STUDENTS OF ABRAHAM
VS. STUDENTS OF BILAM
—Rabbi Israel Chait—
Pirkei Avos Lectures 1990 Transcribed by student
WHOMEVER POSSESSES THESE THREE THINGS, HE IS OF THE DISCIPLES OF ABRAHAM, OUR FATHER; AND [WHOMEVER POSSESSES] THREE OTHER THINGS, HE IS OF THE DISCIPLES OF BILAM, THE WICKED. A GOOD EYE, A HUMBLE SPIRIT AND A MODERATE APPETITE, HE IS OF THE DISCIPLES OF ABRAHAM, OUR FATHER. AN EVIL EYE, A HAUGHTY SPIRIT AND A LIMITLESS APPETITE, HE IS OF THE DISCIPLES OF BILAM, THE WICKED. WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE DISCIPLES OF ABRAHAM, OUR FATHER, AND THE DISCIPLES OF BILAM, THE WICKED? THE DISCIPLES OF ABRAHAM, OUR FATHER, ENJOY THIS WORLD, AND INHERIT THE WORLD TO COME, AS IT IS SAID: “I WILL ENDOW THOSE WHO LOVE ME WITH SUBSTANCE, I WILL FILL THEIR TREASURIES” (PROVERBS 8:21). BUT THE DISCIPLES OF BILAM, THE WICKED, INHERIT GEHINNOM, AND DESCEND INTO THE NETHERMOST PIT, AS IT IS SAID: “FOR YOU, O GOD, WILL BRING THEM DOWN TO THE NETHERMOST PIT THOSE MURDEROUS AND TREACHEROUS MEN; THEY SHALL NOT LIVE OUT HALF THEIR DAYS; BUT I TRUST IN YOU” (PSALMS 55:24).
Did Bilam the wicked [really] have students? Why did the mishnah frame it in this way [comparing one group of students to others, as opposed to simply identifying good and bad values]?
Regarding Abraham, a good eye refers to satisfaction [Abraham was satisfied with his possessions]. A moderate appetite refers to caution in avoiding lusts. And a humble spirit refers to [excessive] humility. The opposite character traits are an energetic pursuit of wealth referred to as an evil eye, a limitless appetite [insatiable desires] and a haughty spirit. Students of Abraham attain this designation as they follow Abraham’s attributes. And whomever possesses the negative traits belongs to the students of Bilam. And I will site the verses describing Abraham’s attributes and Bilam’s flawed character.
Abraham’s satisfaction is seen when the king of Sodom wished to reward Abraham for returning the captives and their positions. But Abraham said he would not take anything from the king, even a shoestring. And this is the height of satisfaction and that is that man abandons much wealth and refuses to benefit even in a minute amount.
Abraham had reason not to accept a reward from the king of Sodom:
But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I swear to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours so you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’” (Gen. 14:22,23)
God told Abraham that he would make him great. And if Abraham’s greatness could be attributed to the king of Sodom, it would reduce the sanctification of God’s name [through Abraham’s success achieved exclusively through God and no other]. Abraham realized what happens to him [now] is no longer a phenomenon in the capacity of Abraham as an individual, which was his capacity until now in Ur Casdim. There, Abraham had no responsibility other than to himself. That is where Abraham developed his ideas about Judaism. He saw through the fallacy of idolatry to the nth degree and it is where he began teaching and developed a following. But when God appeared to Abraham at the age of 75 and told him “Leave your land, your birth place and the house of your father” (Gen. 12:1), that meant that God removed Abraham from living as a private individual to become an entity who will build a structure [the Jewish nation] that will benefit the world. If anyone would taint this role, it would be destructive. Taking money from the king of Sodom would reduce his role. The world must view Abraham as one whom God—and no other—made successful. Thus, it was a political reason that Abraham refused gifts from the king.
Maimonides says that for a person [Abraham] to refuse such wealth, he must possess the trait of satisfaction. Meaning, a normal person could not refuse those gifts. This is because a person by nature has an insatiable desire for wealth. Even for political motivation, a person could not walk away from a fortune unless he possesses this trait of satisfaction. Such a person is not excited over wealth; he is satisfied financially and needs no more. Most people feel that if they have a certain amount of wealth, that they would be satisfied and not seek anything more. But in truth, one’s desire for wealth is the energy of the psyche directed towards an ultimate fantasy which one seeks to attain from wealth. One who is under the sway of that fantasy cannot refuse gifts. An imperfect person will cave into his desires even if there are reasons not to cave in [such as political reasons as in Abraham’s case]. A small person can never perform a great deed. It is impossible. If there were no reason to refuse the gift, Abraham would have accepted. Wealth has a purpose to help one function according to his needs, and anything additional should be used to sanctify God’s name. But in Abraham’s case, refusing the reward was the greatest use [it maintained sanctification of God’s name]. There was no difference in Abraham’s emotions whether he accepted the gift or not. He decided the proper response in each case, and when it was improper, he walked away.
Abraham’s removal from lusts is seen when he said this to Sarah the day they came to Egypt: “Behold I know that you are a beautiful woman” (Gen. 12:11). Chazal say that until that day, Abraham never looked at Sarah in a way of total evaluation of her beauty [but he did so on that day because he was concerned for her danger]. And this is the height of removal from the instinctual.
You see from Chazal that the relationships between the patriarchs and the matriarchs was qualitatively differentiated [from our own]. Abraham’s and Sarah’s relationship operated on a different basis, totally removed from the instinctual and physical aspects of love as we understand them. Also, when Abraham our father took Hagar, Rashi comments:
And Sarah the wife of Abraham took her maid Hagar the Egyptian at the end of 10 years: She took her with words, “Happy are you that you merit to cleave to a holy body as this” (Gen. 16:3).
This means that the relationship with Abraham was different than with any other human being. It was a different kind of conjugal relationship. Maimonides continues:
Abram said to Sarai, “Your maid is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right” (Gen. 16:6). This teaches that Abraham had no desire to enjoy Hagar physically. And also, when Sarah demanded that Abraham chase out Hagar and Ishmael, and he would not be able to live with Hagar anymore, Torah says that Abraham was upset only about Ishmael: “The matter distressed Abraham greatly, concerning his son” (Gen. 21:11).
Abraham was undisturbed in losing Hagar as a physical mate for he was completely removed from the area of physical desires. Maimonides continues:
These are demonstrations of a person who is removed from the physical, the instinctual.
And Abraham’s humility is seen when he said, “I am dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27).
Rabbeinu Yona comments:
Why did the author of this mishnah need to be so verbose here? It is because he wished to demonstrate what perfection consists of, namely the three matters: satisfaction, removal from the instinctual and humility.
Due to his love of money, Bilam traveled from Aram Naharayim to curse the Jews [in spite of the difficulties]. And based on his great desire for sex, Bilam gave advice to Balak that the women act promiscuously with Israel.
Bilam gave a brilliant counsel. The Jews succeed because they sublimate their energies into wisdom. Other nations remain in the world of lusts. After Bilam failed at cursing Jews he told Balak that he could destroy Jews by engaging them in the instinctual. That will be their end, and he was correct. Bilam was brilliant and understood very advanced psychological warfare. This is more advanced than biological warfare.
Maimonides says that you learn that Bilam was very lustful:
For were it not for his abundant lust, Bilam never would have advised Balak to entice the Jews through the women. Because man’s advice is always in accord with his own thinking, for good people do not advise others on evil.
Why is this so? Perhaps Bilam was not a baal taiveh (lustful person) but he knew how to destroy the Jews. And he advised Balak due to his desire for the money [which Balak promised him for cursing the Jews]. It is a difficult question. Maimonides also says that Bilam cohabitated with his donkey. This means that he was engaged in much sexual activity. This was his way of life.
Bilam was a highly organized and sophisticated individual. He did not simply follow every passing desire like an average person. Such people get nowhere and cannot become much of a rasha. A true rasha requires organization. Bilam had a philosophy: the good in life is wealth, honor, physical enjoyments and sexual pleasure. And a person must use his mind to attain these matters. Bilam was very successful in doing so. These sound familiar in American society.
“Students” of Bilam the rasha mean that Bilam represented a “way of life” [a path that could be studied, but not indicating such a path is correct]. However, the components don’t equal the whole. For example, one person can chase wealth, but this does not necessitate a philosophy of his life; perhaps he chases wealth as he is insecure, and he has emotional problems. In one sense he is better than Bilam because he does not espouse a philosophy of lust. But in another sense, he is worse because it is a weakness in his soul; he has no control over his emotions. You hear proverbial stories of people dying with a fortune under their mattresses, yet they lived like paupers. These people had a desire for money, but they were not Bilam. They had a neurosis, but they don’t reflect a philosophy of life. The same applies to following desires. But when one spans the gamut and one is involved in wealth, physical pleasures and honor, these are not just weak emotions, which [by design] do not set themselves up in all areas. Rather, this type of personality lives with a philosophy of life. That was Bilam.
Now, if Bilam only had a weakness for money, then in general he would have been a good person and would not have had a drive for the instinctual. But Maimonides says that if that were the case, Bilam could never had advised Balak to cause others [the Jews] to engage in sexual promiscuity since “good people do not advise others on evil” as Maimonides said. It is psychologically impossible for a good person to destroy another person by offering destructive advice, as Bilam had advised Balak. Maimonides means that a good person never destroys a another on a spiritual plane. For example, a person will not say, “I will destroy that person by preventing him from praying.” This is because once a person values the good, he cannot cause others to lose it. Again, a person cannot destroy his enemy by preventing the enemy’s acts of kindness so he might inherit gehenom. A person can only try to destroy another in an area dealing with earthly existence: he’ll take his money and hurt him physically. But he cannot destroy others spiritually by removing from them a spiritual good. This is humanly impossible; no one would want to do such a thing. There is no satisfaction in such an act. If one is convinced that promiscuity is evil, and there is a higher benefit in life, he will not destroy another person with distructive advice. On the contrary, it will bother him to do so. When others try to stop us from Torah study [or living a Jewish life] it is not because they know what Torah is. Rather, they wish to strip us of an earthly superiority.
People’s identification with others prevents them from destroying them spiritually. But the fact that Bilam had advised Balak in sexual promiscuity displayed that Bilam viewed promiscuity as a good, but only when it is under control. But Bilam felt the Jews will lose control and he will harm them. Bilam wished to destroy the Jews. But had Bilam felt that there was a higher good and that promiscuity was evil, he could not cause the Jews to indulge; it would disturb him.
Bilam hated the Jews because they represented the truth and because the Jews’ existence conflicted with his whole way of life. That is Sinai [proof of God through revelation at Sinai and His selection of the Jews generates a jealous hatred in others].
A person can destroy another materialistically. For by removing materialism from another, one makes more materialism available to himself.
Why did Bilam receive prophecy? It was for the sake of the Jews. Like Lavan, Bilam never received prophecy because he intrinsically deserved it. He was a rasha. He did not have the proper prerequisite character to deserve prophecy. But he did possess intellect. He was the only case of a prophet who possessed intellect without perfection of character. He received prophecy because of a certain situation that befell the Jewish nation. The term “vayikar” is used in connection with Bilam indicating that he did not deserve prophecy. [Vayikar indicates an accidental relationship. God accidentally or not essentially spoke with Bilam, indicating that intrinsically he did not deserve prophecy.] Bilam had a brilliant mind and when he was under prophetic influence, he saw true ideas. But the moment the influence of prophecy left him, he reverted back to his original state. This is because a person cannot be perfected by anything other than himself. Even if God gave him prophecy and he gained momentary perfection due to prophetic influence, when prophecy ceases, he reverts back to his evil self. That is the case of Bilam.
Chronicles calls Bilam a kosame, a soothsayer. This means that through his intelligence he caused people to believe that he could curse others. His curses affected others psychologically in a way that destroyed them; they believed that they were cursed [but to believe that curses are effective in the mystical sense is false and idolatrous]. That is why God prevented Bilam from cursing the Jews; at that time, he could have destroyed them in this psychological manner (Ibn Ezra).
This is why our mishnah phrases this matter as “students” of Bilam and “students” of Abraham; both used intellect. Bilam and Abraham were powerful people with powerful minds. They were influential individuals. Bilam stood before kings. The mishnah tells us that with wisdom alone without proper character, one can be as far from perfection as east is from west. Perfection is attained only through a difficult struggle with the self where a person—inch by inch—makes advances and moves his nature to come in line with his perception of perfection. But if perfection is suddenly given to a person, even though he has the greatest intellect, he will lose it. For as long as knowledge [and proper character] is not part of one’s nature, it is an alien entity and cannot possibly perfect him. [The perfected state Bilam experienced under prophecy could not endure once the prophecy ended because of his corrupt nature.]
And He said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you” (Gen. 22:2)
Chazal say that the way God phrased this command with every reference to Isaac refers to some emotion: your “son,” your “only” son, whom you “love.” Each reference brought out every nuance of Abraham’s emotional attachment to Isaac.
What was so great about Abraham sacrificing his son, while idolaters did this all the time? There was also the intellectual problem of God first saying, “for in Isaac will your seed be called” (Gen. 21:12), and now God says to kill Isaac. But that was not the trial; the trial was sacrificing his beloved son. The midrash says that when Abraham brought Isaac to sacrifice him, his eyes were flowing with tears.
The difference between Abraham and the idolaters was that the latter sacrificed their children easily, because it was a psychological phenomenon. To the idolater, a son represented an emotional satisfaction, but the imagined satisfaction the idolater enjoyed in appeasing his god was greater than his emotional attachment to his son. But Abraham was rational; he did not perceive any type of satisfaction in sacrificing Isaac. Abraham knew God doesn’t need sacrifices. Abraham did not imagine any primitive psychological benefits in sacrifice. So, on the one hand Abraham’s mind perceived the rational command to sacrifice Isaac, and on the other hand he felt attached to his son. For Abraham, this was a trial.
Whenever one studies the perfections of the patriarchs, of Torah personalities, [one must know that] Abraham our father was not distorted psychologically. Other people who throw money away are psychologically distorted, it is a sickness. But Abraham our father was a normal individual with a normal psyche and a great mind. He followed his ideas and brought his emotions under the guidance of those ideas of reality. For such a person it is a big trial because to turn away money is not a normal thing. No one would do this. And if you will suggest that Abraham was very wealthy [to explain why he refused the reward], the response is that only people who are not wealthy [are the ones who] think that if they become wealthy, they will give away their wealth. But once they do become wealthy, people grow even more attached to their wealth; certainly, they are as attached to their wealth as they were when they were not wealthy. The rabbis teach:
“No man leaves this world with even half of his desires fulfilled” (Koheles Rabbah 1:13). If he has one hundred coins in his hand, he wants to make it two hundred. If his hand has attained two hundred, he longs to make them four hundred. And so it is written, “He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver” (Koheles 5:9).
People give [or promise to give] money before they have it. But once they have it, they don’t give it away. One who gives charity when earning $30,000 will give charity when earning $1 million. And one who does not give charity when earning $30,000 will not give charity when earning $1 million. People earning $100 million per year work just as hard as people earning $30,000 dollars per year. That is human nature and to deny it is imagination. The $100 million per year earner does not turn away money.
The person living the life of Torah has the most emotionally satisfying life. There is no question in my mind is that it is so. Knowledge of Torah affects one in every sphere of one’s life: family, child rearing, in so many innumerable ways. If one is fortunate that his children study Torah, he has a relationship with his children on an essential level. Following a Torah lifestyle, one learns how to use his mind and overcome powerful and destructive instinctual forces [and live harmoniously with his family]. In business too he is happier and more successful and fulfilled because he knows his emotions [and controls them] while most people don’t. Successful business people have a good ear, a good business sense. But one who knows himself, his emotions and his moods, is a different kind of person. Torah helps a person in every sphere of his life.
But that is not the reason to follow Judaism. The true reason is because it is reality. Once one sees that the Torah life is the real life [the purpose of human existence and how reality operates], he cannot say to himself, “I will live a more happy and carefree existence as a child” [I will abandon Torah]. As Aristotle said, “A person will never say, ‘I will be a child,’ even though a child’s life is more fulfilling [full satisfaction and conflict free] he would not give up his [adult] knowledge.” No matter how painful being an adult is, he would not give up his knowledge. He would rather suffer than give up his intellect, his mind and his essence. That is the real motivation to follow Judaism; one cannot tolerate living out of line with reality. In this framework, one follows Judaism not for any other satisfaction or fulfillment [as many people desire in their search for fulfillment]. In this framework, one adheres to Judaism because he is compelled to live in line with reality. [“Reality” being God’s Torah lifestyle, studying its wisdom and how the universe works.] He cannot follow matters that he knows are empty [fame, fortune, success, lusts, etc.]. He must follow that which has true value.
All Torah’s blessings are 100% true, not simply in terms of Torah, but in everyday life. One living a Torah lifestyle is heaped up with blessings. He avoids the plagues of most people [what concerns most people]: how much money others are making, how his neighbors view him, what is his value in society, etc. All these are nonsensical, and the Torah personality doesn’t care about them. He does not think about these matters. When he wakes in the morning he is concerned about ideas, about self-improvement, and about God’s wisdom. He derives unbelievable satisfaction from studying, learning and gaining insight. There is no other satisfaction that compares. It is the highest form of enjoyment one can experience. Anyone who has enjoyed this knows this to be true. It is a tremendous high that is unparalleled.
Nevertheless, even though such a person has such a blessed existence, the reason he follows Torah isn’t because of that. He follows Torah because it is reality. That is Abraham our father. He did not live for ulterior motives. And those who follow Torah not for its own sake—she’lo lishma—it is a good only because it will bring one to follow Torah for its own sake—lishma. But if it would not, it is almost worthless.
Torah gives us a glimpse and insight into the lives of the patriarchs. You must understand that although their lives may be something that we cannot relate to on our level, it is yet important to recognize our inability to relate to them [this identifies our shortcomings].
Torah talks about Abraham our father and his removal from a sensual life. We previously mentioned that when Abraham and Sarah went to Egypt, Abraham said to Sarah, “Behold I know that you are a beautiful woman.” Maimonides comments:
Abraham did not gaze at her physical form in a complete manner except for that day. And this is the height removal from the sensual.
This sounds strange to us; it is hard to imagine such a matter. Torah teaches an interesting idea. Apparently, there can be a relationship between the sexes based almost purely on the ideas. The male and female character can relates on the basis of ideas [an intellectual relationship of the genders]. And this relationship was not limited to Abraham and Sarah alone: Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Rachel also had this relationship. Isaac didn’t even see Rebecca when she was selected for him, and she was selected purely on her character and her personality. Isaac loved Rebecca only after they were wed: “Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her…” (Gen. 24:67). Their relationship was based on a higher kind of love, not a romantic and sensual love that all others are familiar with. The same is true regarding Jacob and Rachel. Jacob worked seven years in exchange for Rachel and the verse says, “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed in his eyes but a few days because of his love for her” (Gen. 29:20). How is it possible for a man romantically involved that seven years seems like a few days? It should seem like 50-100 years. But to Jacob it seemed like a few days because his relationship to Rachel was not a passionate physical relationship. But he valued her so much that seven years was a small price since Rachel was worth so much more. Torah teaches that the patriarchs and matriarchs had a different type of relationship and that it is possible that such a relationship can exist. And I previously mentioned Sarah’s words to Hagar: “Happy are you that you merit to cleave to a holy body as this” (Gen. 16:3). In other words, Sarah meant, “You have an opportunity to have a unique kind of relationship that rarely exists in a world of human relations.”
This all shows Abraham’s removal from sensuality. But he was not and ascetic, which refers to people who withhold pleasure from themselves. That is a state of pain and not endorsed by Torah. On the contrary, Abraham was in a far greater state of enjoyment than the average person. His energies were channeled to the higher, more essential and more satisfying part of his nature.
Abraham was also most humble, as he referred to himself as “dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27). But what does this mean?
When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You established, what is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him, that You have made him little less than divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty; You have made him master over Your handiwork, laying the world at his feet. (Psalms 8:4-7)
“You have made him little less than divine” implies the opposite, indicating that man is of great value. This verse means that God made man a little lower than angels. How then can Abraham say otherwise?
You have made him master over Your handiwork, laying the world at his feet.
With modern technology man has total control over his environment.
[Master] over sheep and oxen, all of them, and wild beasts, too; the birds of the heavens, the fish of the sea, whatever travels the paths of the seas. (Ibid. 8:8,9)
This also speaks of man’s greatness; no other creature can do this. Yet King David commences by saying, “What is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him?” This seems to indicate that man is worthless. The transition from one verse to the next is almost unintelligible. However, when man begins to understand God’s knowledge, he sees that he is nothing because he can’t scratch the surface of God wisdom. In terms of man’s knowledge, he is almost nothing: “What is man that You have been mindful of him?” Strangely enough, in spite of that, relative to creation man is something. He is a unique creature. One scientist put it very well: “It is amazing how little we know, and it is even more amazing how much we can do with how little we know.” This refers to God placing man as ruler over creation, as King David said above. Relative to creation, man has a status. But when man sees the heavens, man recognizes how crude is his rank in relation to God.
Now the question is how Abraham’s “I am dust and ashes” fits in. This is not the same statement as “What is man that You are mindful of him?” Chazal say that three people embodied humility: Moshe, King David and Abraham. Abraham said, “I am dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27). Moshe and Aaron said, “And what are we?” (Exod. 16:8) And King David said, “I am a worm and not a man” (Psalms 22:7). Of these three people, Chazal said that King David was on the lowest level as he perceived himself [at least] as an animate being, a worm. Abraham was on a higher level as he perceived himself as an inanimate object, dust and ashes [but still a substance]. But Moshe and Aaron were on the highest level because they said that they were nothing [most humble of all]. Why didn’t Chazal cite the other verse in David’s self-depiction, “What is man that You are mindful of him?” Apparently that verse and “I am dust and ashes” do not share the same idea. What is the difference?
I believe the answer deals with the concept of love of God. But to understand love of God, one must first understand man, which takes us back to the creation of Adam.
Torah depicts Adam before the sin, and also after the sin. What is the most glaring difference in Adam’s function between these two states? Before Adam sinned, he never thought [reflected] about himself. This changed after he sinned. Before he sinned, he was involved purely in wisdom: he was classifying animals and studying creation. But after he sinned, he said “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid” (Gen. 3:10). Adam began to think about himself. He was concerned about being a sinner. From that point and onward, Adam had problems.
Torah intends to raise man to the highest existence, to try in some way to recover what Adam lost. The more perfected a person is, the less he thinks about himself. That was Adam before the sin. He was perfected. Moshe Rabbeinu was involved in a prophetic vision for 40 days and 40 nights, during which time he did not think about himself at all, not even insofar as his physical needs. It was a miracle. But that exemplifies the highest level of perfection attainable. The higher level the man, the less he reflects upon the self and the more he is engaged in God’s wisdom. But it is impossible for any individual to be totally removed from the self after Adam’s sin.
Maimonides describes love of God:
When man realizes God’s infinite wisdom and is moved by this, man is overcome by a tremendous desire to draw close to God, to understand more of God’s wisdom. But then man suddenly becomes fearful and knows that he is a small creature, lowly and dark, who stands with a very frail and minimal kind of knowledge before God of total perfection. (Hil. Yesodei Hatorah 2:2)
Great scientists experiences this. But why does man reflect upon himself that he is a low and dark creature? The first part of this description we understand. Just like one who is interested in the mind of a great human thinker, he desires to meet that thinker and is attracted to him. Here too, one’s desire is to draw closer to God, as he is attracted to Him. That is love of God. That is understandable. But why must one view himself as a “low and dark creature with frail and minimal knowledge, standing before one of perfect knowledge?” It is because after the sin, man must reflect upon himself. Upon self-reflection, a typical person assesses his value and his good qualities. But a true thinker arrives at the exact opposite self-opinion. He sees a frightening experience: he is a dark and lowly creature in comparison to the Creator, trying with his crude means to understand the works of a perfect God. This self-reflection must occur to man after the sin. I would say that before Adam’s sin, Maimonides’ depiction of love of God would not be true.
Man is not homogeneous: he is composed of two parts of different substances. Chazal say that man is a combination of animal and angel. Man has emotions, instinctual drives and an intellect. People describe man by reviewing his components. But Judaism maintains that man cannot be viewed this way. This is part of the heresy of evolution, which says that man is merely a more complicated animal. But Judaism maintains that man has two parts to his nature that are completely unrelated. They are different in substance. He possesses a psyche, his personality, and instinctual drives, but then somehow or other he is capable of perceiving a world which is completely removed: a world of thoughts and ideas. Man can link into that world and have a totally different experience. That part of man’s nature is not to be related in any way to the other side of his nature. It is alien to it. It is a metaphysical entity. Aristotle called this part man’s “divine element,” Plato called it “mind,” and it is what Judaism calls the “Tzelem Elohim.” Judaism maintains that man straddles both the instinctual/psychological world and the divine world. Most people are engaged in the instinctual world. Occasionally, man perceives the divine. Man is not one unified entity. At times man exists in the instinctual and other times in the divine. This is an essential principle of Judaism.
The question is, which part of man desires to reflect upon himself? Man’s divine component that perceives God’s wisdom has no concern about the self. When engaged in the world of ideas, the self is furthest from man’s mind. Man is attracted to something outside the self. The concern for the self is generated by man’s lower psychological component. This is why happiness is never attained directly. This is because people desiring to attain happiness directly are usually interested in the self, while happiness is attained when one is engaged in matters external to the self. It’s a no win situation.
Now, when Abraham said, “I am dust and ashes,” which part of man said this? It is said by the psychological part of man, even in one as great as Abraham our father. But in the great chocham, when his lower psychological part reflects upon himself, he arrives at one conclusion: the whole self, and the very source searching for what he is, is zero. The lower part initiates the process, but when initiated in a great person, he reflects on the question but also on the source of the question and upon the self as a psychological and physical being. He concludes that he is dust and ashes. The self in the psychological capacity is dust and ashes, the part that causes him to reflect upon what he is [but the divine element is not dust and ashes]. That divine part that perceives God’s wisdom is completely removed from the self [its interest is wisdom and the self doesn’t register on this component]. The “I”, the self, is the only part of man that can perceive “self” [and this exists only in the psychological part of man]. That is man as he envisions himself as a physical and psychological being: “I am dust and ashes” is the response of a wise man to the question posed to himself by his psychological nature from which man cannot escape after Adam’s sin, no matter how great a person is.
How would we compare “I am dust and ashes” to “What is man that You are mindful of him?” The answer is that the latter is the universal, while the former is a personal reaction. King David’s words (Psalms 8) refer to universals, explaining why the gemara did not use them as reflecting King David’s humility [Psalms 8 is not a self-reflection]. The gemara uses “I am a worm and not a man” as these words were spoken in self-reflection.
A lowly and dark creature is not a sad conclusion. Such a person who states this has no worries. He is happy to realize what he is [living] in reality and this realization gives him the greatest happiness. It also removes him from the greatest burdens and pains that people have in their everyday existence.