Why are we compared to dust?

In this week’s D’var Torah the Chief Rabbi ponders the question: why are we compared to dust?

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis,

Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis

In Parashat Vayetzei immediately after his dream of the ladder Hashem appeared to Ya’akov and he said ‘V’haya zaracha k’afar ha’aretz – your descendants will be like the dust of the earth.’ ‘U’faratza – and they will be scattered.’ ‘Yama va’kedma, va’tzafona va’negba – to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.’

What we immediately think of when being told we’ll be like the dust of the earth is that you cannot count the number of specks of dust that exist – it’s simply impossible. Similarly, Hashem is promising us that over the ages the numbers of the Jewish people will be vast.

However Sforno gives a very deep and profound peirush here. Sforno says that when we walk around, we trample the dust, we kick it and treat it with disdain. It’s simply of no value to us. However, those who kick the dust about will eventually die. They will be buried beneath that very same dust.

So too with the Jewish people. Hashem is telling Ya’akov Avinu that the time will come in the future when in our exile, we will be treated as if we are subhuman. However, at the end of the day those who treat us in this fashion will be the very nations which cease to exist and Am Yisrael Chai – the Jewish people will prevail and will live on. 

Sforno adds that that deliverance of our people will take place at a time when things simply can’t get worse. And it’s that very message which is conveyed in the rest of our verse ‘u’faratza yama va’kedma ve’tzafona va’negba’ notice that the directions are not clockwise and they’re not anti-clockwise: from the west and to the east, from the north and to the south. The Kli Yakar explains here Hashem wants us to know that just like the rapid swing of a pendulum so too, our fate will very quickly change from one in which there is no light at the end of the tunnel to outright salvation.

While saying these words one cannot but think of the tumultuous events of the past century and the manner in which the Almighty has kept his covenant with our people, against all odds He has delivered us. In the same way that He has guaranteed that we will continue to exist, so may He bring about the ultimate redemption, speedily in our time.

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