and worth exploring.

At first glance, dust does not seem to rated highly in the text:

On your belly shall you crawl
And dust shall you eat
All the days of your life. (Gen 3:14)

For dust you are, and to dust you shall return. (Gen. 3:19)

Abraham spoke up, saying, “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes (Gen 18:27)

You made Your wind blow, the sea covered them / They sank like lead/dust in the majestic waters. (Ex. 15:10)

And the Philistines stopped up all the wells which [Isaac’s] father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with dust. (Gen 26:15)

Dust is used for destruction!

But despite all of these examples, G-d also tells us that we are blessed to be like dust! And even that we should emulate dust!

I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted. (Gen. 13:16)

Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. (Gen 28:14)

Who can count the dust of Jacob? (Num. 23:10)

Why? Why is dust, the most uninteresting substance, something we should aspire to be?

The answer is also in the text, in the way the very same word is used elsewhere…

For starters, and most famously, man is made from dust:

The LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.

So dust can be an elemental building block. Admittedly, it is not, in itself, holy. But mankind is proof that with the right admixtures and behavior, dust can be holy. What needs to be added? This, too, is told to us:

By the sweat of your brow
Shall you get bread to eat,
Until you return to the ground—
For from it you were taken.
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return.”

It is work that gives dust value. The sweat of our brow is what elevates us, temporarily, from being mere dust.

So with invested work, the dust that is otherwise snake food and a curse, can be a useful and good and even holy product.

There is another attribute of dust in the Torah. Dust is connected to faithfulness and truth. This is described a few places:

1: A woman who is suspected of adultery, bad faith with her husband, must drink a concoction that includes dust. If she is lying, she will die.

2: The people, after sinning with the Golden Calf, are made to similarly consume it after it has been ground into dust. Those who intended idolatry, bad faith with G-d, die.

3: Pharoah promises to let the people go after the frogs, but then he breaks faith and changes his mind (this is the first time Pharaoh breaks his word in the Torah). The next plague is as follows:

Aaron held out his arm with the rod and struck the dust of the earth, and vermin came upon man and beast; all the dust of the earth turned to lice (kinim) throughout the land of Egypt.

This very same word, kinim, is used by Joseph’s brothers to insist that they are not lying, that they are upright men. They protest that they are not lying or spies, instead they are kinim. The brothers do not realize that Egypt is not a land that is compartible with kinim. It is no accident that the word kinim is only used in Egypt, in the land that is harmonized with nature and with the natural and logical assertion that “might makes right.” The divine attribute of honor and fidelity are alien to the natural world, and so kinim, the higher evolutionary form of dust, is seen as a plague in Egypt.

But why does dust have this meaning, this connection to good faith? I suggest it connects back to dust’s first mention: to the fundamental relationship that is created when man’s dust is combined with G-d’s spirit. G-d’s spirit cannot abide coexistence with a person who cheats, breaks their word, commits adultery or idolatry. So dust, the stuff of physical earth, has this spiritual characteristic.

This helps us understand why the Jewish people are blessed to be like dust!

I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted. (Gen. 13:16)

We are to offer the positive attributes of dust to the world: honesty, uprightness, faithfulness to spouse and G-d.

And if we do that, then we end up helping the entire world:

Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. (Gen 28:14)

Our contribution may be more than merely physical, of course. When we hunt a wild animal or bird, we are commanded to cover its blood with dust, in so doing to add its spirit to the earth, to make the earth symbolically elevated by trapping the once-wild blood into the earth.

We also use dust in the ritual of the Red Heifer where we remove the symbolic stain from coming in contact with the dead. In the ritual, the priest combines the dust of the burnt heifer with “living water” and recreates man’s state before death came into the world.

One of the first uses of the word for “dust” is as a curse:

But if you do not obey the LORD your God to observe faithfully all His commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect … dust shall drop on you from the sky, until you are wiped out.

This last is a reminder that we cannot build with dust in a holy way without following G-d’s commandments; improvising in order to somehow elevate dust will cause it to be “returned to sender,” and with a vengeance. If we try to succeed without listening to G-d, then we would be killed by the very thing from which we are made.

Similarly, when we harm other people (which is a form of harming G-d), then our creations become contaminated and must be purged:

The house shall be scraped inside all around, and the dust (coating) that is scraped off shall be dumped outside the city in an unclean place. … They shall take other stones and replace those stones with them, and take other coating and plaster the house. … The house shall be torn down—its stones and timber and all the coating on the house—and taken to an unclean place outside the city. (Lev 14:41-45)

The text is telling us that we build with dust, that dust, the interior of homes, is our creation, just as surely as G-d used the same dust to make mankind. Indeed, just as no two people are identical, no two homes are the same, either (efforts to make peoples’ personal expressions identical are only exerted by totalitarian regimes). In these verses our actions have corrupted the dust so it must be disposed of, which means that our creative building acts may even be counterproductive.

In sum, the Torah is telling us that we can add value to anything in the world, even (and especially) mere dust. If we can make dust holy, then we can make anything holy, and so we are commanded to do precisely this. We are blown to the four corners of the world, commanded to bring the ideas of kinim, of uprightness, everywhere we go. When we do that, we provide uplift to the world, we are a blessing to others.

In its natural state, dust has no value. Philistines use it as landfill. But we are told that we must instead look to create value from everything in this world, no matter how insignificant it may seem

When we use dust productively and constructively, then we are improving nature, just as fidelity and honesty improve upon a “might makes right” godless society. Dust and its symbolic associations are both our charge and our blessing to others. We are commanded to emulate G-d’s creation of mankind using dust, to show the world that uprightness and faithfulness can be built and preserved with all that we do – even if all we have is the basest of substances.

[An @iwe, @blessedblacksmith, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter production!]

Comments are welcome!