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Parshas Vayishlach (5777)

Dust in the Wind

In the beginning of this week's Torah portion we find our forefather Jacob preparing to meet his brother Esau, who has been wanting to kill him for the longest time for having "stolen" their father Isaac's blessings from him. Jacob is nervous and scared and does what all Jews do in times of distress - he prays to G-d. Jacob pleads with G-d: "Rescue me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him lest he come and strike me down, mother and children. And You had said, 'I will surely do good with you and I will make your offspring like the sand of the sea which is too numerous to count'." (Genesis 32:12-13)

Jacob is "reminding" G-d of a promise which He had made to his grandfather Abraham that He would increase his offspring "like the sand on the seashore" (ibid 22:17). Additionally, G-d had also promised Jacob himself that his offspring shall be "as the dust of the earth" (ibid 28:14).

Now I don't know about you, but I would not appreciate if some relative came to the hospital right after our baby was born and blessed us that all our children would be like the dust of the earth. "The dust of the earth"? - that doesn't sound too good! But that was the promise that G-d gave to our ancestors concerning us - that we should be like dust and dirt! I mean, couldn't G-d come up with a more upbeat and better-sounding metaphor than dirt?!

And even though part of the symbolism most certainly is that we should be blessed with many children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren just like there are so many grains of sand on the seashore - it still sounds kind of lame, especially to the modern ear.

But wait, it gets worse! Every day - three times a day, morning, afternoon and evening - we stand before G-d and we recite the Amidah (the Silent Prayer, otherwise known as the Shemoneh Esrei). And at the very end of the Amidah, we insert a special personal supplication that starts with words Elokai Netzor and which was formulated by the Talmudic Sage Mar brei d'Ravina well over 1500 years ago. And in the middle of that prayer, we ask G-d the following: “To those who curse me, let my soul be silent; and let my soul be like dust to everyone”.

Would you believe that? Not only does G-d promise our forefathers that we will be as the dirt of the earth, but now we are asking Him that everyone around us should treat us that way! Is that all we are - dust in the wind - and is that how we would like to be treated and looked upon by others? What gives?

THE "BLESSING" OF BEING TREATED LIKE DIRT

The truth is that not only is being "like dirt" a good metaphor for the total number of Jews throughout the millennia and for the seeming immortality of the Jewish nation which has been ever-present throughout history, but, even more importantly, in the Torah view it is the key to living a perfectly serene and calm, yet incredibly productive life.

You see, dust and dirt in the Torah is really a metaphor for anavah, humility - that great character trait which can help us develop a sense of calm and equanimity, allowing us to rise above the annoyances and aggravations that disturb our peace of mind.

Let's examine a little dust for a moment. If you think about it, dust is really the epitome of selflessness and humility. Everyone steps on it and crushes it underfoot, yet the dust and soil take no offense and continue to give forth a rich bounty of produce.

Furthermore, everyone uses the dust of the earth, yet no one pays any real attention to it. It just keeps on doing its job and fulfilling its potential, not caring if anyone takes notice of it, and not worrying about what people are saying - or not saying - about it.

And if you think about that for a moment, you will realize that to be "treated like dirt" by everybody is truly one of the greatest blessings one can experience in life. A person who can go through life, doing his job happily, not allowing himself to be dragged down by feelings of anger and resentment toward others and not really caring too much about what other people are saying about him, is truly blessed. Such a person will have attained a state of tranquility and calmness which the great medieval philosopher, Rabbi Bachya ibn Pekudah, describes in his work Chovos Halevavos as hishtavus, equilibrium. It makes no difference to the humble, well-balanced person whether he is praised or insulted by others. His self-esteem comes from within himself.

Imagine waking up in the morning and looking at yourself in the mirror - and being truly happy with who you are - and not worrying about what the girls at the health club think about you (and your waist size). Imagine going to work, where you have to put up with some nosy co-workers as well as with an egotistical boss who constantly insults you and your work - and not being fazed by it in the slightest. Imagine being in school with lots of guys and girls - and lots of competition and peer pressure - and still being totally confident and content with who you are and with where you are going in life.

Sounds good, doesn't it? … Well that's exactly what the dust of the earth does day in and day out. It does what it has to do, unfazed by those who would trample on it and try to put it down, and unconcerned by the lack of attention being paid to it. And that is why it is such a perfect metaphor for everything we could ask for from G-d as we go through life with all its pressures and challenges.

THE PARADOX OF HUMILITY

Now I am sure that some of you "modern types" who were brought up on Dr. Spock and the New Math and modern psychology etc., are probably thinking that telling our children that they should see themselves as dirt is not a good idea, and that this whole "humility thing" doesn't make for productive and successful human beings. But I must tell you that in what is probably one of the weirdest paradoxes of all time, some of the must humble people to have walked the face of the earth have also been the most productive, content, and spiritually fulfilled human beings.

The most obvious example of this strange phenomenon is none other than Moses himself - described in the Torah as "more humble than any person on the face of the earth" (Numbers 12:3), and yet, at the same time, the greatest, most accomplished and spiritually productive Jew on the face of the earth! There was nothing this man did not or would not do! He did not hesitate to confront the mighty Pharaoh or castigate the entire nation of Israel! Why, Moses even talked to G-d Himself, and taught the entire Torah to the stiff-necked Jewish nation for forty years in the desert! And he never let his humility get in the way; it did not deter him from doing what was proper, even if it was unpopular or even dangerous.

So we see that, if anything, there is an inverse relationship between humility and productivity - the more humble and dirt-like a person feels, the more he can accomplish and actualize his potential. Now the big question is ... why is that? It doesn't seem to make any sense!

The answer is that we have the concept of humility all wrong! We think that being humble means having low self-esteem, and allowing everyone to walk all over us. But that type of humility definitely wouldn't give us the equanimity and sense of calmness to be totally unfazed by what others are saying about us. The key to true humility and the secret behind its paradoxical qualities is that humble people thrive and accomplish because of their humility, not in spite of it.

And this is because true humility comes from an acute awareness of our own potential for greatness. Just like the dirt of the earth doesn't concern itself with all who are trampling on it, or with all those who take it for granted and pay no attention to it, because it is "aware" of its vast potential to produce bountiful crops, so, too, does a humble and "dirt-like" person pay no attention to the attention or lack thereof paid to him by others, because he is so focused on his great potential which he has yet to achieve. And, in this sense, humility actually breeds high self-esteem and enhanced productivity, as well as a sense of tranquility and equanimity in the face of whatever comes our way.

This beautiful concept of "dust-like humility" is the great lesson and blessing that G-d gave to Jacob, and which all of us can use to make life that much more tranquil and productive. And it's also helpful to remember the next time someone treats you like a piece of dirt!

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